The Best Children’s Books Appeal to All Ages
On Elena Ferrante, Anonymity, and Writing Across Generations
What is perhaps one of Elena Ferrante’s least-known books may provide a clue to her best-known controversy: the right to living under a pseudonym, which turned into an international debate with a by-now notorious essay at The New York Review of Books’ blog by Claudio Gatti, which appeared simultaneously in Gatti’s own newspaper, Il Sore 24 Ore, as well as other European news outlets. The book I have in mind is The Beach at Night, a short illustrated tale for children published in 2007 and translated into English in October of 2016, which focuses on the power of names—and, particularly, on the power one may gain by trying to take control of another’s name. Ferrante’s tale is as intriguing as it is unnerving.
The Beach at Night is narrated by a doll named Celina. Mati, a five-year-old girl, has brought Celina to the beach, but she decides to play with a cat instead of her doll, at which point her brother decides to partially bury Celina in a hole in the sand. After a while, as the sky becomes darker, it becomes clear that Mati has forgotten Celina on the beach. The doll thinks of Mati almost like a mother—“a perfect mamma,” Celina calls her at one point—and she alternates between optimism about being found and despair at her sense of having been abandoned. A genuinely frightening villain soon appears in the figure of a man known simply as “The Mean Beach Attendant,” who is collecting trash, and who finds Celina by using a disquietingly beastlike tool, a rake, to uncover her—and the word “rake,” of course, has long literary connotations of lechery that only amplify the horror in these pages. The man then decides to force the words from Celina when he learns that she can speak in a disturbing sequence of scenes. However, just as the Mean Beach Attendant is about to rip her name from her, the cat that Mati had played with saves her and brings her home, bringing the unsettling narrative to a close.
Ferrante’s tale has shades of Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved film from 2001, Spirited Away, which also centers around the significance of having—or losing—a name. In Miyazaki’s movie, the witch Yubaba runs a baroque, magical bathhouse for spirits, and, in order to work for her, the young protagonist Chihiro must quite literally sign away her name to Yubaba, for after she signs this contract, she begins to forget the name she once had. What is explicit in Spirited Away is implicit here: that the power of a name matters. Yet, for all this, Ferrante’s tale seems darker, due in part to Mara Cerri’s gorgeous, surreal, and sometimes disquieting illustrations, which are full of shadows and of the sense—echoing the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico or Paul Delvaux—that the dusky unknown is looming around a corner. The way Celina faces losing her name is far more unnerving and sensually depicted, with images that focus on teeth, saliva, and hooks; the male beach attendant tries to rip the words from Celina, his saliva entering her mouth via a nightmarish “hook.” It is difficult not to feel disturbed; this is a rape scene in a children’s book, filtered through the prism of a doll and through the oneiric imagery that softens the terror of what is actually going on. And, in many ways, this seems to echo Ferrante’s fight over preserving her name, once it had been forcibly yanked from her.
In Ferrante’s fiction, dolls and adulthood often connect in subtle ways, like two mirrors facing each other, but at crooked angles. Just as the plot of The Beach at Night centers around the loss of a child’s doll and its disconcerting, almost literal baptism of fire through meeting an adult male, the narrator of the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, it is also the loss of a doll that becomes the first major plot arc of the narrative; crucially, when Lila pushes down her doll into the home of Don Achille, it is a kind of opening of a door to adulthood, where our narrator will begin to learn who she truly is in relation to Lila, and what the most fearsome adult in her young life, Don Achille, truly represents.
That The Beach at Night, which is almost a coming-of-age tale, is a book marketed to children is somewhat deceptive. Ferrante’s story is at once a children’s book and a childlike tale for adult readers; the greatest children’s books, after all, as C. S. Lewis famously suggested, are as much for adults as they for children. “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon,” Lewis wrote in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” “that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”
In like fashion, Chinua Achebe’s first tale for children, Chike and the River, displays many of the themes so important in Achebe’s other work: the question of what it means to live in one place versus another, displacement, and how to deal with danger. Frog and Toad, Arnold Lobel’s much-loved series, might take on a striking resonance when we read it in light of the fact that Lobel came out to his family as gay in 1974, four years after the series’ first book was published, and famously said in a 1977 interview—a decade before he died from AIDS—that “You know, if an adult has an unhappy love affair, he writes about it. He exorcises it out of himself, perhaps, by writing a novel about it. Well, if I have an unhappy love affair, I have to somehow use all that pain and suffering but turn it into a work for children.” One of my favorite books as a child was The Big Bazoohley, Peter Carey’s only work for children; I read and reread it more times than I can think of, yet had no idea, at the time, who Peter Carey was. Many years later, after reading the magisterial novels Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey became one of my beloved authors as an adult, and I was shocked when I stumbled, by sheer chance, upon the fact that he had written one of the books that meant the most to me as a lonely kid. The Big Bazoohley, suddenly, seemed to mean something bigger than ever to me as an adult. The best children’s books grow as we do.
And what it even means to be a children’s book is complex, as Ferrante’s story illustrates well. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s most iconic short stories, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” both bear a subtitle that has often puzzled my students when I assign these texts in class: A Tale for Children. Garcia Marquez’s stories are so filled with subtle moments of erudition that it is virtually impossible for a child to fully appreciate them, as when the narrator of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” reveals that the titular old man—who many of the villagers in the stormy place he lands in imagine to be a decrepit angel—does not speak Latin, so the Catholic priest examining him believes he cannot be an angel, as Latin is the language of God. The same is true for Lewis’s novels about Narnia, which are replete with theological symbolism, as well as with casual examples of problematic systems of imagery we may understand better as adults, like Orientalism. Are these indeed stories for children, if children cannot be expected to get all of these references? But, of course, this is partly the point. Children’s stories are often for adults in different ways than they are for children—and, just as books change for us as we do, children’s tales will, at best, take on new shades of meaning, will reveal new hidden rooms and lofts, as we learn to look at them with more attuned eyes.
Yet children’s stories by adult writers who only wrote occasional works for young readers tend to be neglected in favor of their adult work when assessing a writer: the leitmotifs of their life’s work, their grand themes, their arguments, their clairvoyance, their development. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, like Antoine Saint-Exupery’s marvelous and peculiar The Little Prince, which is often the work of his people know best. But there are many more cases that are not exceptions, like Angela Carter’s Miss Z and The Donkey Prince, two sophisticated tales for children from 1970 that show much of Carter’s later trajectory as a writer, yet tend to be left out of discussions of her work entirely. This is not surprising; after all, work for children must necessarily be simpler than work for adults on some levels, most of all language, and this critical neglect, at least in the Western world, also parallels the unfortunate, still-frequent dismissal of cartoons as being for children rather than adults, an assumption that, notably, exists far less in Japan, where anime—animated work made in Japan—is perhaps more often for adults than for children. But writers are complex tapestries, and we may lose important threads if we only glance over, or ignore altogether, a section of that tapestry that, initially, may seem inferior to the rest.
Pseudonyms, of course, are a door left ajar, yellow or blue light spilling from its crack; who doesn’t wonder what, or who, may be on the other side? It is natural to want to solve this simple sort of mystery. The detective tales of Poe, Doyle, Christie, and Chesterton are based, after all, on just this: that there is something to solve, and, by the end of it, we can rest assured that something will be cleared up. But mystery, too, can be beautiful. Sometimes, finding out what lies on the other side of that door spoils the beauty that that yellow or blue light suggested, not because there is anything indelibly wrong with doing so, but because some mysteries mean so much more when we leave them unsolved. As a nonbeliever, I often want to know, definitively, whether or not there is some kind of deity out there; yet, all the same, and despite the scars religious indoctrination left on me as a child, I also know that I would lose something silly and yet somehow meaningful if I knew the answer with absolute certainty. Enigma is both frustrating and fantastic, wondrous and ponderous and worrisome—and isn’t that the most human things of all, not the incredible power of being able to find an answer, but the ability to choose to revel in its mystery instead?
The Beach at Night is far shorter than the works Ferrante is best known for, yet it is—intentionally or otherwise—immensely revealing about the largest and longest controversy surrounding her. “For those who love reading,” Ferrante told Francesco Erbani in an interview that appeared in La Repubblica in 2006, “the author is purely a name. We know nothing about Shakespeare. We continue to love the Homeric poems even though we know nothing about Homer.” A few moments later, she added, “Someone who truly loves literature is like a person of faith.” I am pulled to know answers to questions—yet, perhaps she is right, that this is enough: to walk into the smoky cathedral of a literature and believe in the author who does not sit anywhere in the pews or appear anywhere near the altar nor rest in any of the flickering crypts below, because it is enough to love the books themselves. The author-God may not be dead, to counter Roland Barthes, but I don’t mind pretending that it is with Ferrante. The grand power of a name, it seems, is in being able to keep it to yourself, which Ferrante seems—rightly—to want children and adults alike to know.