I didn't grow up with a great love of reading like many of my contemporary readers and writers. I read for fun as a child, but not voraciously. The books I read were not the classic adventures you may have read. Mostly, I read Garfield and Choose Your Own Adventure. I did read one or two Judy Blumes, but that was as close as I got to “good literature” until I was much older.
Once I had children, my curiosity about children's literature grew. Had I missed much? I began to explore some of the titles I'd heard others rave about, some old and some new. Frankly, I wasn't impressed. Though the stories were good, every one was guilty of being a story and little more. The authors of children's tales clearly knew nothing about creating round characters who develop or using language to further the plot; perhaps they knew and just refused to utilize them. Perhaps they were out there and I just couldn't find them. Either way, book after book, I was disappointed with the action-begets-conflict-leading-to-more-action plot. Was I missing something, some basic trait in myself that made deficient my understanding of a good story?
When I first saw the trailer for Studio Ghibli's newest film, When Marnie Was There, I knew I'd found our newest family read. Prior to this, I'd never heard of the title or its author, Joan G. Robinson. The trailer looked fantastic, however, and I thought it would be fun to read the book to the kiddos before we watched the movie. Yet I worried this children's story would be just like the rest.
When Marnie Was There is such a fantastic read. For some children, it may be much too slow. It's true, not much happens, but it is an enchanting tale. This is the story of a girl, Anna, who is a bit of an outcast and who finds a friend in an unexpected place. There are some strange happenings and some drama, but largely, it's about Anna and her struggles. But man, oh man, is this novel wonderfully paced and charactered. Robinson fantastically doled out the mystery surrounding Anna's friend, Marnie, at just the right speed to keep things interesting without giving much away. At the end of every chapter or two, we as a family would theorize what was going on. No other book we'd read together had prompted so many questions.
Once the truth of the story draws near, it hits hard. I was quite choked up. I had to step away from my reading of the text for a few minutes to compose myself. That is a power I never would've expected from a children's novel.
I don't know how I would've felt about this novel as a child. Maybe it would've bored me. Maybe it would've resonated with me then as it does now. My own children seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. What I do know, or am beginning to realize, is that it is all so incredibly subjective: tastes, feelings, responses. In When Marnie Was There, Anna is on the outside, looking in, wondering how to fit in, all the while oblivious to the connections that surround her. Likewise, it may be that I was looking for identity in the wrong place. It's okay that others love the books they love—perhaps what others need is a story, a purpose, a sense of action—while what I need is a sense of identity and connection. Stories resonate with each of us differently. That said, I personally loved When Marnie Was There. I love it so much that someday, I may read it again... perhaps to my grandchildren.