So this year I've found myself in a surprising number of conversations about Into The Wild, which I've never read (in book form) or seen (in movie form) but because I am fully prepared to have conversations without any background whatsoever I have no problem discussing the finer points of the morality of somebody wandering into the woods in a half-assed way while breaking the hearts of those who loved him.
I am, however, hampered in this endeavor by the fact that one of my favorite children's books was always My Side of The Mountain, where a young kid runs away from home and holes up in some property technically owned by his family and lives off the land. He has a hollow tree and he tames a falcon and he makes his own clothes out of deer hide. It's presented as touch and go, sure, and when, at the end, his family shows up they seem to have been a little upset by his absence, but basically it's presented as a good thing to do. He learns to live off the land. He exercises his ingenuity. He gets in touch with the things that matter. There are, it turns out from bringing this up in conversation, quite a few books along these lines -- I'd like to single out Swiss Family Robinson which doesn't really have anything to do with the point I'm trying to make here (the way in which our most loved children's books are at odds with our cultural mandates) because it's not the family's fault that they're cast ashore. Still, for sheer dreaminess about the potentialities of leaving civilization behind, you could do a lot worse than Swiss Family Robinson, and when someone mentioned it to me in a recent Into The Wild conversation a whole host of things that I had totally forgotten crossed my mind, like them sleeping in a super-elaborate tree house.
It's not just in the realm of "flight into nature" that our children's books take up somewhat odd positions. I mean, consider just how much literature for that age group is told from the point of view of the mouse.
Mice, I am going to come out and say, are gross. Growing up on the West Coast I never had mice in my apartment, but one day in New York at 3 a.m. on a rotten day a mouse came racing across my floor and I realized in an instant how disgusting it is to have something little and furry worming its way around your living quarters. I would not have thought that a mouse would freak me out, but it did, in an atavistic kind of way.
I am not, I think, alone in this. So why do we have so many books (The Rats of Nimh, of course, being the best) designed to convey to us the loneliness and terror of the mouse's view, designed to make us dread the plot-mandated call to the exterminator or, worse, the cat (cats, by contrast, being in real life an animal we often feel affection for).
The simple explanation would be that these books are designed to change the way we look at mice. But I don't think that's true -- I don't think that the author of My Side of The Mountain actually hoped to encourage a bevy of schoolchildren making for the hills. More likely it has something to do with how marginal and small children feel themselves -- that these books are about giving them a sense of possible agency. They are the mice of the universe, smaller than everybody else, and it's a way of giving them a hero to identify with without actually inciting revolt. Or, from a more hardline position, you could think of it as the incorporation of rebellious impulses into a safe space. Let your child read about mice and running away rather than doing it; you read about the same things and it did not actually, when you grew up, cause you to treat all mice as your brothers or to live in a hollow tree.
I don't know -- it just seems strange. On the other hand, the books that do live up to societal norms are usually pretty rotten.