Two or three times a year I find myself in a reading rut. Nothing appeals to me -- not the new books I've picked up because they seemed interesting, not the classics I've always meant to read. For a constant reader (I've missed buses while scanning newsstands, rather than face a ride without something to read), that's a sort of purgatory. And more and more it's been children's literature that's been my release.
Luckily (or stupidly), I didn't read a lot of children's literature when I was a kid. Maybe that was because I became smitten by pop culture at an early age, and classic kids' lit was always presented in a way that felt utterly distant from what I liked. It all seemed to be stories of trolls and fairies (I've never fallen under the spell of Tolkien), or of terribly polite English children living in big remote houses where television and top 40 radio didn't exist.
There were exceptions. I adored "Harriet the Spy," though that seems easy enough to explain. Already loving movies (and the idea of detectives and spies), I must have recognized in Harriet a fellow voyeur. But when teachers or librarians or even classmates extolled the virtues of most kids' books, I think I expected something like the Disney movies I knew I was supposed to like more than I did. And since I've always resented authority, I bristled when anyone tried to change my reading habits, like the fifth-grade teacher who questioned my parents on whether the Ross Macdonald mysteries I was reading were -- that damnable word -- "appropriate."
So as an adult I found myself with even more reading to catch up on than most adults. And 12 years ago, during a miserable winter when my family was being visited by more than its share of sickness and death, I picked up "The Secret Garden" -- and felt as if I'd stumbled onto a secret that had been there for my discovering all along. It would be unfair to Frances Hodgson Burnett to say that I loved "The Secret Garden" (and "The Little Princess," which I read immediately after) merely because it provided a soothing escape from everything that was going on in my life. I lost myself in the book because it was first of all a great story. But finally it gave me the gift that I think marks all first-rate literature, no matter what age it's intended for: an escape that's ultimately a way back into life.
The standard line on children's literature is that to do it well you have to know how to write simply. That's not quite right. To do it well, you have to know how to write essentially. Books that are nothing more than lessons to be imparted, books that we're supposed to like because somebody has decreed them good for us, will always smack of school and duty. That's the antithesis of the only real reason anyone reads: pleasure. Kids' lit can contain lessons, meanings, messages of comfort or heralds of experiences that lie in wait for young readers. But the minute any of those things overtake narrative, the book is sunk. (Which is why William Bennett's reductive, droning insistence that the duty of literature is the impartation of virtue bears no relation to what draws us to reading in the first place or -- if we're honest with ourselves -- what keeps us reading.) Of course there are differences in scope and complexity between the work of Dickens or Hardy or Fitzgerald or Angus Wilson, and books like "The Wind in the Willows" or Roald Dahl's "Matilda" or "The Chronicles of Narnia" (which, at a friend's suggestion, got me out of one of my ruts a few years ago). But allowing for those obvious and inevitable distinctions, what separates great novelists from great children's novelists strikes me as less important than what unites them -- namely the intention of taking their readers on a journey that insists that experience can be both "very exciting and rather terrible" and "very surprising and splendid and beautiful" (to borrow descriptions from the loveliest chapter of "The Wind in the Willows").
The fullness of that sort of reading pleasure makes you greedy, reluctant to settle for writing that does less. Too much contemporary literature feels less like taking a journey than like grabbing a cup of coffee in some nondescript cafe. There seems to be a lurking embarrassment at the very notion of immersing readers in something bigger than themselves. Tom Wolfe (himself a mediocre novelist) has spent much of the last decade complaining that novelists no longer feel compelled to report on society and its institutions (which is why a novel like Richard Price's "Freedomland" feels so meaty). But I'd guess that the sense of what's lacking in contemporary literature has more to do with the emotional and imaginative limits that are the result of the quirky and personal spheres in which many fiction writers have circumscribed themselves. It's the sense of shared experience, of being swept up, that I value in children's literature. Danny DeVito's wonderful film of Dahl's "Matilda" sums it up beautifully with the message his young heroine discovers when she falls in love with books: "You are not alone."
Those words can be taken as simple comfort, or they can be taken as a deceptively simple reminder of the basic responsibility of living. Because, of course, the villains in kids' literature act as if they are alone, while the heroic beauty of the protagonists is often that, in spite of being outcasts who feel alone, they refuse that kind of selfishness. In other words, the heroes of kid's lit are fantasies of the people we hope we can be.
The hero of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is an outsider, one who, like many other outsiders in kids' literature, learns to value the things that have always made him feel separate from the people around him, and who also learns that the means of escape from his solitary existence has been within him all along. The book is a dream of belonging, and of discovering self-sufficiency and courage. What matters, though, is the flesh Rowling puts on those thematic bones. I don't think you can read 100 pages of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" before you start feeling that unmistakable shiver that tells you you're reading a classic. Rowling's own story is irresistible: a single mom, she began writing the book while unemployed and got a grant from the Scottish Arts Council enabling her to finish it. The first book in a cycle of seven (the second volume is already out in Britain and will be published here in the fall; the third volume will appear in the U.K. in June), "Harry Potter" has become something of a children's publishing phenomenon, one of those rare books that crosses over to adult readers (it's currently on the New York Times Bestseller list).
Harry Potter's life starts with one of the tragedies that heroes carry with them like scars (in fact, he bears a mysterious lightning-shaped scar on his forehead). Harry's parents are killed when he is just an infant, and he grows up in the shabby care of his aunt and uncle, Vernon and Petunia Dursley, and their horror of a son, Dudley. The Dursleys are the sort of oppressively ordinary dullards that Dahl took delight in savaging -- not because they're ordinary, but because they're so utterly self-satisfied about being ordinary, and so suspicious of anyone who isn't. They're characters who epitomize the word the book's wizards use to describe people without magical powers: Muggles. (We've all got a few Muggles in our families.) Within the stultified suburban London confines of 4 Privet Drive, Harry lives a Grimm existence, sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs (which he shares with spiders) and being the whipping boy for Dudley and his sluggard pals. Life continues this way until Harry is 11, when suddenly an emissary from Hogwarts, a school that has trained generations of wizards, drops into his life. The messenger, an enormous bear of a man named Hagrid (who will become Harry's protector), informs Harry that he is in fact the son of wizards killed by the dark wizard Voldemort. Voldemort was not able to kill Harry (he could inflict no more damage than that lightning-shaped scar), though the word is that the dark wizard is biding his time, consolidating his power. With his own training ahead of him, Harry is whisked away to Hogwarts and there begin his adventures.
Rowling is the most matter-of-fact fantasy writer you could hope for. Each marvel -- like the owls who deliver morning mail at Hogwarts, or the school sport of Quidditch, a kind of field hockey played in the air while riding broomsticks -- is treated in a one-thing-after-another manner that keeps any hint of preciousness from creeping in. Her straightforwardness (with just the right degree of the nasty humor kids love) keeps her writing grounded. She's come up with a nifty metaphor for the way in which magic exists in the guise of the ordinary: The world of wizards exists in comfortable parallel to the Muggle world, visible only to those with powers, happily invisible to everyone else. Thus, the train to Hogwarts leaves from a hidden platform at King's Cross, and the wizard business district is accessible only from a walled courtyard behind a pub.
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" unites the English novel of school day exploits with the humorous, macabre fantasy that Dahl perfected. In the time-honored tradition of the latter, Harry quickly locates a best friend (Ron Weasley, the latest in a long line of siblings who've attended Hogwarts, his being the sort of middle-class family that sacrifices to send the kids to a good school), a nemesis (the snobby rich kid Draco Malfoy), the class overachiever who nonetheless becomes his friend (Hermione Granger), the little kid made to be picked on (Neville Longbottom) and the teacher who seems to have it out for him (Snape). It's the best compliment I can pay Rowling that she's created characters who live up to the names she's picked out for them. They're types, yes, but so fully drawn that they break the molds.
I realize that the book I'm describing sounds like no more than an amusing diversion. But I said that literature is a diversion that offers a way back to life. And while comfort may be one of the goals of those children's books that are fantasies of belonging, there's nothing cushy or insular about the best children's books, which never deny the possibility of pain or loss. You might even argue that the tragedies of these books hurt even more (the way the tragedies of great musicals do) because they occur within an idealized fantasy world. "Harry Potter" reassures its readers that they won't get lost as they enter into new experiences, but at the same time it never denies the ache of what you leave behind. That's the emotional balance Rowling maintains, and I can sum up the keenness of this book's emotions by quoting the passage that describes the author's most remarkable and moving invention. Prowling around the school one night after lights out, Harry stumbles upon a room that contains a mirror. Looking in it, he's startled to see himself surrounded by a crowd of people with eyes and hair just like him. Harry doesn't know that the mirror shows whoever looks into it their heart's fondest desire, but the realization dawns on him that he is "looking at his family, for the first time in his life." Rowling continues:
The Potters smiled and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.
How long he stood there, he didn't know. The reflections did not fade and he looked and looked until a distant noise brought him back to his senses. He couldn't stay here, he had to find a way back to bed. He tore his eyes away from his mother's face, whispered, "I'll come back," and hurried from the room.
The beauty of that passage, in both conception and execution (Rowling is an astonishingly visual writer), needs no explication. But perhaps you have to have made your way through too many exquisitely crafted novels that didn't make you feel anything beyond a vague admiration for their craft to understand why reading a passage like that can seem as necessary as coming upon a drink of cool water when you're parched. So I don't want to condescend to J.K. Rowling by saying she's written a wonderful children's novel. She's written a wonderful novel, period. And to those who insist that novels should impart lessons, let the lesson of "Harry Potter" be the only distinction worth making in literature: separating the Muggles from the wizards.