Whether you love them, hate them, or just want to send them to bed early (it’s no use, they’ll only be reading volume E – H of the Encyclopaedia Britannica under the covers), here are seven of literature’s utmost precocious.
The history of literature is stuffed with precocious children; frequently foiling smugglers, running away, menacing the country fair, visiting other worlds, or just generally saying and doing things their grown-up counterparts can’t. But they shouldn’t be considered mere tots from the machine, who are present simply to move the plot along; they are often much more central to proceedings. The following books, each with a precocious child at its core, show that at times they can be bolshy, irritating, mischievous, cruel, and obnoxious, but the manner in which they kick back against loss, bullying, injustice, and the general illogic of adult life is rarely short of compelling.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
9 year old New Yorker Oskar Schell has produced his own business cards, which alone automatically qualifies him for entry on this list. The cards describe him as, amongst other things, an entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, amateur astronomer, and a keen collector of butterflies (on the proviso, of course, that they have died natural deaths). Oskar’s father dies in the September the 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre, but leaves behind a mysterious key. This in turn spawns a cross-city trail of discovery that Oskar follows with characteristic wit and bravery. Following its publication Safran Foer admitted having struggled with writing from an entirely childlike perspective, which may help explain Oskar’s preternatural intelligence.
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl’s books brim with heroic children who, among other things, hunt witches, inherit confectionery empires, and partake in dubious experiments on the frontiers of pharmacology. In fact, it would be entirely possible to fill a list with Dahl’s precocious children alone. Top of the class, however, comes Matilda Wormwood, a young girl bullied and belittled by her monstrous parents and grotesque Headteacher Miss Trunchbull. Her wit and imagination mean she is more than a match for them, and she finds numerous inventive ways of getting her own back, typically involving bleach, superglue, and, well, parrots. All this before she realises she has the power of telekinesis. Matilda is a must-read for anyone - a paean to books, creativity, and the power of the imagination.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Max, the hero of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 picture book, is a typical raucously playful child. One night, following an especially rambunctious spell during which he threatens to cannibalise his mother, he is sent to sleep without any supper. This, however, doesn’t stop him from finding adventure. He proceeds to sail to an island, intimidate the beastly natives into pronouncing him king, abdicate, leave the land in disarray, and get back home in time for his supper. All in under 400 words. Upon publication, censors deemed the book too frightening for tots, and it was banned in many libraries. However, young readers proved more mature than the censors had credited, and, adoring the book, created a demand so high that the ban was overturned.
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
A newfound fascination and concern for children emerged during the Victorian period, a reality reflected in reforms to labour and education, and advances in medicine and psychology. However, this burgeoning interest in little people is perhaps most strikingly visible in the literature of the period, populated as it is with characters such as the obnoxious yet smart Estella in Great Expectations; bold and curious Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and 7 year old Adèle in Jane Eyre, a bilingual reciter of poetry and singer of (often thematically rather mature) songs. Perhaps the best representative of her era is Maggie Tulliver from Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Maggie is an imp of a child, who reads voraciously, chops all her hair off, and runs away with the gypsies. She is also almost cripplingly compassionate: “She wished she could have been like Bob, with his easily satisfied ignorance, or like Tom, who had something to do on which he could fix his mind with a steady purpose, and disregard everything else.” Ultimately a tragic figure, it’s possible to see Maggie Tulliver in part as the expression of a time when putative social concern clashed with stark reality.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Briony Tallis is 13 years old at the beginning of McEwan’s wonderful, decades-spanning novel. She is a bright and highly imaginative amateur thespian, albeit one prone to jealousy and petulance, a cocktail which has disastrous consequences for those around her. When Briony witnesses something she shouldn’t she reacts with a mixture of envy and over-imagination, the repercussions of which reverberate throughout the novel. The ‘Atonement’ of the title is, in one sense, Briony’s attempt to forge a happy ending for the situation she, in all her precocity, created.
Chocky by John Wyndham
Some children are born precocious, whilst others, it would appear, have precocity thrust upon them. This is certainly the case with Matthew, whose adoptive parents grow alarmed when he abruptly makes the leap from the usual questions an 11 year old would ask (‘Why can’t we live on grass if horses can?’) to questions of a more cosmological scale and emphasis (‘Where is earth?’). Practically overnight Matthew develops a functioning grasp of binary numbers and classical physics, as well as the sudden ability to swim. He attributes this to an alien visitor called Chocky, who he claims is communicating with his mind from a far-flung galaxy. Family members, doctors, and psychologists are left confounded, and the mystery of Chocky’s provenance forms the backbone of Wyndham’s novel.
Zazie on the Metro by Raymond Queneau
Raymond Queneau never explicitly mentions Zazie’s age in his novel, but her boisterous naivety and obsession with coca cola, blue jeans, and adventure make it clear. Young Zazie is brave, quick, and unintimidated by the cast of characters she meets while staying in Paris with her female-impersonator uncle and his highly liberal friends. However, it’s in her quite jarringly adult use of language that her precocity shines through. ‘If you’re trying to make out that I don’t know what’s what, I might inform you that you’re just a bloody old clotface’ serves as a good example, but there are others far, far, less printable. Many parents at the time must have been horrified when, following the publication of the book and its subsequent film adaptation, Zazie became a style icon of sorts – an issue of Elle Magazine in 1959 reports that ‘to speak Zazie’ was the height of fashion in France.
By the end of the novel Zazie’s dream of riding the Paris Metro has been soundly thwarted. Her mother, having come to collect Zazie, asks what she has done while in the capital, and her reply forms the closing words of the novel: ‘I’ve aged.’
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