That isn’t the interesting part, though. It’s not very unusual for female writers of Lively's generation to begin by writing children’s novels and move on to books for adults. (Examining the reasons for this would demand another post.) No, the interesting thing is that when Lively switched from children’s to adult books, she also switched from fantasy to realist writing. The two moves are connected. As a realist writer, her continual theme has been memory: personal memory, communal memory as enshrined in history and popular belief; and the more objective forms of memory etched on the land in the form of geology, fossils and archaeology.
While geology, archaeology and fossils also make their appearances in Lively’s children’s books, the theme of personal memory looms far smaller, and for an obvious reason. Whatever resources children may have at their disposal, one thing they lack is the ability to look far into the past using the tricky fairground mirror of their own memory. This is not to say, as is occasionally claimed, that children are wholly orientated towards the future. Anyone who has heard a five-year-old sigh wistfully about “The good old days” will recognize that as nonsense. However, even though children can be as intensely nostalgic and curious about the past as anyone else, they necessarily have less material to work with, having spent fewer days on the planet. When Lively wrote children’s books, she got around this problem (though I doubt she was thinking of it in quite this way) by introducing fantasy devices – timeslips, ghosts, talismanic artefacts – that would give her child characters access to a more distant past than memory alone could afford them. Once she moved to adult books, the necessity for this receded – hence the change of genre. At any rate, that’s my theory.
Why I am mentioning all this? Largely because by the time you read this post I will be on my way to Boston, whence (after a few days) I will be visiting Martha’s Vineyard. When I was younger I was lucky enough to spend three magical summers in a row on the Vineyard, the last being in 1993 – twenty years ago. If I were writing my life as a novel (and who isn’t, dear reader?), I’d be trying to conjure up the difference between Now-me and Then-me, as well of course as charting the distance between the Now and Then versions of the Vineyard, and describing the refractions and occlusions of memory rolling in like a fog from Nantucket Sound. But these are very adult-novel subjects, for the reasons I’ve suggested.
So, my question to you, as I eat my in-flight ready meal and settle down to watch Toy Story II, is this. Which children’s books best handle the subject of personal memory, and the differences between past and present? And (given that children, by definition, haven’t been around very long) how do they go about it?