A couple weekends ago, my partner and I went to the local big book chain and just wandered around the aisles for a couple hours. At the end of our experience, we only picked out a copy of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, mainly because I hadn’t read it before. My partner was surprised for sure, thinking that a fantasy series would be right in my “Lord of the Rings-obsessed child” wheelhouse. But for one reason or another, it never reached my hands until the ripe old age of 23 (and three-quarters). As I bought my book, the cashier said, “Aw, this is an amazing book. Have you read it before?” When I replied “no, actually,” her face froze in shock until she asked, “How is that possible?” I didn’t have an answer for her, but I have a few ideas.
In 2001, I was first grader at an elementary school on the half-suburban/half-rural outskirts of my hometown. My teacher, Mrs. Lewis, had a bonafide love for the Harry Potter series, so much so that she read the entire first book out loud to us so we would know it by heart before the movie dropped later that November. We had Hogwarts-themed classroom parties, the box sets were must haves out of the Scholastic book orders, we even had a sorting hat for activity grouping. Seemingly, everyone in that class graduated into second grade with a deep-seated Harry Potter obsession. My experience has undoubtedly been replicated in countless classrooms across America in the early 00s, given how much reading as an industry has been affected by J.K. Rowling’s witchcraft saga.
Ultimately, reading in a post-Potter world may have something to do with my lack of engagement with older, classic children’s literature. For one reason or another, I don’t really remember a lot of the books that I read in elementary school. The only two that come to mind are the Harry Potter series (which I read throughout elementary for the sweet sweet Accelerated Reader points) and Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, both relatively recent books back then. I may not remember anything I read, but I remember the ceaseless waves of new book series, looking to scoop up parents’ hard earned dollars with every fresh book order. Children’s literature became a boon, enabling more publishers to publish more books, creating a symbiotic cycle that gave young readers an unprecedented amount of choice.
I am aware that there are plenty of people who are the same age as me who probably had similar experiences, but still had time to read the classics of children’s literature. But, I sincerely believe that the early 00s boom allowed for the canon to be downplayed in a such a way that children will probably be able to read more books that were published when they are alive than those that came before. I can’t make a judgment if this is a bad thing or not. Sure, this development has led to a greater diversity in books, allowing children to find more of themselves in what they are reading, but at the cost of lining the pockets of the Big Five. Additionally, as much as my college education may lead you to believe that I have a deep respect for anything considered a “classic,” I really think the older a book is doesn’t necessarily mean it is better by any standard, as many well-regarded literary periods have likely produced way more duds than bangers (to assume otherwise is ahistorical trash).
I’m not diving into the world of classic children’s literature as a means of drinking the Kool-Aid, nor am I looking to kill everyone else’s darlings. Ultimately, I come to the canon looking for some books I missed out on as a child, for one reason or another. Like any experiment, it is a mixed bag, but I’m glad I’m doing it regardless. Hopefully, in addition to the more recent children’s books I read, I’ll be able to better recommend books that my students will like (or be bored by, or hate). But most of my motivation is to catch up on those books I may have missed among the hype.