What are some of the best short stories about childhood, and the experiences of children? Although there are dozens of classic tales about those formative years, the following stories represent, for our money, some of the finest stories about children taking the rocky path of knowledge and experience towards adulthood.
Not all of them are about this, however: some are more straightforwardly about learning things, such as the children in Asimov’s story (below) who learn about the antiquated ways children used to be taught in schools. But other stories take on bigger and more ‘adult’ themes, including war and religion, to reflect on the passage from childhood towards adolescence.
Ambrose Bierce, ‘Chickamauga’.
‘Chickamauga’ is a war story, but is unusual in focusing on a young child who is a bystander to the carnage that unfolds. Warning: this story contains some rather graphic and harrowing imagery.
The story’s title is derived from the Battle of Chickamauga, which was fought in September 1863 between U.S. and Confederate forces in the American Civil War. Bierce was a Civil War veteran. The protagonist is a deaf-mute boy of around six years old who strays from home with a wooden sword in search of adventure, but will encounter the aftermath of a bloody battle – and horrors which he can only partially comprehend.
Saki, ‘The Lumber-Room’.
‘The Lumber-Room’, by the British author Saki (real name Hector Hugh Munro), is a classic short story about a child who is too clever for the adults. Specifically, it is about how one clever but mischievous boy, Nicholas, seeks to outwit his aunt so he can gain access to the lumber-room with its hidden treasures and curiosities.
But the story might also be viewed as an analysis of the nature of obedience and the limited adult view of the world when contrasted with the child’s more expansive and imaginative outlook. Saki was usually on the side of children and animals in his stories, rather than the hypocritical Edwardian adults.
James Joyce, ‘The Sisters’.
This is a story about childhood, but it is not a story for younger children, since it touches upon some adult themes. The opening story in Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, ‘The Sisters’ is narrated by a man looking back on his childhood friendship with a Catholic priest, Father Flynn, who has recently died.
Rumours and gossip surround the priest as his funeral takes place, leading the narrator to wonder if there was something wrong with the priest. In one sense, the story marks the narrator’s journey from childhood to (tentative) adulthood.
Katherine Anne Porter, ‘He’.
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) wrote just one novel and fewer than thirty short stories, yet she is regarded as an important twentieth-century American writer, with ‘He’ among her most celebrated and critically acclaimed works. An important theme of Porter’s work is the search for meaning in a modern and increasingly materialist world.
This 1927 story is about a poor American family. The mother, Mrs Whipple, loves her second son best of all: a boy who is identified only as ‘He’ and who appears to be mentally and physically weak. The story invites us to question whether Mrs Whipple has the best interests of her son at heart, or whether she is more concerned with being seen to be a good parent to her child.
J. D. Salinger, ‘Down at the Dinghy’.
This is a short story by J. D. Salinger, originally published in 1949. As in some of Salinger’s other stories, notably ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, ‘Down at the Dinghy’ involves an adult speaking to a child. However, in this case the theme of the story – which remains largely in the background until the end of the story – is anti-Semitism.
The story is about a young boy who runs from home and goes down to the nearby lake, where he gets into a dinghy and refuses to speak to his mother. ‘Down at the Dinghy’ also involves the conversation between two of the family’s servants, one of whom has made derogatory remarks about the father of the family (as well as his son). The story ends with the mother being reconciled with her son and bonding with him over his dinghy.
Isaac Asimov, ‘The Fun They Had’.
This is a short story by the Russian-born American writer Isaac Asimov (1920-92). Like Asimov’s novel The Naked Sun, this story is one that has taken on new significance in the wake of 2020 and the shift to remote learning and working, and the themes of this 1951 story are as relevant to our own time as they were over seventy years ago when Asimov wrote it.
In the story, which is set in the year 2157, two children find an old paper book and reflect on how quaint it is, when compared with television screens on which they read in their own time. Stories about school, especially very short stories that are just a few pages long, lend themselves to study at school, and Asimov’s tale is light enough and brief enough to fit the bill, while also carrying some intriguing commentary on education and technology, among other things.
Ray Bradbury, ‘All Summer in a Day’.
This is a 1954 short story by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), who (like Asimov) is often classed as a ‘science-fiction author’ although he preferred to describe himself as a fantasy writer. The story is set on Venus, where the sun only comes out once every seven years for a couple of hours; the rest of the time, the sun is hidden behind clouds and rains fall constantly.
‘All Summer in a Day’ is about a group of schoolchildren who have grown up on Venus, the sons and daughters of ‘rocket men and women’ who came to the planet from Earth, as the children prepare to experience the first ‘summer’ on Venus that they can remember.
Amy Tan, ‘Two Kinds’.
Let us conclude this pick of the best short stories about childhood with a short story by the American author Amy Tan (born 1952), published as part of her book The Joy Luck Club in 1989. The story is about a young American girl born to Chinese parents; her mother pushes her to become a child prodigy, but the daughter resists.
A powerful tale about pushy parents and their children, ‘Two Kinds’ invites us to explore what motivates a ‘pushy parent’ to encourage (or coerce?) their child into working hard to achieve something. Does the mother in the story have her daughter’s best interests at heart when she tries to make her learn the piano? Where does a parent’s well-meaning desire to see their child succeed spill over into interfering with the child’s desire not to do a particular thing?