Thus begins The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1939. This is the story of young Jody Baxter, an only child living in the wilds of rural Florida sometime in the late 1800s. I know eventually he’ll meet the title character—a young deer—but for now it’s just Jody at home. What do I make of it so far?
There are a few warning signs that resemble bad trips I’ve been on before—weird inconsistencies (we are told that A) the dogs pay rapt attention to Jody and B) the dogs pay no attention to Jody, literally five sentences apart), occasional inaccurate observations about natural phenomena (although to Rawlings’s credit, most of her observations about natural creatures and events are spot on), and a heavy reliance on dialect. As dialects go, Jody and his parents speak something slightly more incomprehensible than Cean and her family in Lamb in His Bosom, but less comprehensible than the worst excesses of Scarlet Sister Mary. So far, the dialect hasn’t posed any major problems in getting character depth (unlike both of the aforementioned works), but that’s mostly because none of the conversations so far are all that deep—dialect or no dialect, it’s hard to screw up conversations about why a boy felt like running off to the ‘crick’, or how tasty his mother’s sweet potato pone is. My concern is that, when we have to get into more difficult and complicated conversations, the dialect seems heavy enough to be an encumbrance, both on Rawlings and on me. I’m not sure she can be deft enough with it to get across serious dialogue: certainly her predecessors in this arena did not acquit themselves with valor.
But this leads me to my real underlying fear: what if the book never tries for anything sufficiently serious? This is the only Pulitzer I’ve run into so far that is shelved with the children’s literature in the library—my edition has big, Sunday School style illustrations of a cherubic blond boy playing with wild animals. (Okay, the illustrator is N. C. Wyeth, who probably deserves a kinder summary than that, but I’m sorry, they look exactly like the feltboard images I remember from Sunday School classes when I was 8.) What I’ve read so far reminds me very much of other children’s literature I read when I was eight or nine—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, maybe, or The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. And I’ll admit that I’m not terribly enthusiastic about that fact. Jody is sweet, and his parents seem charming, and I can’t pinpoint anything about the novel that seems off-putting right now, but honestly a lot of that feels like the novel’s determination to maintain a peaceful little glow surrounding the characters. I’m sure there will be conflict—I suspect around the whole “you can’t cage a wild animal, Jody” notion, though admittedly I know nothing about the deer or how it enters Jody’s life—but the stakes seem so low right now, it’s hard to work out how to get invested in it.
This, it seems to me, will be a nice chance for us to have a brief conversation about whether children’s literature deserves equal footing with literature for adults, in discussions of quality. Is it plausible that a novel written for nine or ten year olds (if The Yearling really is such a thing—time alone will tell) could be the best novel of the year in the United States, worthy of acclaim above any “adult” competitors? This year, Rawlings’ novel beats out, among other titles, John dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, and William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished. I’m interested in that decision, and the larger children’s lit question I posed. I think we can all agree that, below a certain level, children’s books can’t be talked about in the same light as adult books—I don’t care how much your kids love Goodnight Moon, it doesn’t deserve a Pulitzer. (Well done, James—here comes the hate mail!) But there’s a hard case left in the middle here—hard, in part, because many books not written for children are now associated with them and largely read by them, like the work of Lewis Carroll, or, to name a Pulitzer winner, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I don’t know who Rawlings wrote The Yearling for. For all I know, she didn’t know either. I guess we can get into author intention too, if we like, if we think that’s important. But I’ll leave my fundamental question to you (which I hope you’ll respond to in the comments) as I basically set it out above: If we’re trying to assess the “greatness” of a book, can we compare books written for adults and books written for children on a more or less even playing field?
I’ll stipulate at the outset that I read and loved children’s literature as a child, that I still (on occasion) read from that category, both old and new titles, and that I think there’s no question it has immense value for children, and for adults. I’m just wondering whether it has a place on a “this is the best novel written this year” list. My wife tells me this is snobbery, and she may be right: full disclosure—she reads children’s and YA titles pretty extensively these days, and I do only rarely. I don’t know if my failure to get excited about the genre is a personal flaw or not, but I’m willing, at least, to be convicted on those charges if the evidence is sufficiently sound. And I recognize that, in part, the challenge here comes from the fact that any attempt to select a “best” work of art is deeply difficult, absolutely soaked with hubris, and probably unwise to begin with. But if we are going to bother with a “best” novel, I wonder how we go about comparing Little House in the Big Woods (published in 1932) with The Store (the Pulitzer winner in 1933, and so Wilder’s competition). Your reflections are, as always, avidly solicited.