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Even in today’s age of visual spectacle, stories written by British author Roald Dahl, seen with his wife, actress Patricia Neal, continue to hold children’s rapt attention. (Library of Congress/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Even in today’s age of visual spectacle, stories written by British author Roald Dahl, seen with his wife, actress Patricia Neal, continue to hold children’s rapt attention. (Library of Congress/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Russell Smith: In an age of endless images, kids are still hooked on books Add to ...

Say, exhausted March Break parents, have you read any Pippi Longstocking lately? Isn’t it a crazy book? Pick up any one of the three full-length Pippi books written by Astrid Lindgren between 1945 and 1948 and you will find one of the silliest and least coherent narratives you have ever read. It doesn’t really have any structure, just a lot of vignettes in which a headstrong wild girl makes fun of grownups. She has a pet horse and a monkey. It has quite a few Swedish words in it (Pippi likes to dance the schottische, an act never precisely described) and exists in a world of class privilege that hardly exists even in Sweden (children play in the nursery; ladies complain about their maids). It’s strange and repetitive.

How could it possibly compete, now, for a child’s attention against Star Wars and the brilliant Zootopia, against endless laser battles on Netflix and on the iPad, against Minecraft and Real Racing?

Well, let me assure you, it does. I have a six-year-old whose primary focus in life, aside from obtaining French fries, is the memorization of all the characters in every Star Wars film and spinoff (including the animated series Clone Wars), along with their weaponry, rank, relations and powers. He goes to bed with his Star Wars encyclopedias (plural) and asks to be quizzed on them. You’d think he would have no interest in a nine-year-old girl and her pets. And yet he begs for Pippi at bed time, listens raptly and demands extra chapters. He giggles quietly to himself when she is particularly rude. He is more taken with this quaint, picture-less book than with many a superhero cartoon. He saw Zootopia and enjoyed it but has not mentioned it at all.

Same goes for any Roald Dahl (we’re just coming to the end of James and the Giant Peach, which is also downright nonsensical) and any Judy Blume, whose everyday child characters live in a mundane real United States and who struggle with such dramas as missing pets and trips to the shoe store with a baby brother.

These books, even when rambling or slow-paced, can paradoxically be more scary than any of the green-gilled monsters and growling blaster-holding villains of the screen. I haven’t got very far into the Narnia books with my son because he is so terrified of the White Witch that he can’t listen past the first chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He runs away with his hands over his ears, saying he’s going to have nightmares. The White Witch is not even seen in the first chapter, just described with convincing fear by her minion, a faun.

Now, my son is a guy who has already seen more explosions and gun killings on screen in his short life than I had by the age of 12. He has seen endless scenes of danger and jeopardy – the planet about to explode, the hero about to be eaten. Why on earth is he afraid of the invisible White Witch?

The answer is simple: words. No pictures. The words, as I read them aloud, in their long and complex chains, penetrate some part of him that images cannot reach. It is the very invisibility of the White Witch that makes her so troubling. These words are pure sound, purely abstract. They must be pieced together like any code. And it is up to the darkest part of his brain – and yours and mine – to give them a form. What we represent internally, what we can imagine, comes from our own nightmares. The process of understanding chains of written or spoken words is an actively creative one. It is always going to take a deeper root.

A lot of my favourite children’s books are British, owing to my upbringing, and they are utterly foreign to a Canadian child, in vocabulary and social milieu, just as books set in Sweden are. When one is reading C.S. Lewis to a Canadian, one must step in with footnotes every few paragraphs – to explain that cross means angry and bathing means swimming and that boys and girls go to different schools in some places, and their parents paid money for them to go to these schools – long story – and this frequent annotation does not seem to bore my own listener; it becomes part of the narrative. He seems to be just as interested in the facts about exotic worlds as in the plot. (Get it, people who say they hate fiction?) So I feel no guilt in avoiding the local or contemporary or nationalistic for the time being. The foreign is useful; he is happy to hear about Ulysses or the Second World War, too.

I shouldn’t be so surprised by this, but I am: I am astounded that written books still have such power, such intrigue, such invincibility. I am pleased that the human brain is apparently not desensitized by overexposure to images; language will always tickle a different receptor site. Lindgren’s quaint, robot-free books have sold 144 million copies. Roald Dahl has sold 200 million. The kids are all right.

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