Kid’s Books I Can’t Stand to Read

My students sometimes expect me to only say difficult things about important books—books they find hard to read or understand. My children’s literature students, especially, are surprised and sometimes shocked by my tirades against the books I can’t stand to read. I’m supposed to have read everything, and worse yet, they seem to think I should like all of it.
The fact is, I’m a reader first. Teaching is the vehicle for imparting knowledge and understanding, and it’s best when that knowledge arrives with passion—and perhaps joy. But reading is the initial exploration into a book that has the potential to set your world on fire. Many do. But some books, I can’t stand.
I’ve always thought my inability to appreciate a particular book to be a shortcoming—practically a moral failing. A lifetime of reading, and I still sometimes question my judgement when a book leaves me cold.
Worse yet, I sometimes encounter a book I can’t stand. I will often read them again, and I still can’t stand them. The problem is, you can’t unread a book. Once read, a book is in your head forever, and if you hate it, all you can do is try to forget it.
Unfortunately, I never seem to forget books. I can’t always say why a book bothers me, but I know when I don’t like it. So here’s a list of five books I can’t stand, in no particular order, and with no particular ranking.

1. Lewis Carroll’s, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Sure, I know it’s a classic, but I can’t stand this book. I’ve read it a dozen times, taught it several, and I still don’t like it. I find it weird, creepy, over rated, and don’t understand why people insist on calling it a classic.

2. Lemony Snicket’s, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Yes, I know I said books, but I can’t stand this series—and I’ve only read the first four books of thirteen. I don’t have a problem with dark fiction, but these books are excessive. They’re not even dark for any reason I can discern.

3. E. B. White’s Stuart Little
I wouldn’t say I can’t stand this book. I think I just don’t get it. Is he a mouse or a boy? He’s a mouse—or maybe he’s a boy/mouse. The book has always left me baffled.

4. Gail Carson Levine’s, Ella Enchanted
I love fractured fairy tales, and I whole-heartedly appreciate novelizations of fairy tales. More than that, I love strong female characters in such books. So why don’t I like this Cinderella story? In part, it’s the world Carson Levine builds I find preposterous. But when I read the scene where Ella encounters the centaurs, I almost stopped reading.

5. Suzanne Collins, Mocking Jay
More than any other, this book tested my ability to sympathize with a character I began by liking. Katniss is an absolute train-wreck by the third book in the series. Her self-serving, self-involvement nearly put me off the trilogy. But I read it anyway—several times.

There you go—a few books I can’t stand to read. You no doubt have your own list. Don’t get me wrong. All of these books are worth reading and worth discussing. We can’t, after all, only talk about the books we love. Keep reading, and keep sharing.

Adult Nostalgia and Children’s Classics

I first discovered fanfiction at a Harry Potter Con a few years ago in San Francisco—appropriately enough. It reminded me at the time that I tend to live my life under a large literary rock. The Internet is full of fanfiction sites. If you are unaware of fanfic, then tread carefully, especially if you are checking out fanfic sites of your favourite series. I only ever read fanfic occasionally, but as someone who encourages reading, writing, and writing about reading, I can hardly criticize such endeavours. Popular culture reproduces and responds to books and films in many ways, but the cultural response to and definition of what have come to be called children’s classics emerges, in part, from nostalgic adults who are attached to their reading experiences of such books.
But when is fanfic no longer fanfic? If you are a published author, then it’s called a sequel—apparently. Earlier this year a colleague recommended to me William Horwood’s Tales of the Willows series. These books were published in the 90s. But don’t give me too hard a time for not knowing about them earlier. Remember, I live under a rock.
The Willows in Winter, Toad Triumphant, The Willows and Beyond, and The Willows at Christmas are four short books by William Horwood, who, as you might guess, picks up the story of Mole, Rat, Badger, Toad, and Otter from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.
The Wind in the Willows found its way onto my literary landscape early in my reading life. I remember my mother reading it out loud to me, and I read it later again and again. I’ve even taught the book a couple of times. Teaching the book to a children’s literature class, however, can get problematic. For one, the book has no sympathetic female characters, and the River Bank itself is populated only by males. As my children’s literature classes are mostly female students, you can guess the response. Fortunately for me, my classes are filled with bright students, who are both critical and forgiving readers, so we talk about it, and no one trashes the book. Teaching Tolkien’s The Hobbit presents me with the same problem—no female characters. I got used to identifying the fact right away, so no one is stewing over it while I gush about the book.
Back to Horwood. When an author picks up a story and creates his or her own, I never quite know what to do with it. But that’s just me. If you are looking for further adventures with Mole, Rat, and the rest, then you won’t be disappointed. Horwood works hard to remain true to Grahame’s style, and the various adventures of toad are as whacky and thoughtless as in the original book.
I read The Willows and Beyond first, which may have been a mistake. This book introduces the next generation—as it were—and it sees the return of such characters as the Sea Rat. But the paradise of the River Bank has become infected, which leads to (spoiler alert here) the dissolution of this particular utopia. Goodbye golden age.
I loved the adventures of Toad, but I think even more I loved the insular nature of the River Bank. It was a place set apart—safe and yet full of manageable danger and adventure. It was a place that spoke to me of home, of friendship, and days without end.
My sense of the River Bank as a place set apart comes right from the first chapter of the book. Mole asks about what he sees in the blue distance, something that might be the smoke of towns, and he gets a careful admonishment from Rat:
“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,” said the Rat. “And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again, please. Now then! Here’s our backwater at last, where we’re going to lunch.”
Rat and Mole in fact visit the Wide World during their adventures with toad, but that never took away from my sense of the River Bank as a world set apart. Perhaps this is my own nostalgia in operation, but I don’t care.
If you don’t want anyone, not even an author, messing with your books and the worlds you hold dear, then I would avoid fanfic and writers such as Horwood. But if you want more of the world of the willows and the River Bank, then check out these books. They aren’t long, so get them all, find a quiet place, and feast on these new adventures with familiar characters.