I’m not much of a reader of modern fiction (and if you’re wondering what this has to do with children’s books, bear with me—I’ll get there). Given the limited time I have for reading at this parenting-laden time of my life, I want to be sure that when I embark on a novel, I really, really love it. And the chances of that always seem higher if the book’s provenance goes back past last month’s New York Times Book Review. (It’s not that there isn’t great stuff being written constantly—it’s just that more of the mediocre stuff from ages past has fallen away; I’m increasing my odds.) So I mostly read a classic novel I somehow missed in all those high school and college classes—there are an alarming number of them!—or I stick to nonfiction.
Children’s books, though, don’t seem to work this way; if anything, there’s an even greater focus on the present. There are classics here too, sure, but fewer of them, and I’ve tended to cover them with my kids quickly or not at all. To be fair, children’s lit as a reputable field for “serious” writers has a relatively short history, so it’s not entirely surprising the canon isn’t quite as large—but I’ve been unable to help feeling there must have been more back there somewhere, lost in the mists of time.
Which is where the New York Review Children’s Collection comes in. I’ve written before about its lovely editions of classic and largely out-of-print kids’ classics—a few fairly well-known, but most under the radar, at least to me—but I never feel I manage to express quite how wonderful the whole enterprise is. (It’s reached the point that when I see the NYRCC has something new out, I feel, a bit absurdly, rather like I did as a child on Christmas morning.)
The latest NYRCC rediscovery is Allison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time, originally published in Britain in 1939. It’s a cozier read than its title makes it sound—this is more Sir Walter Scott than Jules Verne—but it’s nonetheless an adventure story. It’s also a ghost story of sorts, in which young Penelope, sent with her siblings for the winter from London to an old family farmhouse in the English countryside, finds herself stepping through doors into the house’s own past—an eventful one. She finds her own 16th-century ancestors involved in a plot to free Mary, Queen of Scots, from her imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth, but her own 20th-century knowledge of how badly this was to turn out for all concerned is of little help in persuading her forebears to alter their course, as events move inexorably toward their bad end.
The writing is certainly British old-timey in many ways, and probably was even in 1939, but Uttley— in her own time something of a noted children’s-book author, with more than a hundred titles to her credit—slowly and expertly draws the reader into a tale that proves to be as much about free will, loyalty, courage, and fatalism as about time travel. She also uses the constant and largely unchanging setting of the old English farm to illustrate Penelope’s realization that whatever happens in the affairs of mankind, life goes on around us all. What appears at first a simple adventure tale turns out to have quite a lot of depth.
Now, the style and pace of Uttley’s writing certainly won’t be to the taste of every modern reader, child or adult; there’s a lot that’s dated about this book (in fact, in a way, being dated is kind of the point of this book). But I think tween-age readers in search of a compelling story with a female lead character, and patient enough to allow it to unwind on its own, bit by bit, will find A Traveller in Time exceedingly rewarding.
Photo Whitney Webster
From You Know, For Kids