Sean McHugh: Gift books to please a young mind

Thursday December 6, 2012

Recently my girlfriend and I were called upon to help a friend pick out books for her 8-year-old granddaughter, who is just beginning to get into reading.

The subject enjoys stories with a historical bent, and could care less for the standard preadolescent fiction that could easily be replaced with a mirror. There are few people so well suited to such an undertaking as us and so we compiled a quick list.

With Roald Dahl already behind her and Oz standing in the headlights, we plotted our course for the inviting but sometimes treacherous waters of children’s fantasy.

It was not all smooth sailing, of course, steering between the metaphorical reefs of the overly frightening and the equally metaphorical sandbars of insipid plots, and the third nautical obstacle of old classics that turn out to be kinda racist on closer reading.

We felt that the "Golden Compass" should probably wait a few years, especially for someone who has seen the movie and its much happier ending.

On the subject of Narnia, we were rather torn as to whether it might be better to read at a young age before the heavy-handed allegory comes through or later in life when the whole series can be read in the space of an afternoon as well as decisions made as to how many of the seven should be read and how many skipped altogether.

Old standbys like ‘The Borrowers’ and ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ were brought up. Flo recommended "Ella Enchanted" and, forgoing the fantastic, "Catherine Called Birdy."

Taking a more modern bent, I thought "The Graveyard Book" might be a good fit, or, from my own childhood, the "Redwall" series of Brian Jacques.

"Redwall" was big for me, a series that really convinced me to give this reading thing a go, but it was one Mr. B. Baggins Esq. who made me a reader for good and thus I owe much of my life’s direction to that little fellow.

Bilbo’s maturing from a feckless upper-class do-nothing into a cunning adventurer was a important to an 8-year-old asthmatic because the eponymous hobbit relied on his wits chiefly in a period when role models for boys tended towards muscle-bound superheroes, pro-wrestlers, Arnold Swarzenegger, and an animated character un-ironically named He-Man.

After starting out as more trouble than he was worth, Bilbo gradually learned his lessons until he could begin extracting himself from danger, then rescuing his friends when they needed it, then solving greater problems with his brains, his unobtrusiveness, and his ability to fast-talk anything from kings and cave dwellers to earthshaking dragons.

But more than hero’s journeys or relatable characters it was the world itself that captivated me. Unlike the Jacques’s "Mossflower Wood," which also holds a special place in my heart but had a habit of expanding as needed for each subsequent novel, there was a palpable richness to "Middle Earth." It felt well realized on a scale that I had never known possible in fiction: That every hill and valley and cyclopedian tower had been carefully placed and bore the scars of a history thousands of years old yet intricately plotted.

It was a place that was not merely a cardboard cutout for the heroes to pose in front of, but a fully realized universe in which peoples and places existed far beyond those required by dramatic necessity. It was a world I could come back to again and again and always discover something new and meaningful.

So the opportunity to influence which books might create a similar reaction in a child is a quest unto itself.

I think the literature one reads in childhood imprints upon one’s belief system on a subconscious level. So the book you give her could well end up shaping her life.

This places a heavy burden on me to choose wisely. The wrong book could twist her impressionable little mind into a tangled knot of villainy or, even worse, make her give up on reading.

So I’ll be thinking about that while I’m waiting in line for the midnight showing of "The Hobbit" next week. Seeing a beloved novel come to the screen always engenders a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

I’m not worried that the movie will be awful, mind you, because that would only make the book seem better by comparison..I worry that for years to come I will never be able to find a copy of the original book without film stills plastered over the cover and future generations who might be influenced by it will be restricted in their imagination to a single vision not their own.

And that defeats the whole point of reading, to kick start the imagination and get it running.

Write to Sean McHugh at


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