"Begin at the beginning..."
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
We’re going through a wardrobe, we’re entering through a mirror, we’re falling down a rabbit hole. Beginnings. In children’s literature beginnings are often entrances. In a double sense, as children’s literature itself is an entrance into the literary world. For some, it is also the exit. For others, it is home.
Or, maybe, nostalgia.
It is a looking back to what one was and a looking forward to what one will think one was. The child reader somewhere in between the front lines of memory, idea and ideal. Looking at it this way, it is as much an entrance into the adult mind – as Michael Rosen puts it, children’s books are “the filling that goes between the child world and the adult world” (in Eccleshare 9). The connection goes both ways. Oz and Kansas are inextricably linked, the one cannot exist without the other. Contrast creates contours. Bright colours show better on a grey surface. An entrance into an “other,” demands a “familiar.”
Back to beginnings.
Every story has a beginning, a first letter, a first line. Beginnings literally “open” (OED, “begin, v.1” etym.) our way into the world of a story. They open the door to something new, something unfamiliar and yet relatable. Immersion asks for relatability. Especially concerning the small things. We may think ourselves easily enough into a world of dragons, mermaids or wizards… as long as the characters breathe as we do. As long as they feel as we do. As long as they think as we do. “Fish is people,” the title of one of Perry Nodelman’s recent keynote lectures, sums it up nicely. There needs to be an initial connection, a hidden sameness, for the unknown to thrive.
Beginnings form expectations.
Beginnings are form.
“Once upon a time…” a formal and formulaic entrance into a more or less well-known fairy tale. Expectations? Innocent girls, talking animals, magic, brave princes, clever farmers, evil witches, dark forests, happy endings. Beginnings are promises of one kind or another. They tell us something about the story we will encounter. “On the dull, grey Tuesday our story starts” (Rowling 2) is a promise of “otherness” – the extraordinary will conquer the “dull,” colours will drown out the “grey,” the wonderful will replace the everyday. “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do” (Carroll 11) – a hint of boredom, a drowsy route of escape into an eventful dream beyond the “bank” of the river, beyond home. “Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house” (Gaiman 1) – a beginning that is a literal opening into a parallel world, an inside world, a double entrance. The reader enters the story and leaves its everyday behind, accompanying Caroline into the dark “other” world behind the door. The familiar takes us by the hand. The first line, the first step, a beginning that is an opening.
Beginnings are never quite fresh.
Stories build on stories and “books continue each other, despite our habit of judging them separately” (Woolf 120). This text is an entrance, a beginning, an opening. The aim of this blog is to think about and understand literature, and especially children’s literature, across a broad range of themes and topics – sometimes in essay (Things Written), sometimes in creative form (Written Things). Each post taking its beginning in the one that proceeds it, from theme to theme, a red thread in the making. Maybe we’ll eventually return to its beginnings?
“begin,v.1” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/17123. Accessed 7 April 2019.
Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: The Definite Edition. 1865, 1871. Edited by Martin Gardner, Penguin Books, 2000.
Eccleshare, Julia. “Introduction.” 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, edited by Julia Eccleshare, Cassell Ilustrated, 2009, pp. 8-11.
Gaiman, Neil. Coraline. 2002. Harper, 2012.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 1997. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. Hogarth Press, 1949.