The Saturdays
The Four-Story Mistake
Then There Were Five
Spiderweb for Two:  A Melendy Maze

by Elizabeth Enright (Holt/Square Fish, New York, 2008)

I've heard it said—and often by teachers—that it doesn't matter what children read, as long as they're reading.  I couldn't disagree more.

Actually, there's just enough truth there to be dangerous:  When one is learning to read, the very best path to the next level is merely to read, and read, and read.  It doesn't matter if it's Dr. Seuss, Calvin & Hobbes, Star Wars, or Anna Karenina—almost anything will do that is decent and holds the reader's attention long enough for the practicing to work its magic.  When my father was sick and terribly thin, we pressed upon him high-fat, high-calorie, high-sugar foods that would normally have been anathema to a sensible diet.

The trouble with carrying forward a laissez-faire attitude toward the content of children's reading is that our early experiences influence so strongly the habits and tastes we will take with us into adulthood.  If our childhood has been reasonably happy, it's almost impossible not to retain an uncritical fondness for what we enjoyed then.  It's as important to encourage in our children a taste for nourishing books as it is a taste for nourishing food.

I find Elizabeth Enright's Melendy Family books to be exactly this sort of nourishing book, so much so that on a recent rereading I probably enjoyed them not one bit less than my first enchanted encounter.  Maybe even more, because they reminded me so much of my favorite families, many of whom read this blog.  Noisy, lively, adventuresome children who occasionally make bad choices and get in trouble—but always repent and are forgiven by loving adults.  (I do like a book where "bad choices" means things like climbing out the window when one is supposed to be sick in bed—remember when sick kids were supposed to stay in bed?)  Siblings who love each other, and enjoy each other's company, even if they occasionally quarrel a bit.  Children who respect the adults in their life.  Adults who know how to give their children both roots and wings.  (I know it's a cliché, but it's true, and important.)

What struck me most this time as I read the books was how very much they are a Free-Range Kids manifesto.   The kids are far less worldly-wise than today's average children, but far more competent.  They are entertained and even awed by things that would cause most modern American kids to yawn with boredom and make rude remarks.  But they wander New York City on their own at 10 years old (with permission) and even six (without); they love Beethoven, and Shakespeare; they wander over hill and dale (in the country), sometimes gone all day and returning home after dark; they sew, and cook, and build things; they put on plays and arrange benefit concerts for the war effort (the books were written in the 1940's); they get into scrapes and get out of them by a combination of their own ingenuity and knowing when to ask for help from the adults around them.  They know the "don't talk to strangers" rule, and more importantly they know its many exceptions.

Yes, I know this is fiction!  And I'm not saying the family is ideal—no family without a mother can be.  But it's a lot more true to what I knew when I was growing up than most of today's "realistic" children's fiction.  The people over at Free-Range Kids are an eclectic lot, and I doubt they'd all enjoy Enright's books, but to me the Melendys are a shining example of the "normal childhood" that many Free-Rangers are working hard to promote.  Books like these can encourage both children and their parents in that endeavor, promoting simultaneously family love and loyalty, parental authority, and children's competence and independence.  I'm keeping them for the day the grandkids are ready for them (and enjoying them myself in the meantime).

Or maybe I just like the books because the Melendys' attic playroom looks an awful lot like our grandchildren's room even now!

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, September 26, 2010 at 6:03 am | Edit
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As always, nephews are welcome to borrow the books until the grandchildren are ready, but I'm afraid all or nearly all of them are presently at that in-between age: too old and sophisticated to enjoy them as kids, and too young to enjoy them as adults.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, September 26, 2010 at 6:28 am

Precisely why I enjoyed Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series as a child, read them to my children and happily re-read them now. I'll look up these books for my grandkids!

Posted by katie baker on Monday, September 27, 2010 at 1:51 pm

AND Gone Away Lake and Return to Gone Away!

Posted by katie baker on Monday, September 27, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Yes! We LOVE the Ransome books!

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, September 27, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Very much concur with your comments.

As a writer of books for teenage boys, my greatest influences are the authors I read as a child – Arthur Ransome, Enid Blyton, Elizabeth Enright, Edith Nesbit, Fae Hewston Stevens – to name a few).

I had no idea I was writing books about “free-range kids” until I discovered Lenore Skenazy's website!

The main characters of my Super-Twins series are considered quirky and a little weird by the current generation, but they would have fitted in perfectly in Elizabeth Enright’s day. They do lots of old-fashioned boyish things such as riding bikes, farm-work, boating, hiking and messing round with cars. But they also cook, perform in concerts and plays, read books, do their homework, listen to classical music, have hobbies and weekend jobs and are caring, compassionate and protective of eachother. They are respectful to their parents, teachers and other adults, but, nevertheless, free and independent thinkers.

Hmm… Never realised how out of touch with reality I was until now!

…or maybe it’s the "helicopter" parents who are out of touch.

At least, I’m in good company, though, as the most successful children’s writer of all time, J.K. Rowling, is a dyed-in-the-wool free-ranger!

Posted by Robert Werry on Friday, October 01, 2010 at 8:52 pm
Back on FRK
Excerpt: I have another post on Free-Range Kids.  You've probably read most of it here already, in my review of the Melendy books, but I mention it because the comments over there are brimming with other good book suggestions that you may want to check out...
Weblog: Lift Up Your Hearts!
Date: September 27, 2010, 7:45 am
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