I recently read two children’s books that couldn’t be any less different in tone and style, but they share one thing in common. Neither of them could be written today without destroying them completely. This isn’t about censorship or controversy, except in a mild or tangential sense. This is about how we have changed, either in mindset or due to events, and how that causes books to be unable to treat certain things. The two books are The Active-Enzyme, Lemon-Freshened Junior-High School Witch by E.W. Hildrick, and The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, by John Bellairs.
The Active-Enzyme Witch is about a girl named Alison who is recovering from measles in a small Connecticut home. One day she finds a book on witchcraft, and the bratty girl suddenly christens herself Ariadne Atropos Arachne (three witch names are better than one, right?) and tries to perform witchcraft using common household items.Of course, her curious little sister Jeannie finds out, and becomes the second member of the “coven,” Jezebel. They practice it like kids playing; that strange mixture of seriousness and absurdity that they have, and it’s done in a completely naturalistic style. No Harry Potter magic here, just a slice of life book about kids with a bit of an improbable ending.
The reason why this can’t be written today is in the tone. It’s clearly obvious that the writer doesn’t even try to make witchcraft true in any sense except that of coincidence. It’s more of a vehicle to drive how the characters act and react, and the parents when they find out think it’s hilarious and tease her about it. The problem today is that it would be impossible to write about it without taking a side, either “Witchcraft is the devil!” held by conservative Christians and others, or “Witchcraft is true and as valid as anything” from various practitioners of it and liberal-minded people. You can’t really put it in without making a political statement about the belief.
But in this book, political statements are the last thing the writer cares about. He’s actually faithful to the source, because the rituals sound exactly like what you’d expect out of a random book you’d buy from the new age section of a book store. The kids are so serious about it to the point of humor, but they are also kids so they have no real idea of it:
“Blessed be…blessed be…”
These were the words most often murmured in the secret chamber beyond the water tank, during those sessions.
“Blessed be thou, cup of magical waters…”
“Blessed be thou, bowl of fire…”
“Blessed be thou, knife of steel…”
“Let ME blessed-be something, please Alison!”
“I was just going to, only you’ve spoiled it for tonight by not calling me my Witch Name!”
There’s a lot of funny little moments that poke fun both at children and the belief system while at the same time taking both seriously with a little s. But the only way you can is if it isn’t a Serious Thing, and the current climate makes it a Serious Thing indeed. Sometimes the political climate just changes, and makes things impossible to discuss without discussing the political stance behind them.
And sometimes the real world conspires to make what used to be normal, not:
Both images are from Goodreads.com. It’s a great place for booklovers, try it out!
The Sorcerer’s Skull is part of the Johnny Dixon series, and it’s as different from The Lemon-Freshened Witch as can be. Johnny is traveling with the eccentric Professor Childermass when they happen upon a clock made by one of the Professor’s ancestors. There’s a tiny skull on the clock which Johnny takes with him, and that skull causes a lot of trouble in a very short time.
Where the Active-Enzyme Witch is naturalistic, The Sorcerer’s Skull embraces the supernatural. Fully so, it’s a ghost story in a classic style, and makes no apologies for it. However, that’s not the problem. This is:
“…Do you think your gramma and grampa will let you go on this trip with me?”
“I..I guess they’ll let me go” he (ed-Johnny) said uncertainly.
“I’ll call up your folks, and tell them I’m taking you on a little pleasure jaunt,” The priest said…
The Sorcerer’s Skull was written long before the scandal of priestly abuse in the church, where no one would think twice about letting their kids go off with the parish priest. This isn’t uncommon an attitude as you’d think: Alexander Key in Escape to Witch Mountain made the man who helped the runaways a Catholic Priest. It was only the movie who made him a vacationing RVer.
And to be fair, a lot of priests were the very kind of people you could trust. The sadness is that a few horrific examples and the corruption of the leadership simply makes it not safe any more to trust in that way.This is the most explicit example of why it couldn’t be written today, But there’s an entire attitude towards Catholicism in general that is simply lost. The sense that you could write about Catholic priests and the faith in a book without being labeled religious. The sense that Catholic spirituality, even in a weird folk form, works and isn’t made up. The power of a crucifix to fight evil, or just the sense of magic as something that works in the real world, and not a made up one.
The common thread in these two books is that we have changed, and this is why books like these can’t be written. There’s really nothing offensive in either, but the fact we often must have political feelings either on one side or the other restricts our literature in ways I don’t think we ever predicted. It’s noticeable fully in children’s fiction because it tends to be conservative the further it goes back. I’d argue the modern, transgressive realistic children’s novel only began in force during the 80s, and the political aspect of life wasn’t as powerful in that field until then. But politics has come to dominate our modern life in such a way that it impacts what we write unconsciously, and that means we’ve lost the ability to write on certain themes and subjects without an obvious political slant. Or even being aware of the political nature. A good example of the latter is Armageddon Summer. It’s a fine book by two masters of the field, but you can always tell they are holding their own beliefs in check to make it feel balanced.
I wonder in fifty years, will people say the same thing about modern children’s books? That it’s impossible to read them because the over-focus on the political sides of any issue shows through since this was a turbulent, political age?