The Cement Garden
novel: Ian McEwan, 1978
film: Ian McEwan and Andrew Birkin, 1993
In the '90s this was one of my favorite books and one of my favorite movies. It's a short tale of a quartet of siblings who live in a bubble where the rules of the society around them don't apply; if you're thinking that it sounds like the sort of thing that might have influenced Ready, Okay!, you're not wrong. This time around it didn't particularly grab me, though. I told Zoe that I was struck by how little actually happens, and I guess I was a bit put off by that, but I've been thinking about it, and I think there's another explanation. The Cement Garden is about four kids who all have their own lives and preoccupations and don't necessarily always get along, but who end up bonding with each other in a deep way by virtue of their shared membership in this alternative household. The plot of the last few chapters, to the extent that there is one, revolves around the question of who has the primary connection to the eldest sibling, Julie: her boyfriend Derek, or the narrator, her brother Jack? And ultimately the answer is that Derek is Out and Jack is In. When I was nineteen, I could still dream that I would someday feel like I was In — that I would find some like-minded group of misfits and feel like I belonged. Now I have pretty much given up on that ever happening, so I was less taken by the story.
Mary Rodgers, 1972
Here's another one I wrote up about ten years ago. My previous article was about how stupid it was for studios to license Freaky Friday, and then use nothing but the name and the body-switching premise, when the book is already pretty much the best possible execution of said premise. I'll still sign off on that. However, last time I was mainly focused on how funny it was. This time I was more struck by how effectively it delivers its message. Freaky Friday is very much a didactic book; it's about a bratty thirteen-year-old girl who learns some valuable lessons and becomes less bratty. I don't know whether this sort of thing ever really accomplishes much — it may well be the case that it is more cathartic for parents of middle schoolers than it is influential upon middle schoolers themselves. Certainly until this reading I had never paid particular attention to the Afterschool Special aspect of the book. But I guess that after a year of working on a movie about a bratty tween learning some valuable lessons and becoming less bratty I became more attuned to such themes. In any case, yeah, I don't see why filmmakers don't capitalize on these set pieces. The school conference? Hilarious and affecting. The climax stretching from the Stan-and-Merve phone call to the revelation of the identity of the beautiful chick? Even more hilarious, and even more affecting. The Ape Face chapter is pretty heartwarming too. I can honestly say in all seriousness that Freaky Friday is one of the best books I've ever read. I don't even mean "for a kids' book." Mary Rodgers is just a dazzlingly talented writer.
I do wonder this, though. Even though I liked this book when I first read it at age seven, I didn't really get anything out of it. I didn't get much out of a lot of the books I read as a kid. Like Freaky Friday, they tended to be about kids in the 12-to-16 age range, and I didn't really have a personal context for a lot of the themes. Mutual crushes, first dates, getting into trouble for experimenting with things — none of that meant anything to me. Hell, I read multiple books about girls getting their periods at a time when I had basically no inkling of female anatomy. I have to think that this is probably pretty common, no? Don't most readers read above their grade level? I.e., if you're an eighth grader and you're only reading at "an eighth grade level," doesn't that suggest that you probably don't actually read much outside of school? On top of which, isn't most media for young people aspirational? Seventeen is read by thirteen-year-olds, not seventeen-year-olds. I guess what I'm saying is that when I was seven I would have liked to have read more books that were written at the intellectual level of Freaky Friday but whose themes were relevant to someone with the emotional and social development of a seven-year-old. I also would have liked a port of Atari's Warlords for the Intellivision, but that's not strictly relevant here so I'll move on.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Robert C. O'Brien, 1971
This is a story in which rats and mice and shrews and crows and owls can all talk to each other. That's perfectly fine by me. This is also a story that attempts some fairly "hard" science fiction for a children's book: the NIMH in the title is the National Institute of Mental Health, and the plot involves a bunch of rodents getting "Flowers for Algernon"-style treatments to increase their intelligence. Ultimately the scientists hope to teach them to read. That's perfectly fine by me too. What doesn't work is putting these stories together, because the key plot point of the story is that once they learn the alphabet, the rats can read everything. That is to say, the scientists think that they'll have to teach the rats not just literacy but English, but the rats are a step ahead of them because all animals already speak English — they're just illiterate. I'm normally a fan of fiction in which different levels of reality collide, but this was too much even for me.