I am revisiting my childhood obsession with Anne of Green Gables by reading it aloud to my two enraptured daughters. I’m loving how the book is working its magic on my girls, just as it did on me. My grandmother worked as a school librarian and I was allowed to sit in the library while she worked, or wonder quietly amongst the shelves trailing my hands along the lovely cool spines of the books. Since it was a high school, many of the books were too advanced for me, but then I found Anne and fell in love. I was delighted by her zest, and learnt many useful phrases (“kindred spirit”, “scope for imagination”, “bosom friend”) which I immediately incorporated into my daily life.
It has been interesting reading Anne of Green Gables, which was published in 1908, directly after Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) and Pollyanna (1913), since they all have the same synopsis: garrulous orphan girl goes to live with spinster and bachelor/spinster aunts and eventually wins their chilly unyielding hearts with her unique optimistic world-view and amusing talkativeness. In all three books, the orphaned child must enter a rather adult world and learn to live in it, but not without bringing her own charm to warm the childless household. The orphan gets a family; the spinster a child, and all is well with the world. It was clearly a formula that worked, as all three books were popular in their time and are classics now.
Much of children’s literature centres on the symbol of the orphan. In order for a book to grasp a child’s imagination, the small protagonist must battle alone in an unfriendly or fantastic world, without the help of adults. This gives the reader a chance to imagine herself into that situation and live with the thrilling possibility of a world with no grown-ups, where she has to make decisions and take the consequences. There are three main categories: orphans in the real world like the three books above, orphans in a fantastic world like Peter Pan or Harry Potter, or where children function in the real world but are left to their devices by their parents (most of Enid Blyton’s books, Swallows and Amazons, the Just William series). It is necessary for adults to be dead or absent or threatening in order to make the reading experience a thrilling one.
One book that springs to mind where an adult is present and part of the action is Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, but even there Danny’s father is a renegade fighting the status quo (a poacher), and the positive outcome of the story depends on Danny alone. There is a scene where Danny must drive his father’s car alone, which resulted in many childhood nightmares for me – clearly a little too much autonomy for me to cope with.
In all good children’s books, the child protagonist must effect a change – defeat an evil wizard, beat the pirates, escape the wicked aunts, win the chocolate factory, find the missing parents – and this allows the powerless child reader to enjoy the vicarious pleasure of being in control, making adult decisions and being given free reign. In last night’s chapter from Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s temper got the better of her and she lashed out at the dreaded Mrs Rachel Lynde:
‘I hate you,’ she cried in a choked voice, stamping her foot on the floor. ‘I hate you – I hate you – I hate you -‘ a louder stamp on each assertion of hatred. ‘How dare you call me skinny and ugly? How dare you say I am freckled and red-headed? You are a rude, impolite, unfeeling woman!’
I can’t tell you how much my children enjoyed that.