Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The enduring appeal of childhood classics

If I had to name one book I really loved as a child – and since this is my blog, I will – it would be Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. Recommended to me by my mother when I was about seven, it was one of the first big girl books I read. I gobbled it up and proceeded to devour the rest of the series too. And then I read them again. I read the series, or at least parts of it, regularly almost once a year for quite a number of years as I was growing up; I’ve even read it once or twice as an adult. It’s the only series that I’ve returned to so often. So what’s the appeal?

Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery

The story of Anne Shirley is familiar to everyone: an orphan with a temper in need of a loving family, adopted by two unmarried siblings. She loves to read, which made it easy for me to identify with her. Despite her humble beginnings, she makes something of herself and grows up to become a well-loved member of the society. And best of all, she wins the heart of the most dashing hero a little girl like me could imagine, Gilbert Blythe. Their story, with its ups and downs, kept me in its grip no matter how many times I read the series and to this day, I think it’s one of the finest love stories ever written.

But there is more to the books too. They depict vividly the rural culture of the late 19th century Canada, which I only learned to appreciate when I was older. There are colourful, well-crafted characters, all described with understanding and love. No one is one-dimensional; even the most hated character finds understanding at some point. What morals the books contain – poor Anne has to endure quite a bit of growing up – never preach. Everything is sprinkled with good humour, and friendships – they are for life.

So is it a wonder I loved the books so much? And I’m not the only one. First published in 1908, Anne of Green Gables is little over a hundred years old, yet it keeps winning new readers.

There are plenty of other childhood classics, quite a few of which are at least as old as Montgomery’s book. After all, only a time can make a classic. Louisa M. Alcott comes to mind as a similar author to Montgomery. I loved her Eight Cousins better than Little Women, though, and read it almost as often as I did Anne of Green Gables. But are there new ones in the pipeline, biding their time to be declared a classic?

Harry Potter was hailed as a saviour when it first came out, as it got not only girls but boys, too, to read. I haven’t read the books more than once, but many children read them over again. As it's only sixteen years since the first book was published, it’s early to say if it’ll hold the interest of future generations. But I think it will.

Harry Potter is a story similar to Anne of Green Gables. Harry, too, is an orphan given a chance for a new life, who refuses to break in a world hostile to him and who grows up to be a respected adult. Friendships are very much the core of the series. You root for Anne and Harry from the beginning, sympathise with them and like them. You also dislike those who are against them; another strong emotion.

The similarities may seem superficial, but there is more: both series appeal to adults as well as children. Montgomery wrote her book for all ages and while Rowling’s book was probably aimed for a younger audience, it can be easily read by adults. They’re not undemanding, easy-to-read stories. They tell the story of what it is to be human in full, life and death, forcing you to think. They make you laugh and cry. You can return to them and discover new things every time. They are well-written and they are not easily forgotten. What more do you need for a classic?

Do you agree: will Harry Potter last, or do you have another suggestion? And what is your childhood classic, the one book you read over again?

Here's a wonderfully romantic montage of Anne's and Gilbert's love story from the 1980s TV series. It contains scenes from the sequel that didn't follow Montgomery's books, but who cares when it so heart-melting.