Books of Innocence and Experience

That title is a bit of a tortured play on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, which is the kind of thing which, if you have to explain, you should probably just not do, but I am a blogger of very little brain just now, so unless I come up with something better before I finish the post, we’re all just going to have to bear it.

I often scoff at people who opine histrionically that kids these days grow up too fast and that modern society is somehow inferior to some idealized golden past. I once got unfriended on Facebook when a friend who was having legal difficulties claimed that she wanted to go back a hundred years to when morals and values were so much better – I asked her if she thought she would have had a smooth ride as a woman owning her own business back then, seeing as she wouldn’t have even been able to vote. She kept insisting that people were more “God-fearing” and honest back then, and… come to think of it, I might be confusing who unfriended who, but the end result was the same.

five in a tent

The other day, though, something reminded me of this book I read when I was ten or eleven, called Five in a Tent. I can’t find a detailed synopsis, or my copy of the book, so I’m going on my (very bad) memory here, but I do remember it quite vividly. Chris Walker, the protagonist, goes to summer camp with her older sister, who always seems dismissive and superior to her. She meets a group of girls who are all very different, including one named Lucetta (I think) who is the daughter of a movie star or something and is defiant and rebellious from the beginning. Over the summer, Chris blossoms and comes into her own and gains confidence, blah blah blah. Then I think there’s some kind of crisis where Lucetta gets into trouble and runs off into the forest on her own, and Chris shows initiative and does something brave to save the day and ends up winning some big Super Camper award which her sister always won before, and she realizes her sister is probably just so grumpy because she’s shy and doesn’t have any friends. Her sister pins the award on her at the end and kisses her on the cheek which was a Big! Moment!

The book made quite an impression on me. Sadly, my own summer camp experience was not quite as elating and transformative, if you recall. But I still loved the book. Another book I remember reading around that time is The Cricket in Times Square, about a boy who adopts a cricket in… well, it’s a hence-the-name thing. There are adorably philosophical anthropomorphized animals and a family’s unsuccessful newsstand and amid many hilarious misunderstandings, the boy and the animals save the day.

And remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I mean sure, there’s crushing child poverty, and Charlie has to share a bed with his four grandparents which, ew, and various children are punished for their character flaws in quite hideous ways, but the violence is all cartoonish and the general tone is magical and silly.

So now I have a daughter who just turned twelve. In the past couple of years, has she read The Cricket in Times Square? Or The Root Cellar, two secondhand copies of which I had saved specifically for her to choose between? Or Charlotte’s Web? Or Charlie and the …. actually, she blazed through everything by Roald Dahl when she was nine and wrote a speech about him that got her to the next stage in the public speaking contest, so never mind.


Generally, though, her reading tastes appear to be a bit more sophisticated. In Divergent, a dystopian Chicago divides people into five factions, and choosing a faction different from your parents’ means you never see them again. Initiation INTO your chosen faction consists of punishing physical tests and intense psychological trials, and if you fail, you DIE.

Then there’s The Fault in Our Stars, a lovely and affecting love story about two teenagers. With terminal cancer.

And The Hunger Games, wherein everyone except the super elite is hungry and downtrodden, and teenagers have to KILL EACH OTHER.

I can’t help but notice that, rather than words like “madcap”, “whimsical”, “eccentric” and “adventure”, her syllabus lends itself more to words like “post-apocalyptic”, “violent death”, “betrayal” and “way more sex than anything I read at that age”.

It’s not like I don’t pay attention to what she’s reading, or that I let her read anything she wants. We discuss everything first. But these are the books all her friends at the same reading level are reading, and it feels counter-productive to insist that she wait until some random age. For the most part, I think she is mature enough to handle the material. And she also read the Percy Jackson series, which features creatures from Greek mythology, including a cheeseball sidekick satyr named Grover, so it’s not all doom and gloom. But every now and then I feel like she skipped a stage in reading – like she went too quickly from the ‘protected innocence’ of childhood to the ‘fear and inhibition’,  ‘social and political corruption’, and  the ‘manifold oppression of Church, State, and the ruling classes’ of experience (thanks William Blake, you cheery ray of sunshine).

Maybe not, though. After all, if you compare Divergent to Five in a Tent…. Tris bunks with some friends, who encourage her as she passes through various trials…. her older brother chooses the Erudite faction, so clearly he thinks he’s smarter than she is…. there’s still a coming-of age thing going on… and Zoe Kravitz, who plays her friend Christina in the movie? Totally has famous parents.

I know, I know, throw me a bone here. Kids today. They grow up way too fast.


2 thoughts on “Books of Innocence and Experience

  1. Noah and Eve have similar taste, or maybe it’s just that all the preteens/early teens are reading the same thing. He read all the books you mentioned in the past year. He’s a couple years older than her so I don’t worry too much about his innocence. As your previous commenter said, I was reading Stephen King when I was 13. I’m a bit more protective of my 9 year old, but it tends to be about movies, not books, that we clash. I’m stricter with those.


  2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! I remember it fondly, then I read it to my kids and I was slightly horrified. The poverty. The old people all living in the same bed. The hunger. The horrible children that have horrible things happen to them. I kept thinking that this book couldn’t be written today – too much potential for legal action!

    I mentioned this before, but I remember having to read Bless The Beasts and Children when I was in Grade Nine, for a book report. THAT IS DISTURBING.


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