Friday, September 7, 2012

There's no place like home...

I have been thinking of late of the role of home in children's books, for obvious reasons. The lost mansion that goes up in flames in Lemony Snicket, the home spinning through the air in The Wizard of Oz, the perilous flat on the flipside of the wall in Coraline.

My current workspace. Not the most comfortable spot in the house, but the quietest.
The prevalence of the home in children's books makes sense. Children's worlds are defined by the borders of their abodes, the space of their environs at once both familiar and fraught. I think of these fictional worlds as secret gardens, walled spaces that we all want to peer into, our imaginations poking through the gaps in the ivy. As readers, even very tiny ones, we are voyeurs. We read to examine others, to dissect their suffering, their joys; we like to take these people apart and figure out how they work, much like a child likes to take apart a Tonka truck to see the innards.

Ever since I was a young girl, I have loved entering people's imaginary houses, handling their objects with my mind: their combs, their phones, the bones of their homes (perhaps this is why Dickens is one of my favorite writers; my favorite book of his, Bleak House). The magic of these spaces in children's books is that they simultaneously function as blueprints that can help children strategize how to deal with their own world and an escape hatch from the circumstances of their lives (much as the kids in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe enter a new world via the armoir or Dorothy flies away from the drudgery of her Kansas existence via a tornado).

Perhaps most importantly, these books help children figure out how to realize what's valuable about their own homes and the people in them. The characters themselves often come to such a realization. Max's mother, in anger, sends him to bed without supper, resulting in his trip to the land of the Wild Things, but she leaves food out for him to come home to. And that food shows Max that his mother loves him.  Coraline's mother is distracted and wants her daughter to learn how to entertain herself, which makes Coraline interested in what's on the other side of the wall. But when Coraline's mother is gone, her daughter realizes what a hole her absence leaves.

To end our story today, a quote: "It is astonishing just how much of what we are can be tied to the beds we wake up in in the morning, and it is astonishing how fragile that can be” (Neil Gaiman, Coraline). The presence of the home in children's books shows us how deeply rooted our identity is in our origins and our today; in the beds we woke up in for the first time, as well as the beds we woke up in this morning. Identity, along with our sense of home, is transitory, fleeting, ever-evolving. Which is both freeing and terrifying.    



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