“A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney.”

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.

N.C. Wyeth

N.C. Wyeth, looking much more bad-ass than any illustration he ever drew. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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6 comments on ““A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney.”

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    Film analogy:

    In 2009, -Up- was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. In 1995, -Babe- was. In 1991, -Beauty and the Beast- was. None won…they lost to -The Hurt Locker,- -Braveheart-, and -Silence of the Lambs-, respectively. (I only went back through the ’70s checking…there may be more. And the list excludes good-for-the-whole-family fare like -ET- or possibly -Moulin Rouge-.)

    I have no issues with these being eligible (haven’t seen -Up- yet, but Steven is 3, so our day is certainly coming for that). The issue, as I see it, is this question: is the film the best possible version of itself it could be? On that criteria, I’d argue -Babe- is a superior movie to -Braveheart- (and to two of the other three films I saw nominated that year–I’d give -Il Postino- the nod by an eyelash). Perfect art is perfect art: I’d leave genre out as much as possible.

    Of course, then we get to issues beyond that. Let’s assume (and I don’t) that all of the 1991 nominees are perfect films. How the hell do you then compare -Beauty and the Beast- with -Silence of the Lambs-? -JFK- (a HORRIBLE film) is also on that list…assuming that it, too is perfect, what do we do?

    In that case, I think we have to reward those who tried to reach higher. And Betsy may call me a snob, but as a tiebreaker, I’ll stand by that it’s harder to write a perfect book for adults than a perfect book for kids (while both are difficult).

    OK, so continuing the mathematical analogy. If an author writing a tough, dense film/book for adults is 90% perfect, do we give him/her more credit than someone who writes a perfect children’s book? I think I say no. To me, that’s -Babe- vs. -Braveheart-. -Braveheart- is pretty good, but -Babe- almost never strikes a wrong note. Only the pitch-perfect -Il Postino- beats it.

    Another key is to perhaps give separate awards, like a Newberry or like the Academy sort of did when it established an animated award…although -Up- managed to get nominated for both (winning best animated film…would it have been nominated if there were still only 5 nominees???).

    I haven’t and likely won’t read -The Yearling-, but I’d say that if you can’t imagine a better children’s book, sure, give it a Pulitzer.

    You should say “bad-ass” more often.

    Also, -Goodnight Moon- makes me want to disembowel myself right there during bedtime ritual. Give me Seuss, Seuss, and more Seuss.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Paul: Excellent stuff! Much appreciated, too. Betsy also raised the Oscar analogy—I haven’t seen Babe in so long I don’t know how I feel about it, and I really didn’t connect with Up at all, but Beauty was certainly a good film (not Silence good, though). I’d argue that E.T. was intended for kids (despite its obviously broad appeal), and I couldn’t say if it was deservedly beaten by Gandhi (though I think the consensus is that it wasn’t deserved). I think my struggle is with the question of “best possible version of itself”—as you did in your comment, I struggle to know how much I dock a work for not aiming for more. How much do I dock Beauty and the Beast for not wanting any complexity in most (if not all) of its character portrayals? Your 90%/100% is useful, though I’ll admit I’m not sure how to do the math for myself. 🙂

      I liked JFK. Not as history (since it’s trash in that regard) but as a work on its own. But I respect your disliking it—I can see the case for disliking it, anyway.

      I hadn’t considered the separate awards issue….I wonder if any major awards specify that they’re “for adults”? I should look into it. Personally I doubt Up would have made the top 5, but then again everyone I know who saw it claimed it reduced them to tears—personally I found it manipulative and empty, but if that was the consensus, heck, maybe it was top 5 material. 🙂 I don’t know….in some ways I think it benefits from the lowered expectations we have for “children’s stuff”. Adult films that have to depict heartache and loss can’t play as fast and loose as an animated montage can—or at least that’s my opinion on the matter.

      Maybe the Yearling benefited from reduced competition (dos Passos is an acquired taste, I hear, and the Faulkner isn’t one of his most famous). We’ll see. If it really is a peerless children’s novel (I wonder what I think is….can you think of a flawless children’s book?), I take your point that a “best novel” prize isn’t really surprising at all.

      I will strive to say “bad-ass” more often in contexts where you will hear it, Paul. Among friends, I am surprisingly free with some, shall we say, less refined vocabulary. 🙂 We just haven’t gotten to hang out enough in recent years.

      Thank you for backing me up on “Goodnight Moon”. I really don’t get it—or the book about giving a mouse a cookie. For me, it was Seuss and Bill Peet and Richard Scarry. Those were the days. 🙂

      • Paul Hamann says:

        Will look for Bill Peet, to whom you have just introduced me.

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Paul, he’s definitely worth it. I think my favorite as a kid was “The Wump World”, which I would have said was “Peet’s take on the Lorax idea” except Wikipedia informs me it predates The Lorax. I think it was more about his art than his words, but it’s been about 27 years since I read a Bill Peet book, so maybe I should check one out myself. 🙂

      • SilverSeason says:

        The function of Goodnight Moon is to put the kid to sleep: moon – crooon – spooon – spitooooon. If it doesn’t work for the kid, it certainly works for the weary mother. The Cat in the Hat is close to a flawless book. The story, the rhythm and the pictures all work together — and I never minded reading it one more time. Also Are You My Mother? for the very young and Stuart Little a few years farther on.

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          An excellent point re: the soothing sleepy sounds, though I think it confirms that the book isn’t exactly “literary award” material. 🙂 I do like Seuss, although I don’t think Cat was my favorite. Are You My Mother and Stuart Little were definitely both favorites of mine, though, and Make Way for Ducklings. Thanks for reminding me of them!

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