What is the deal with our culture’s preoccupation – literary and otherwise – with kid geniuses? Is it that we all secretly wish we were still children – but with our adult intellect intact? Is it that we think a child with remarkable abilities but with age-appropriate innocence is our last best hope? Will the strange pleasure we get from the wise child (Kids Say the Darndest Things, anyone?) trope never run dry? Garth Risk Hallberg’s lovely piece over at the Millions, Adam Levin’s The Instructions and the Cult of the Child, has gotten us thinking a little more about precocious children, specifically in that mirror of society, English Literature. Click through for our thoughts and our list of some of our favorite literary child geniuses.
In his article, which, as the title indicates, is mostly about Adam Levin’s amazing behemoth of a novel The Instructions, Hallberg proffers a theory on what the figure may mean to our cultural consciousness.
“The kid genius is, then—almost uniquely in our culture—a nakedly utopian figure (though a conservative one, in that his promised land lays in the past). He is wise. He is powerful. He is moral. The grinding compromises of bourgeois life and the adult obtusenesses that stands in for it do not concern him; growing up is selling out. He will, like Oskar Matzerath of The Tin Drum (for whom Foer’s Oskar is presumably named) stay small, and, in so doing, stay pure.”
Though the element of childhood genius as ultimate purity is certainly a strong one – after all, genius itself, regardless of its carrier, is often characterized by a lack of ties to the carnal world, and rapidity of brain function and basic body growth aside, what else is it that makes us adults? Like the dust that flows from the sky in Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass series (helmed by another precocious child, the talented Lyra Belacqua), puberty means the loss of purity. To us, however, the more compelling characteristic of the child genius is the fact that he is alone in what is many ways a foreign world. After all, alienation, in our digital world, is one of the most defining themes of our generation, something that occupies everyone. Another universally affecting theme represented by the child genius is that of shouting into the darkness – though Levin’s Gurion garners himself a serious following, there is still the feeling that in the greater world he feels like he is the only sane being, preaching into a void of normalcy that will never listen. As Valentine Wiggin said to her brother shortly before the two of them took over the political infrastructure of Earth, “Peter, you’re twelve years old. I’m ten. They have a word for people our age. They call us children and they treat us like mice.” So yes, the genius child is in a way a utopian one – in the sense that she represents the hope of ascension from our solitary, ignored modern existence. Not to mention, there’s just something awesome about any creature that is supposed to be weak being super badass instead.
But enough of that. On to the fun stuff.
10. Charles Wallace Murry, A Wrinkle in Time
Charles Wallace didn’t speak until the age of four – but then he started busting out complete, adult sentences. Oh yeah, and he can read minds. That’s all.
9. Matilda, Matilda
Matilda was so smart that her considerable brainpower flowed over into psychokinesis, allowing her to cause all kind of havoc. She wasn’t so smart that a few big kid books didn’t solve the problem, but still, we call prodigy!
8. Lyra Belacqua, The Golden Compass
Lyra Silvertongue, as she is known by the armored bears, is 12 at the beginning of Pullman’s classic trilogy. At that age, she learns to read the alethiometer - a mysterious device that the greatest scholars can only decipher with massive manuals, then fools the un-foolable king of the bears and figures out her mother’s evil plot. You could, we suppose, argue that she is a savant – that her genius is limited to the aletheiometer – but we would suggest that a girl who can rally all the forces of good in a cosmic war around her simply by her nature is a genius of a special kind.
7. Oskar Schell, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
All you need to know is that this is what 9-year-old Oskar hands out to new people by means of introduction:
6. Ruprecht Van Doren, Skippy Dies
Ruprecht, the eponymous Skippy’s donut-loving roommate, dabbles in string theory, is obsessed with figuring out what happened before the Big Bang, and excels at the tuba, like any good child genius should. He also builds an almost-functioning portal into another dimension. Sure, it doesn’t work, but what normal kid even thinks of that?
5. T.S. Spivet, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
T.S. Spivet (as in Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, a name that only a genius could have) is a 12-year-old amateur cartographer and scientific researcher, whose mind splays out across the pages of this book as he interprets his whole world through the process of mapping. He is also into etymology, anatomy, and mournfully overanalyzing his parents’ behavior.
4. Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game
Ender Wiggin was born into a talented family. His brother Peter would have saved the world instead of him, but he was too aggressive. His sister Valentine could have done it, but she was too mild. They all had the brains, but only Ender had the personality. It seems that getting beaten up and intimidated by your sibling makes you ready to lead in Battle School. So, the prepubescent Ender saves the world from Alien invasion, working out a strategy no one else has been able to conceive of. And then Peter becomes President of the World. Those are some good genes, there.
3. Gurion Maccabee, The Instructions
Adam Levin’s Gurion is a strangely adept martial artist, a devout and studied Israelite and author of what he at least deems scripture, and somehow possessed of the ability to bamboozle teachers and coerce hundreds of young men to do his will. Oh yes, and also he may or may not be the Messiah.
2. Hal Incandenza, Infinite Jest
Oh, Hal. The youngest of the Incandenza clan, and arguably the protagonist of Wallace’s doorstop, a tennis prodigy who memorizes the Oxford English Dictionary and whose preferred schoolyard game is based on geopolitical nuclear strategy and advanced math.
1. Seymour Glass, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” et al.
Seymour, like the rest of Salinger’s absurdly advanced Glass family, was a little beyond. An experimental poet and sometime philosopher, he got his PhD in his teens and soon after got a job as an English professor at Columbia University. He was also tragic, which sometimes happens with geniuses, and mostly unable to interact with other people. The price of singularity.
Any genius kids we missed? Let us know in the comments!