A conversation on facebook yesterday resulted in a chap stomping about, announcing that he was a grown up and only going to read proper, grownup books and that anyone reading children’s books, must be childish. I’ve learned to take these moments away and reflect upon them rather than replying in haste. Some people are best ignored, responses just fuel the emotionally immature behaviour. There is, I think, a world of difference between immaturity and childishness. Many children have old heads on young shoulders and wisdom that has nothing to do with years. Many adults are stroppy, self important and prone to throwing the teddy out of the pram, in slightly less literal ways.
There is so much that is childish which we reject to our cost.
For the child, life is new and full of surprises. They learn to be jaded and cynical, to suppress joy, to hide fear and excitement and present the bland, ‘grownup’ face that is so often mistaken for a sign of emotional maturity. Even though it is the coming of adult hormones that takes our emotional capacities to whole new levels. There is nothing immature about the feeling, or expressing of emotion. The child looks at the world in wonder, and spends a lot of time asking ’why?’. They are reluctant to accept that anything is impossible. They have not yet succumbed to the mantra of work and more work to consume more and enjoy less. Most children are still inclined to feel compassion for things other than themselves – cute fluffy animals especially. They haven’t yet acquired compassion-fatigue or the sense of futility that comes with being a proper ‘grownup’.
And yes, they still read stories full of hope and wonder. Real, serious books for grownups frequently lack this. Yesterday’s complainant talked about the superiority of Hardy. You don’t get many laughs in a Thomas Hardy novel. You don’t get much hope for humanity either, or any kind of vision of a better world.
Children are frequently willing to believe that things could be better than they are. They do not reject hope. They like stories in which good things happen.
Where I’m dabbling in writing for children, I’ve needed to spend a lot of time thinking about what children read, reading it myself, talking to children about what they like, and listening to them generally. Children do not see the world as adults do, but I feel that so often in trying to make ‘them’ more like ‘us’ we diminish them. ‘Growing up’ so often means the stripping away of hope, aspiration, and the ability to enjoy small things. Leaving us with, at least in some cases, the kind of miserable, jaded adults who are angry about any signs of joy and enthusiasm in other adults. Ye gods, what a closed and unhappy way to live!
I want to be more childlike. I want to remember how to enjoy a story that ends happily because everyone got an ice-cream. I want to bury experience and re-embrace the world of the Owl and the Pussycat, Alice in Wonderland and Pooh Bear. I don’t want to write, or read, more stories that reflect ‘gritty reality’ and show us that we can only be smaller than we thought we were and that no one gets out of here alive. I want stories that inspire. Stories I can put in front of adult and child readers alike, safe in the knowledge that I am not going to steal anything precious from them in the process.
There was a survey a few years back on books that had changed people’s lives. It was topped not by some high brow literary revelation of the human condition, but by The Lord of The Rings. Serious, grownup people (mostly on Radio 4) claimed to be surprised and horrified. How could we all be so shallow, so childish as to let our lives be changed by such a silly bit of fantasy, they wanted to know? Why weren’t we being changed by something more important and substantial?
I suspect the answer is simple. Books that set out to be a high brow revelation of the human condition, are frequently a crappy read. I could list all the high brow and terribly important authors I’ve read (I did an English Lit degree) and who are mostly obscure and frankly, deserve it. It’s noticeable that the big guns, Shakespeare, and Dickens, were crowd pleasers in their time. High brow literary endeavour has never sold books in any great number, and probably never will. People who write books in the shape of mathematical structures. People who deconstruct, who are ironic, and post modern and terribly clever, write tedious, story free stories about characters you just want to see eaten by a dragon. Good stories are the vehicles of good ideas. As Ursula Le Guinn says, good art is entertaining.
Humans are story telling creatures. Good stories are alive, and uplifting, and inspire us in some way. I’m fine with beautiful tragedy too, but not with jaded hopelessness. If you’re the sort of self important adult who wants all the grownups to only read important, serious, grownup books, you probably need to do some work making peace with that inner child, all things considered.