When the kids were young, I read to them nearly every night. I read classic children’s novels (“The Narnia Chronicles,” “The Never-Ending Story,” “Pinocchio” “Winnie-the-Pooh”) and, when they got older, some that weren’t specifically for children, but which I thought they’d enjoy (“Phantom of the Opera,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Erotic Works of Anaias Nin, you know the canon). But, as kids get older, there are other things to do.
The Classics Challenge 2016/17 included a novel about or for children. I chose one that was both for and about children: Fred Gipson’s 1959 “Old Yeller.”
Now I don’t remember ever seeing the movie, but I know how it ends and it ain’t pretty. When you read it, though, there’s no question about what’s coming at you. This is the beginning of the second paragraph: “I remember like yesterday how he strayed in out of nowhere to our log cabin on Birdsong Creek. He made me so mad at first that I wanted to kill him. Then, later, when I had to kill him, it was like having to shoot some of my own folks.”
It’s Texas in the 1860s and Travis Coates, who’s about 14, is left to fill in as the man in the family when his pa goes on a cattle drive with durn near all the menfolk of the settlement. He and his ma have their hands full with Little Arliss, the trouble-making youngest of the Coates clan. The day after pa goes off leaving Travis to hunt, butcher, farm, chop wood, milk cows, haul water from the crick, and all the other things today’s kids couldn’t begin to understand, up strolls a mangy yeller dawg whom Little Arliss loves, but Travis can’t stand.
Soon enough, the dog proves his worth and Travis and Old Yeller become inseparable. But, well, we all know what happens.
Reading a children’s book as an adult, with no children around, can make a reader critical. Little Arliss is a pain in the ass; maybe he was comic relief, and maybe kids respond to him, but let’s just say I was rooting for the bear in one scene. Travis, on the other hand, is so self-aware it took me out of the book. How much does any young child examine his feelings, let alone articulate his ambivalence in a thoughtful way. It’s something my kids would have pointed out (“No one would say that”) and I would have defended (I can’t stand kneejerk criticism from kids) back when I read regularly to them.
But it was written in a different era about yet another era. That it remains so compelling (except for some of the details of the life of a homesteader in rural Texas, which Gipson overdoes) is testament to the story. It’s not phony and comes by its emotions and lessons honestly for the most part. In addition, because it’s short, an adult can knock it out in a quiet afternoon.
But maybe you want a find a kid.
The next 2016-17 Classics Challenge category: A classic written by a woman. With only eight categories left, I’m feeling ambitious and think I will tackle a book my wife loves: Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.” We shall see.
Also, post your comments about the children’s classic you read below.