“So-called children’s books”

“[S]o-called children’s books I don’t like and don’t believe in,” Chekhov wrote to a friend in 1900. “Children ought only to be given what is suitable also for grown-up people.” He had in mind the tales of Tolstoy and books of history and travel such as The Frigate Pallada, by Ivan Goncharov, about a Russian Imperial circumnavigation in 1852 to 1854.

I think he would have changed his mind if he had lived to see the excellence, variety, and charm of books written for children in the last half-century, and now of course books for pre-K to 12 readers are a long-established genre. From 2004 to 2015 alone sales doubled, and last year in the United States they came to more than $4 billion, about a sixth of the book trade.

Catherine Reef writes books Chekhov would like, in any case. She has published 40 so far, including biographies of Florence Nightingale, Whitman, Freud, and Hemingway. They are often sold for ages 12 and up, but other than the relatively easy texture of the prose, they could be for any interested reader. Reef writes with detail and nuance, and she is honest about material that others might be tempted to avoid (Hemingway’s suicide) or inflate.

This can be seen in her most recent book, Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator, which comes out in September. Presented calmly, Reef’s sharp details serve to illuminate Mary Shelley’s life, times, and the tendencies we call Romantic.

Take the strange, true detail that in 1836, Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died after childbirth with Mary, was exhumed to be buried elsewhere. Mary Shelley—who at a young age had lost her husband, three children, and several other relatives—“stood with the other mourners in the St. Pancras churchyard and looked into Wollstonecraft’s opened grave. […] This was the closest she had been to her mother since her first days of life.”

It does not get much more uncanny than that, but note the calm of the prose.

Reef is particularly good with these sorts of images. On young Mary walking the bank of the filthy, carrion-filled river near her mother’s grave: “The Fleet poured its dark offerings into the Thames, whose water was said to make the best malt liquor.”

As Reef says, “[Mary] Shelley used the word ‘romance’ to describe a tale relating the adventures of a hero who displays courage and chivalry as he does his duty.” Reef’s writing shows Shelley to be this sort of hero, not because she was darkly fated to be the conduit for a monster tale, or because she was acted upon by forces of the sublime, but because she endured her often unpleasant life, supported those she loved (and some she did not), and still found a way to be an artist.

That is, this sort of nonfiction book does not mime Romantic distortions or sensationalize. It is a traditional biography that organizes and clarifies the welter of life, shows how Shelley lived, and points, as well as any of us can, to things that might have influenced the writing of Frankenstein and other works. “The storyteller draws on memory, on chance occurrences, on things read and overheard,” Reef says sensibly.

Mary Shelley was only 19 when she began writing Frankenstein. It is hard to account for genius, since it seems to appear early and unbidden. Shelley herself said, “I did not make myself the heroine of my tales. I could not figure to myself that romantic woes or wonderful events would ever be my lot.” Thankfully there are writers like Reef who take that task on themselves, deal in mature emotions, and recognize the value of historical hindsight.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.