When I was a wee lad, my parents had tons of random old books (gleaned from garage and library sales) sitting around the house. Among them was a book that must have been a reading textbook: it was filled with short stories and excerpts from longer works, and had discussion questions at the end of each selection. It had really good selections, though; much better than the stuff I remember reading in my actual schoolbooks.
To my irritation, that book got lost somewhere along the way, so I have no idea who wrote those stories I liked so much, which is a true pity (I'd really like to be able to find the author of the "Home on the Range" story that would reduce me to helpless tears of laughter).
I have had one serendipitous moment of discovery, though: A while back, someone was talking about George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin , and they referenced a scene that I recognized as a selection I'd read in that textbook. So now, a long-lost story that I remembered fondly was rediscovered, and it turned out that there was a lot more to the story than the excerpt I'd read. I was at once excited and a bit wary, because... well, what if the book didn't live up to my memories?
Those of you who have been reading along will have noted that I don't really like kids' books very often (the ones that I've liked here have been ones that aren't really kids' books at all -- the fourth Harry Potter and Pullman's trilogy), and MacDonald was writing a kids' book. But it turns out there's a group of kids' books I actually can enjoy, and that's really old ones; MacDonald, writing in the 19th century, definitely qualifies in this group.
I can't tell you why I like older books, exactly. The obvious culprit is the language, which is more elegant and formal than modern kids' books (or, indeed, most modern books altogether). Writers like MacDonald, Tolkien, and Dunsany (who wasn't writing kids' books, but has much of the same stylistic traits) have a different rhythm and cadence to their writing than writers like Rowling and Cooper. Older books also seem more prone to the "Dear Reader" sort of omniscient narrative that forcibly injects the voice and personality of the writer into the narrative, a style that I prefer to the unadorned naturalism of modern tight-third narration.
So, I can report with some relief that I did enjoy this book after all. The writing was enjoyable, the plot was eventful and developed enough that it didn't feel abridged, and the general atmosphere of the book was properly musty and aged.
My main complaint has to do with the afterword, which I read before I'd finished the book. The afterword explained that there was a significant Christian allegorical element to the book, which pissed me right off, because I'd never have noticed it if not for that afterword (I missed the allegory in Narnia, to give you an idea how oblivious I can be to this stuff), but once I noticed it, it was painfully obvious. Still, I was able largely to ignore it by deliberately not reading for allegorical meaning, by treating things in the book as if they were only what they appeared on the surface and not at all possessed of metaphorical significance.