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Reading children’s fiction in quarantine

/ 04:03 AM April 27, 2020

To those of us with the luxury of an internet connection, there is now time to consume media we have always meant to consume, but our enjoyment is hampered by the emotions to which we are subject during this pandemic  — loneliness, helplessness, frustration, fear. Anxiety makes our attention spans shorter, our enjoyment less robust, our Netflix browsing endless. We feel the need to remain updated, but then feel the urge to escape from the weight of current events; but where to escape?

Last week, director Erik Matti described Korean dramas enjoyed by Filipinos as “faux Cinderella stories” — a generalization that earned ire for being both untrue and tone-deaf. This is not the best time to criticize mainstream tastes as we take what joy we can from whatever media we can consume to prop up our collective mental health.

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Some find consolation in dystopian fiction. Stories that mirror the nature of catastrophes as well as poor institutional responses to such crises help readers to make sense of our new reality. This isn’t for everyone; even Emily St. John Mandel, author of the pandemic fable “Station Eleven,” suggested that interested readers “maybe wait a few months” to read it. Some enjoy the puzzles of crime fiction. The genre has been likened to modern fairy tales because underneath their darkness and grit of such stories, some semblance of justice is served: this is escapist fiction in its own right. Some find solace in more domestic, romantic works: cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt wrote humorously in The New Yorker this week about reading Jane Austen during quarantine.

For myself, it’s as good a time as any to sink back into fiction for children and young adults. In the mainstream, there’s always the Harry Potter books — half whimsy and wonder, half rage against fascism and bureaucracy. There’s also “The Hunger Games” series: part romance and pageantry, part commentary on the glorification of excess and the scourge of inequity, as well as a call to rage against brutal authorities. Truly, there’s irony in the way that we have raised generations on such fiction and yet now berate the young to stay quiet in the face of injustice and bad governance.

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My personal favorites are the works of Diana Wynne Jones, who passed away in 2011, and whose books have meandered in and out of the mainstream since the 1970s. Her most popular novel was adapted into a film by Studio Ghibli, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” a magical adventure recently made available on Netflix.

Her books make for excellent pandemic reading not just because of her world building and originality: it’s because, for a fantasy author, Jones wrote with startlingly clear eyes about characters who must learn to act ethically in an unethical world, as Farah Mendlesohn wrote for Tor.com, mirroring our struggle for some sort of moral foothold in these unprecedented circumstances. Readers are struck by how unflinchingly Jones wrote about authority figures, even parents, who cannot be trusted, because they are either malicious, or ineffectual, or preoccupied. Her characters begin in positions of weakness and must learn to navigate power systems that are oppressive, nonsensical, or both — harkening to our own experiences as we go ever deeper into new Kafkaesque realities of government responses to the pandemic. The characters triumph by working with others and by learning their own strengths and weaknesses.

Despite its themes, the writing is gentle, whimsical, and full of humor, stimulating enough to be a distraction, soothing enough to be a balm. This is the legacy of an author who refused to “talk down” to her child readers, and who thus remains enormously readable to adults looking to escape into fiction. Jones is also a gateway for discovering other fantasists from a “golden age” of children’s fiction — Penelope Lively, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner.

Quarantine stretches on, and with it our anxiety and disappointment in trusted institutions. Fiction for children and young adults, with their complexity, humor, wonder, and lessons on resilience, justice, and kindness, are excellent companions as we wait out the end.

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