Ian McEwan Picks the Five Best Books About Children

From a Wall Street Journal story headlined “Five Best Books About Children”:

Selected by Ian McEwan, the author, most recently, of the novel “Lessons.”

Dream Babies
By Christina Hardyment (1983)

1. Children barely featured in our literature before the late 18th century, counting for little in social life. Raising a child often appeared synonymous with breaking its will. To a 17th-century citizen, a child was a grossly insufficient adult, trapped for years in a slow process of becoming. Tender expressions of love and grief in correspondences and on children’s gravestones suggest warmer sentiments, but they rarely found extended representation in literature. Christina Hardyment’s magnificent “Dream Babies” is a survey of child-care handbooks “from Locke to Spock” (the book’s 2007 edition updated the range “from John Locke to Gina Ford”). Its reasonable premise is that “expert” advice offered to parents on how to raise a child holds up a mirror to the aspirations and intellectual preoccupations of the age. As the decades pass, the pendulum swings between hard and soft regimes. Rousseau-esque permissiveness gives way to Victorian severity, to be displaced by Edwardian sentimentality. The harsh pseudo-science of early-20th-century psychology dictated that small children should not be embraced, and that babies should not be picked up when they cry and must be fed on a strict four-hour basis; for older children, a firm handshake at bedtime was sufficient. Then, after the horrors of World War II, came liberalizing Dr. Spock (“only outsold by the Bible”), in turn to be followed by a requirement for more discipline. Ms. Hardyment’s book has many haunting, sometimes hilarious, contemporary illustrations of hideous devices of restraint, propriety and training.

David Copperfield
By Charles Dickens (1850)

2. Charles Dickens was among the first writers to make a complete and extended effort to enter a child’s mind. No author before him had made principal characters out of children the way Dickens did in so many novels. His own grim experiences as a boy working in a rat-infested shoe-polish factory, while his father did time in debtor’s prison, haunted his writing. Child characters are integral to “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Little Dorrit,” “Great Expectations” and more—readers know their favorite. Dickens was alive to the lifelong damage done to children by poverty, abuse and lack of education. “David Copperfield” is written in an intense first person and close to the author’s own history and views—especially on child labor in Victorian England. Giving imaginative space to an unregarded one-third of humanity was as revolutionary in its way as the sudden appearance on stage of the acutely self-aware Hamlet.

What Maisie Knew
By Henry James (1897}

3. A novelist setting out to conjure the mind of a child must choose between two modes. In one, a childlike vocabulary frames the limits of childish perception, which is how James Joyce opens “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1916). The other mode accepts that while a child might have a limited cognitive range, her thoughts and feelings are complex. To render them accurately demands all the resources of an adult consciousness. When I was writing myself into the mind of a 13-year-old girl in my novel “Atonement,” I chose the second path. I was influenced by that master of complex feeling, Henry James, in “What Maisie Knew”—a sad tale, told in technically brilliant prose, of a divorce between careless, scheming parents as seen through the eyes of a highly sensitive girl. The clever rhetorical trick is to allow the reader to see over Maisie’s shoulder a chaotic adult world and understand more than she does.

Just Babies
By Paul Bloom (2013)

4. Does a growing child learn good from bad entirely through her parents and the rest of the world, or has she arrived at birth with an innate, rudimentary moral sense? Paul Bloom, in his masterly “Just Babies,” makes the case for the evolutionary advantages of a sense of fair play, of being able to discern helpful from obstructive people, and of in-group loyalty. Mr. Bloom draws on his research at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center. Designing experiments around babies makes for some comic reading. They won’t run mazes for you. Not everything hardwired is good. We come into the world with primitive inclinations to bigotry and a distrust of strangers. But historically, it is our rationality and careful deliberation that have driven our moral discoveries, like the evil of slavery or the wrongs and absurdities of a male-dominated society.

Veilchenfeld
By Gert Hofmann (1986)

5. The best novel I’ve read that describes events through the eyes of a child is little-known and a minor masterpiece. “Veilchenfeld” by Gert Hofmann, translated in 2020 by Eric Mace-Tessler, describes a crazed world in which Nazi ideology comes insidiously to a German community. Hans, the son of a small-town doctor, watches as the life of his fascinating neighbor, Prof. Veilchenfeld, unravels and is then destroyed. As in Henry James’s “What Maisie Knew,” the reader understands far more than the narrator. The child’s voice is pure and detached. He cannot understand what he is witnessing. The elderly Veilchenfeld was a professor of philosophy until his dismissal in 1936 from Leipzig University. After he settles in a Saxon town, he is assaulted, humiliated and ostracized by citizens, police and administrators. The entire community turns on him, its only Jew, and he dares not leave his house. At night, Nazi thugs are outside. He intends to leave for Switzerland, but the police destroy his passport and his last remaining hope. In this learned old man, Hofmann condenses the industrialized extermination of millions. “Veilchenfeld” is a remarkable short novel. To recount it through the limited and fragmented understanding of an innocent child was an inspired authorial choice.

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