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The Blyton’d, Potter’d childhood

When I last worked with young children, I put to them, for discussion, that I didn’t really enjoy reading children’s books that said that it was up to children to save the rainforest or about small furry animals that had lost their mothers. Neither was I particularly excited by invisible possums who visited casinos or stories about how important it was for children to share or to have good manners. With the exception of some Dr Seuss, I was also pathologically averse to stories written in rhyme. None of this was an expression of a latent fascism on my part, but part of a process of engaging with children in a genuine discussion about books: what goes in them and how it gets there, which is a discussion of some interest when you’re four years old or if you’re interested in literature as politics. The politics of who children are and what they want, as opposed to what we say they want, is something that is rarely discussed publicly, perhaps because children’s thinking has become an unthinkable subject. Of which more some other time.

Anyway, at the urgent request of several children who brought books in from home, I did read Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series over a period of several weeks, lying on a couch with four- and five-year-olds crowded along its back and arms like starlings. The events of The Faraway Tree were the cause of much discussion. One of my colleagues began to extemporise his own stories about the characters of The Faraway Tree, to the amazement of the children, stories that they couldn’t get enough of, stories that went on for two years and were debated at great length, in which Silky the Fairy got pregnant and wouldn’t tell anyone who the father was and so on (though a baby with a spherical head would have been a dead giveaway).

It was reported a while back that Enid Blyton’s books, starting with the Famous Five, are to get something of a makeover, updating certain turns of phrase and terms of reference and so on. ‘Mother and Father’ for example will become ‘Mum and Dad.’ ‘Tinkers’, a somewhat patronised group in Blyton, will become ‘Travelers’. I look forward to the rewriting of the scene in one of the Famous Five books where a swarthy spy is hauled off for apparent execution to the glee of the children. Perhaps he’ll be rebranded a terrorist and packed off to Guantanamo.

Blyton has always been fair game for this kind of rewriting. The Faraway Tree‘s Jo, Bessie, Fanny and Dick were some time ago quietly renamed Joe, Beth, Frannie and Rick. The problem is, in a sense, that Blyton’s books have remained incredibly popular in the way that Biggles books, books of a similar vintage, have not. The racism in Biggles is something to behold. I remember one tale in which Biggles and chums machine-gun a charging army of Zulus. And Biggles in Australia has become notorious for its astounding racism and colonialist condescension.

Blyton’s popularity in recent years has been eroded by JK Rowling’s highly derivative Harry Potter books, I suspect, because they stake out the same kind of territory. Rowling’s literary lineage has roots that can be nakedly seen in George Orwell’s essay ‘Boys Weeklies’ and Orwell’s insights into the Billy Bunter stories have great resonance for the Potter books, and for Blyton, too. For example, in both Blyton and Rowling continental Europeans are either Gaelic types who ‘jabber’ when they talk or are stiffly Teutonic. Likewise, there is much repetition of stock scenes including private school inter-house rivalry, must-win sports finals, school villains, endless meals with lashings of decent heavy duty Anglo-Saxon food and so on.

But the singular truth about children’s literature is that it is literature that adults have created, vetted and paid for. As Jacqueline Rose once wittily remarked, children are very much portions of adult desire. Part of the stratospheric popularity of the Potter books lies in their uptake by adults, not just as their preferred books to read to children, but also as books to read for themselves (that is, without the presence of children as an excuse). Blyton’s work used to occupy some of this ground: books you introduce to your children as a sort of passing on of the idea of an idyllic childhood you wish you’d had but didn’t, and now want to convince yourself that your children will have/already have.

Both the Potter and Blyton books are about the childhood we can’t get over, the childhood that still marks us. A childhood that we want to relive in idealised and anaesthetised ways, but, unfortunately, can’t help reliving in ways that are more troublesome and unavoidable. And the same could be said for many of those who ostensibly write for children, who in doing so always reveal what they think of children, and what they think of where they themselves have come from, and where they wish they had come from.

What the ubiquitous Blyton and Rowling childhoods have in common is their English origins, a version of childhood that has become our universal fantasy. Blyton’s template may not be enough now to cope with the nightmares that have begun to haunt British childhood in the past few decades, so Rowling has come to the party. Instead of Blyton’s smugglers, burglars, swarthy spies and obnoxious and unhappy rich kids, we have a whole raft of sociopathic wizards, freaks and evil-doers, hysterical griefs, anodyne representations of adolescent sexuality, creepy depictions of adult sadism and obnoxious and unhappy rich kids.

And it’s still, strangely enough, a white world. Rowling’s clunky placement of non-Anglo characters is embarrassingly tokenistic. Compared to Ursula Le Guin’s much earlier Earthsea books, a series that also concerned itself with boy wizards (and with disruptive and marginalised women to boot), where nearly everyone is non-Caucasian, Rowling’s books look even more Blyton-ish. Or as Le Guin put it a few years ago, ‘stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited.’

But we love these descriptions of childhood. Our own are presumably too weird, too unimaginable, too shameful or just too plain boring to really examine with any kind of clarity. Our childhoods seem to exist on a separate planet and we no longer have the language to describe where it was we lived.

Stephen Wright lives in Nimbin on a land-sharing community. He has won some things (2009 Eureka Street Prize, 2013 Nature Conservancy Prize), been shortlisted for others (2012 Creative NonFiction Prize, 2014 Calibre Prize) and was once runner-up for a poetry prize he’s forgotten the name of.

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  1. Childhood as a time of joyful innocence / childhood as a time of hardship and pain: merely two of the many possible representations of the social construction of childhood; whereas children before the C19, apparently, were seen as little people (as with the construction of the teenager in the mid C20). Not too many so-called children’s book (as you rightly say) written by adults focus on the hardship and pain aspect of childhood (or the other possible variants), unless disguised as goblins and witches etc. Which demonstrates how, as with most adult literature, sublimation trumps cognition. For mine, the best literature has a balance of both, yet the cognitive aspect too often goes missing (perhaps because cognition can’t be measured, quantified in terms of reading demographics and sales figures etc) which makes thinking about literature in general unthinkable, and not only in relation to children. Of course there are universities and schools, but they are fast becoming corporate bodies, like most aspects of public life. Which makes me wonder where you are going with this post, which is different from previous posts of yours which I have read, in that it seems totally unobjectionable? The way your posts usually play out makes me think you’d make a great writer of political soaps a la Dickens, and you’d make a fortune too. That’s not meant as a put down, and I know you’d get no joy from such a happiness, but other people might, and not only at a subliminal level of awareness.

  2. Thanks for this – it is a really interesting subject. When I was doing my PhD through the Open Uni in the UK there was a wonderful lady whose name I have sadly forgotten who was writing a brilliant thesis about the Elinor M Brent-Dyer chalet school books. She dissected them carefully and precisely and I realised that I had really enjoyed them because they were like another universe compared to my life. They were almost like science fiction. Total escape.

    At the other end of the scale, and intended for older children, were the Adrian Mole books which are very much of their time (the early 80s) so will my children get the jokes? Time will tell. Sue Townsend originally wrote them with an adult audience in mind. Maybe that is the difference.

    How would you position Roald Dahl’s works on the children’s literature shelf?

    • Roald Dahl is a very odd writer. Stylistically he has a lot in common with Frank Richards (Billie Bunter), with his repeated use of ‘terrific’ and so on and many exclaimation marks. But he does manage to address, intuitively rather than consciously, a lot of childhood anxieties; that your parents would rather you weren’t around (Matilda), that there is something out there in the world that is malign to children (the Enormous Crocodile), and so on. He used to be pushed a lot by teachers and librarians desperate to instill in children A Love of Books and Reading, who latched onto Dahl following the stereotype that children love books about guts and gore. So I think Dahl was successful for many reasons, perhaps none of which he understood. If he had, The BFG wouldn’t have had the Queen in it. And he was successful for reasons which teachers and other institutional adults didn’t get either; that children’s thinking is an unspeakable subject

  3. Childhood as a time of joyful innocence / childhood as a time of hardship and pain: merely two of the many possible representations of the social construction of childhood; whereas children before the C19, apparently, were seen as little people (as with the construction of the teenager in the mid C20). Not too many so-called children’s book (as you rightly say) written by adults focus on the hardship and pain aspect of childhood (or the other possible variants), unless disguised as goblins and witches etc. Which demonstrates how, as with most adult literature, sublimation trumps cognition. For mine, the best literature has a balance of both, yet the cognitive aspect too often goes missing (perhaps because cognition can’t be measured, quantified in terms of reading demographics and sales figures etc) which makes thinking about literature in general unthinkable, and not only in relation to children. Of course there are universities and schools, but they are fast becoming corporate bodies, like most aspects of public life. Which makes me wonder where you are going with this post, which is different from previous posts of yours which I have read, in that it seems totally unobjectionable? If a language to talk about something doesn’t exist, then it needs to be invented: that’s what poetry and literature (even something like Twitter) is for. The way your posts usually play out makes me think you’d make a great writer of political soaps a la Dickens, and you’d make a fortune too. That’s not meant as a put down, and I know you’d get no joy from such a happiness, but other people might, and not only at a subliminal level of awareness.Childhood as a time of joyful innocence / childhood as a time of hardship and pain: merely two of the many possible representations of the social construction of childhood; whereas children before the C19, apparently, were seen as little people (as with the construction of the teenager in the mid C20). Not too many so-called children’s book (as you rightly say) written by adults focus on the hardship and pain aspect of childhood (or the other possible variants), unless disguised as goblins and witches etc. Which demonstrates how, as with most adult literature, sublimation trumps cognition. For mine, the best literature has a balance of both, yet the cognitive aspect too often goes missing (perhaps because cognition can’t be measured, quantified in terms of reading demographics and sales figures etc) which makes thinking about literature in general unthinkable, and not only in relation to children. Of course there are universities and schools, but they are fast becoming corporate bodies, like most aspects of public life. Which makes me wonder where you are going with this post, which is different from previous posts of yours which I have read, in that it seems totally unobjectionable? If a language to talk about something doesn’t exist, then it needs to be invented: that’s what poetry and literature (even something like Twitter) is for. The way your posts usually play out makes me think you’d make a great writer of political soaps a la Dickens, and you’d make a fortune too. That’s not meant as a put down, and I know you’d get no joy from such a happiness, but other people might, and not only at a subliminal level of awareness.

  4. HI Dennis
    Unobjectionable hey? Well, the OL blog has been a bit quiet lately and I figured that with WW3 possibly imminent in the Middle East people might need lightening up. And I also tend to shift around a bit in the focus of my bogs cos I’m not quite sure where I fit as far as the OL audience goes.
    Actually I think I might be saying something objectionable, which is that generally we spend a lot of our adult lives covering up and lying about our childhoods and politically nullifying them. Rowling is part of that project I think. Even though she purports to be writing about the traumas of childhood she’s more in the Blyton tradition, and I strongly suspect that more of her readrs are adults than are children. Recently I gave a seminar in Melbourne for Melbourne Free U, on schools and childhood as locations of national and adult anxiety, and Australia as historically the country where large numbers of children were kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured etc. The discussion afterward was very lively but I was struck by the disclosures that began to come out towards the end; people’s sense of emptiness when they reflected on their school childhoods and their feelings of betrayal that they had been sold a lie about what life was for and how childhoods should be spent, and the realisation that they has spent the entirety of their childhooods at SCHOOL. Anoher hour of discussion and would really have gotten somewhere I think.
    I’d never thought of myself as a nascent Dickens, Dennis. Though potboilers is probably all I’m good for its true
    discussion and we would have eally gotten somewhere.

  5. I love it when The Land of Stephen Wright’s Mind comes around! Hurrah! I say and bring me some toffee shocks at once. Wisha wisha wisha … I’m a Blyton’d child … not just Joe (garden), Bessie and Fanny (helping mother unpacking cousin Dick’s clothes) where my radicalisation began *Mum, that’s not fair!* but also those subversives Binkle & Flip (what a marvellous, loving partnership!), that nature-creature Pip and who could forget Hop, Skip and Jump, Brownies exiled in search of their ‘goodness’? George from the Famous Five was my hero & I kind of despised how mean the kids were in the Secret Seven — Julian a far superior leader than that odious Peter (was that his name?). And I am still, sadly, searching for my Jolly the sailor doll to save me (Tiptoe the fairy) from being burned with the Christmas tree, so we can build ourselves a life together in Toyland.

    Dame Slapalot comes to mind: a clear picture of the impossibility of school for many a child … as does that Angry Pixie (Enid, the writer, herself, perhaps?)

    Clearly, my childhood books had no influence on me whatsoever and were quickly forgotten…

  6. Hi Clare
    And that’s my point. That the innocuous events of childjhood live on now (the past not even being past as Faulkner said) and have political import, ie: help construct who we are now, and shouldn’t be dismissed. Blyton in childhood makes us as much as Stendahl (see previous post) in adulthood.
    I don’t knw enough about the history of children’s lit, but I suspect Blyton was the first mass writer for children, and hence shaping images of childhood. As a writer she seems to me to have more in common with Neli Gaiman – ie: a chucker out of ideas, but you wouldn’t trust to write a sentence if your life depended on it.
    The Faraway Tree’s rotating lands is a great metaphor for the Overland blog isn’t it?
    Jo, Bess, Fanny and Dick being the site visitors, the bloggers being the Lands at the top of the tree – and you, Jeff, Jack, Rjurik and Jane as the inhabitants of the tree. That woud make Jeff, Moonface, You can argue among yourselves who is Dame Washalot, Saucepan Man, Silky the Fairy and the Angry Pixie. I have my own theories.

    • Yes, what a trip. How important, then, that children spend time in gardens, nature, et al … hey! the Children from Cherry Tree Farm (& Willow Farm) with the animal-whisperer, Tammylan comes to mind: argh! I am a living breathing example of your ‘point’.

      As to the Overland/Faraway tree … baha!

      • Hmm, I never got as far as Cherry Tree Farm. But your pointing to it makes me see that Blyton’s children spend all of their time outside, far from the gaze of adults.
        These days, outside being considered a place of anxiety, danger, weirdness and general mayhem, I guess is one reason why Rowlings spend most of their time inside locked up with psycho wizards, and running around labyrinthine buildings.

        • Yes, the children in the stories are very free (even Milly Molly Mandy is allowed to go off blackberrying and down to the shops to buy something, unaccompanied).

          Enid’s outside was also a place of anxiety, danger, weirdness and general mayhem — and Famous Five/Secret Seven had their fair share of power-crazed adults. But generally, yes: a boiled egg in your pocket and a bottle of milk and off you went.

  7. Ha! Obviously part of my mind lives in a Blyton universe. The Guardian tells me this morning that it is the Famous Five’s 70th anniversary – which I swear I didn’t know. And that Hodder still sell half a million Blyton books a year!

  8. There’s a line from Trotsky’s My Life about how for children of the ruling class childhood was a time of bliss – a sort of endless summer – while for the vast majority it was a tunnel of hunger and misery. He, inevitably, described his own childhood as belonging to neither category, which is revealing in a way. I remember thinking that there was a dimension missing from his categorisation which especially applies to a place like contemporary Australia where, although there are many miseries attendant on a working class childhood, hunger is less common. My own memory of childhood is of the unremitting boredom of suburbia – far harder to escape from as a child than it would prove to be as an adolescent or a young adult.
    All the books that appealed to me as a child had a common theme. They all had protagonists who were transported from a miserable and limiting existence to a magical world of adventure and excitement.You walk through a closet, a wizard comes visiting, or an owl brings a message. Even Ursula Le Guin follows this formula in her Earthsea books. My own favourite as a kid was not “magical” in that literal way. I began reading for myself as a 7 year old with Henry Treece’s viking books. These involved a young viking whose family is kiled in a raid and who is forced to go a viking.
    What seems to vary is the nature of the world into which the protagonist escapes. Treece’s protagonist roamed 9th century Europe getting into adventures and managing to find treasure without raping or pillaging.
    The suburban prison in which I read these books had a view. I grew up on what was then, in the ’50s and ’70s, the south-western edge of Canberra and we had, always in view the giant Brindabella ranges, covered in forest and snow capped in the winter. As a primary school kid I had fantasies of simply walking into those mountains and discovering something exciting there. Later, as a teenager, my imagination stimulated by Kerr’s sacking of Whitlam, I would fantasize about leading a guerrilla in those ranges resistance after a military coup.
    All of which brings us back to the inevitable separation that has to be made between the fact of escape and what is being escaped into. Tolkein’s protagonist escapes into a world of feudal hierarchy and Manichean struggles with a disturbing racial element, Le Guin’s protagonist escapes into a world far more complex and challenging.
    But there’s nothing wrong with wanting to escape, and there’s nothing wrong with “escapist” literature as such. What sort of literature would be produced in a world from which escape was not desirable is another question. Unfortunatley it’s not a question likely to be resolved anywhere soon.

  9. Hi Robert, and thanks for this. I really appreciate your use of the books you read when you were a child. The theme of escape is always pertinent in children’s literature I guess, because for a child there are so many ways of being imprisoned. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ in that sense with children reading Rowling or Blyton – though adults reading Rowling begs a lot of interesting questions and 2nd guesses. (It occurred to me this morning that girls in Blyton are somewhat more thoughtfully represented than in Rowling.)
    Yesterday after I had posted this to OL, I came across John Christopher’s ‘Tripods’ trilogy in an op shop, a series of books I had read as a young boy. The metaphor of escape is apparent there also; adults manipulated by mysterious but visible and sinister outside forces, which a child seeks to escape from and also confront, an image that tells me more about myself as a child than I would have thought. (Tell me what you read as a child and why, and I will tell who you were and what you might be). I’m relieved to say that the representation of women in Christopher weirded me out then as it does now, though back then I there wasn’t a lot I could do with that feeling but feel odd. And if Christopher had stayed within his own metaphors instead of getting all didactic (a bit like Dahl) they would have been much better books.
    Edward Said showed me that fiction writers often don’t know the half of what they are saying. Children’s fiction writers even more so I think. More irony and less lessons would have been useful

    • hey. I missed this comment. It wasn’t flicked to my email. Children’s books, especially picture books, are full of didactic stories about How You Shouild Behave, and often the portray the warm fuzzies that will be yours if you…..have good manners, are kind to whales, etc. Most picture books are written for adults not children, eg: Mem Fox, Graeme Base and a zillion others.

    • Interesting portrayals of children in fiction are hard to come by aren’t they? I prefer the slightly perplexed take (‘I can’t quite get down in words how weird it is to look at my childhood as an adult’) such as Gunter Grass’ Oskar, as opposed to the ‘I’m hip with children’s inner life’, as with Safran Foer’s Oskar.
      Carson McCullers nailed something in Member of the Wedding, I think

  10. Active/passive; inside; outside etc… depends on your generation, but I wouldn’t be extolling Blyton’s & Co’s virtues endlessly. All I can remember being available to read in school and public libraries, as well as bookshops, were the colonising schoolboy stories of conker games and Fibbs Major and Lyes Minor fagging, play up and play the game, there’s a good chap, and the lashings of sandwiches Blyton served up for little Ann to make and clean up after the adventures because George was pretending to be a boy. Phew! After that Wind in the Willows and Pooh Bear were blessed relief.

  11. I think that’s a good point Dennis, that for a long time Blyton and various school stories (and Biggles) was always there was. Probably an indication of how childhood was policed. These days, it seems that Rowling is all there is. She’s become the default writer for children: I need to be reading to my kids at night, I know I’ll read Harry Potter.Teachers and reading advocates have often extolled Rowling in this way as the person who has Got Kids Reading Again.
    Childhood is policed in more polymorphous ways – but children’s literature is still a way of attempting it.
    Wind in the Willows and Pooh are different kettles of fish aren’t they?

    • Don’t know that Wind in the Willows and Pooh books are “different kettles of fish” as you say. Certainly AA Milne wrote the Pooh Bear books with the experience of both his and his son’s childhood in mind, and road tested them in his own house; and the tragic story of Kenneth Graham is well known in relation to his own son, and how he wrote Wind in the Willows as a response to a life of “playing around with boats”. The fact that there is a connection between Milne and Graham due to Milne scripting and staging an adaptation of Toad of Toad Hall (if I remember correctly), is not the point of those books not being different kettles of fish.

      You can’t have a structure, a relationship that enables a link to a different order of adult reading experience, if you are stuck in the same popular mire reading the same type of book, smoking the same brand of cigarette, forever. The philosophy and satire of my early reading of Pooh Bear, and the poetry and philosophy of Wind in the Willows, lead me to the realisation of a literature beyond a childhood reading experience. After those two books I read nothing, until I moved in my mid teens to Ulysses and Voss (both via circuitous routes), modernist poetry and theatre, and social theory. I can’t say for sure, but what I can say is reading Pooh Bear and Wind in the Willows killed fantasy stone dead for me. I was like the boy who had killed a living thing. So the Tolkien “Rings” hippy craze had no appeal to me (I read The Magus and French Lieutenant’s Woman instead); my understanding being that Tolkien was simply fantasising an escape from his own dreary suburban London (?) existence, rather than directly critiquing the social malaise of his times.

      That may not help the discussion here; but that was effect of a different order of childhood reading on me.

      • I think that Grahame and Milne are very different kettles. And pretty fishy. As you say,to get from Blyton or Potter to things more various, one needs a disruptive experience. So its possible for literature to disrupt itself – which doesn’t happen as often as one would like.
        You know, when Mole leaves his home for the first time after the spring-cleaning and runs into the rabbits barring the road, he bowls them over while sneering ‘Onion sauce!’ It took me some time to realise that onion sauce is of course what rabbits are served up with.
        It’s probably a bigger jump from Ulysses to Voss than it is from Wind in the Willows to Ulysses.
        I don’t think you killed fantasy. You probably killed Fantasy. A different kettle of fish.

        • How to put this: clearly you’ve thought more about this so-called children’s lit thing more recently than me; and are thinking more about it than I’ve bothered to for a long time; so I’ll concede the Ffantasy point: well made; as well as conceding my initial point about the unobjectionability of this post, as I’ve once again been sucked into the discursivity of your argument (not that it isn’t pleasant: au contraire- far more so than doing sudoku). The “different kettles of fish” metaphor, however, I’m not ready to concede, yet.

          As I see it there is no essential generic or kettle difference between Pooh / Willows and Blyton & Co, because the difference is a question of reading actively: choosing to see the difference in the act of reading or not, as a process of cognitive readiness. Its like the old Lao Tsu / Donovan thing- first there is a mountain; then there is no mountain; then there is- where the middle, transformative stage is a long process of complicated critical-theoretical reflection, before a simple clarity returns once more (if it ever does). Again, as you more neatly reframed it, that transformation depends on a disruptive reading experience. And as a further aside, there is a nice story by Borges (‘Averroes Search’), where an Arab scholar studying Aristotle (the Arab world not having a strong background in theatre, apparently), tries to imagine what a tragedy is without understanding the accompanying need for an understanding of theatre, the evidence of which lies in front of his eyes but he can’t see it. That seems to be to the situation of the disruptive reading experience too: you need to get up behind the bowler’s arm to see what is being done with the ball of language that makes matters difficult or uncomfortable for a receiver or not. My thinking being also that the more time a child spends in the first, fantasy stage of reading, absorbing a rich and positively diverse literature unreflectively (as opposed to critical-theoretical reflection),even into adulthood, the better. My own grief being that I was forced beyond an early pleasure due to the paucity of childhood reading matter available; so agreed, I was able to actively perceive a reading difference between Pooh/Willow and Blyton, but only because I was forced to due to reading starvation, and not due to any essential generic difference, because Pooh/Willows and Blyton, at the time of reading, were both labelled and marketed as children’s literature.

          My overall point being that yes, children can engage with a far richer and more diverse positive reading experience at the fantasy stage than we give them credit for, as long as they have the accompanying requisite language and cognitive processing skills available to them at the time.

          • Well, I can meet you half-way on this one Dennis. I think the difference between Pooh/Willows and Blyton/General children’s lit, is that Grahame and Milne demonstrated a kind of intensity of vision matched with a very even tone. In much of what is regarded as children’s lit an untempered display of one’s own strange inner states is considered enough. If, in your attempts to overcome the paucity of reading material had come across Harry Potter you may have been consumed by Rowling’s very weird and occasionally sadistic treatment of childhood. It’s Rowling’s sadism (as well as her interminable narrative style) that weirds me out.
            I take your point on the state of the reader, but I don’t see reading as an act of cognitive readiness. The whole experience of reading has to be meaningful in some way. You know that whole middle-class thing about reading to children at bedtime (why bedtime?) as some kind of act of ‘reading readiness’ is bullshit. Attaching a priority and pleasure to reading has more to do with how reading is situated for a child; who around them reads and why, how the act of reading is constructed. For some of us, perhaps early readers, reading can be a way of creating a sort of skin in place of another kind of skin which hasn’t been sufficiently wrought for the child his his or carers. This was probably the case for me, and perhaps for you too. (This process happens quite commonly with children who walk exceptionally early,an event usually rapturously praised by adults, but which I would view as something of a signal of alarm). Either way there’s a lot of unconscious meaning to reading, because it’s a complex activity that we start at developmentally a very early period in life. Its not just about a use of language, but also a way of managing a lot of primitive interior states, and others not-so primitive.
            *Donovan* said that about mountains being mountains etc?

  12. Mmm. I don’t want to idealise Blyton as Dennis warning butr I have to admit that when I was reading Blyton to my 4 and 5 year olds at their request, I was happy to do so. I think I would have strongly objected if I’d been asked to read Potter

    • Thanks Clare. Capitalism explained! What immediately came to mind was a sequence with cute rabbits etc in their little white-picket town playing with iPads, with a charming Scarry-esque factory labelled Foxconn (run by foxes) on the opposite page, where other rabbits drop dead, etc
      Interesting to see the doctored pics, as with Blyton’s re-issues.

  13. “We spend a lot of our adult lives covering up and lying about our childhoods and politically nullifying them.”

    Stephen, that is the ‘controversial’ point, in your own words. Some might disagree with this statement (and this, might pick an overt debate with you) but I reckon more often and more insidious is that we go a bit further than you suggest in that: we also spend a lot of our lives covering up and lying about the covering up and lying we are doing. Double repression I guess.

    So I thinking that naming clearly some ways that this happens, can help out here.

    * Telling children What To Do
    * Shaming or Praising them if They Do what we have told them about What To Do
    * Treating them like they are Empty Vessels to be Filled by Us Who Know More or treating them like Deviant Derivations that Need To Be Set On the Straight And Narrow.

    There’s not much open space for any sort of relating-to-the-other-coming-into-being for children, or anyone really. Children, and anyone with less-rather-than-more grip on power centres, probably just get the most over forms of all this.

    For instance, I was at a kindegarten once, played with some kids in the sand pit cum mud bath due to a nearby hose turned on, when Adult Who Knows Better came up and said, in a ‘nice, enthusiastic’ tone of voice: Oh, that’s so messy!…

    My analysis: right… so to you, dear adult, the earth in a fluid state, in contact with our skin and clothes, is a mess (and thus: could be cleanier, tidier, better).

    What about observing the activity, without the morality… Oh, that’s so squishy, perhaps.

    But then, why come up and tell/narrate/dictate the experience and terms of engagement to the children?? I’m thinking this is a version of empty vessel (must gives the kids an Idea of what they’re doing, like they don’t already know), mixed with deviant derivation (must make sure kids don’t enjoy this do much, and that they knows what’s the better, stable state).

    So, better to be a humble observer, or join in with what’s already happening, or just not come over.

    I provide this analysis — I’m guessing of no surprise to you Stephen — just to sure how dodgy adults can be with children, even when appearing pleasant/genuine and certainly within all the Educational Standards put in place.

    Lots of kids books are like this I reckon. Which is just to agree with you, Stephen, I’m thinking.

    What I like is:

    > Little Prince

    > Where the Wild Things Are (especially as the film, scripted by the original author, who has some pretty interesting things to say about kids books — http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/oct/20/maurice-sendak-wild-things-hell)

    > Dr Suess when he gets weird and dark (eg, The Things You Can Think), so too Roald Dalh

    > others less well-known, but with some kind of space for people (in the stories and the book’s readers) to think and feel without judgement.

  14. Hi Luke
    I think that if there’s one thing a majority of families do well, its successfully rewrite family history as the children get older.
    There’s that last long sentence at the end of the Knoxville 1915 prologue of James Agee’s Death in the Family, where the child protagonist (Agee) says (eventually) no-one would tell me who I am. I don’t have a copy so can’t quote it exactly. Anyway, I always took this to mean that the adults around him would tell him how he was supposed to be and he is always trying to guess who he is supposed to be, but never finding anything that feels like him, like his inner experience.
    I suppose I just wonder what it would be like for children to choose what they read, to have a breadth of exploration and possibility so that choices can be made. And what it would be like to discuss those choices with them – not in an ‘educative’ way, but just in a ‘what do you like about this and why’ kind of way.
    Whenever I come across someone who is just humbly themselves when spending time with children, I’m always sure I’ve just come across someone who is basically sane.

  15. How interesting, reading all of these comments! I spent the first ten years of my life on an outer London housing estate and disliked, after trying to read, The Wind in the Willows and Pooh Bear, and also Swallows and Amazons. They are about peoples and a places I simply didn’t recognise and couldn’t identify with, and somehow felt were inimical to me and the way my family lived and that class distinction was embedded in them (ie the weasels in Wind in the Willows-heard on a little 45 record.) I did read Blyton eventually (after my family came to Australia)with a sort of long-distance interested disgust. I loved books with animal subjects, otters and eagles in Scotland and so on, and books about wilderness, and travel to distant lands. As an adult, I can’t stand the Harry Potter books which are in a similar English tradition as previous commentors have noted, but are also derivative of Terry Pratchett’s books (Hogwarts:Hog father, and so much more). AS Byatt has stated that the adult obsession with the Harry Potter books reflects the infantilisation of adult life. This is particularly of middle class educated readers(my comment)and if escapism is so much a part of these books, then what these readers are escaping from is their future.

    • Carol, the Potter obsession might also be part of the infantilisation of childhood too.
      The difference between Potter and Pratchett is that Pratchett can be funny, Rowling is only unintentionally funny. I remember one page where Harry enters a room after hearing a noise within, but finds only “disturbed mice.”

  16. There are so many books available to children these days in all genres and for all ages – thousands of them in fact, so I am not sure why anyone would say that Harry Potter is all kids have to contend with. My daughter is 10 and she reads a novel a week, has done since she was 5 and she has never read or shown a desire to read any of the Harry Potter series. Just wanted to pipe up and say that Rowling – though popular – is just one example in a sea of childhood literary options.

    • Janet, I think this might prove my argument – that adults promote Potter to children and that in the absence of said promotion Potter is just another hefty tome.

  17. Hi (again, Stephen. There was no ‘reply’ tab to your last comment in response to my comment so I’ll start another stream. Hadn’t intended to- not argument by force but the force of the better argument is always my tack- so to tack once more.

    In all my comments I’ve never considered reading as anything other than making meanings from, with and by text-which may be any piece of written, spoken or visual material. How do you ever know that you have taught or imparted the point, meaning or thing you may have intended, however casually or conversationally? As far as I know, the C20 philosophical problem of other minds was never solved. Often we simply get off on our own train of thought or ego; being obtuse (particularly with children), or in total ignorance of the thought capacities of an other (which may be greater or lesser than our own). Try teaching the concept of colour to a child before she or he is ready- you’ll go bananas. Often young children’s questions are not questions at all- more statements about their current developemental stage of awareness and understanding.

    • Dennis, the reason why teaching children a concept of colour drives you nuts is because its not something that can be taught didactically. Only an adult would think that teaching colours to children was a necessary activity. Really, when I see an adult trying to teach such a thing (and ‘numbers and letters’ to children)I start thinking that we need a new category of mental illness.
      I have always thought of children’s questions as exactly like adult’s questions – except that children are more likely to want to explore the metaphor of whatever image is used in the question and whatever meta-cognitions and unconscious imagery is associated with the question. Most adults of my acquaintance don’t.

    • I suppose, often questions in blog comments are not questions at all – more statements about the poster’s current development stage of awareness and understanding.

      It seems rude to throw this at you Dennis, so why throw it at other people (like children)?…

  18. er…Stephen and Luke, irony is not the meaning of life and QED etc. I would prefer, perhaps over realism and politics, the liberation of metaphors, analogies, a story within a story. Potter is perhaps, as many feel, a good story, but within, as Stephen feels, a pretty dismal story.

  19. Yes, Stephen, I take your point. Took me a while to get back to this one, so it’s hard to pick up the thread of the argument again.

    I have never actually tried teaching the concept of colours to a child; one of my children asked me once (she was about 18 months) and I tried explaining and realised the futility of the exercise due to the child’s lack of understanding. That was not my point though: I was re-emphasising my earlier point about stages of cognitive development. Sounds Piagetian, I know, and I know also how that has been discredited; and although it is the meaning making of the child that is of greater importance, I would argue still that there are stages of cognitive development that can be ignored at a child’s peril. I asked my Latin teacher once why we had to learn Latin, and he replied, “Because it is boring already.” Meaning that Latin had successfully short-circuited the ways formal teaching makes things boring. What teaching isn’t didactic at some point? Are you arguing that all teaching is mental illness? Who was it who said that if you want to exploit someone you have to teach them first? There are different ways teaching, so different ways of exploiting people, many seemingly benign. And where we’re at in terms of this blog’s brief I don’t know.

    I seem to like quoting Borges’s story, “Averroes Search”, and in that story Abdalmalik, unable to explain a point he is pursuing, “becomes the apologist of a performance he scarcely remembered and which had annoyed him quite a bit”. I feel a bit like that over this sticking point, and although this Blyton-like adventure has been torturous at times (perhaps of my own making), it has, as usual, been engaging and pleasurable.

    • Thanks for picking up the thread Dennis. Sometimes I get comments on old posts that always throw me into confusion; What post was this? I don’t remember writing this post! What was i saying again Etc.
      I’f argue that a lot of pedagogical activity is more about cultural anxieties than any kind of process of active meaning-making. I’m not saying that there aren’t critical points in human development, but that it’s difficult to separate ‘cognitive development’ out from meaning-making generally, that it’s meaning-making that is the crucial factor and that we don’t have enough theories of meaning-making. Education students when observing children are routinely taught to write down the behaviours being observed and then tag them as ‘cognitive development’, ‘emotional development’ etc etc. Thus is deeply stupid.

  20. I always liked the Angry Pixie. We never knew exactly why he was angry, but he certainly was. Similarly, the saucepan man never seemed to sell many saucepans; he just liked the noise. This was not irony (or even iron-mongery) it was just pure excess. These weirdnesses fascinated me as a child. They made the boring plots bearable. I could go on about Rabelais or something to clothe this love of eruptive excess in later knowledge, but that would be disloyal to the child I remember. She just liked stroppy pixies and clanging pots.

    • Penelope – as I recall in my enforced reading of The Faraway Tree to a bunch of 4 and 5 yr olds, it was the Angry Pixie and the Saucepan Man who were of greatest interest. After all, children are always interested in excess and adults in limiting excess. Both the AP and the SM get to do things children don’t get enough – get angry at adults and have it heard, and make a lot of noise for no reason than because they can.

  21. So the Angry Pixie and the Saucepan Man have a lot in common with many blog conversations then, especially when it ends up in capitals and multiple exclamation marks and name calling. (Present blog excepted of course.) I’m not sure that adults are always interested in limiting excess though, Stephen. Depends on the adult. And the excess. But I won’t descend into anecdotes.

  22. Perhaps if we thought about childhood states of mind in a different way and young children were acknowledged the space and capacity to lose it sometimes and not feel the world has fallen apart, we wouldn’t throw so many exclamation marks at each other as adults. I think generally adults will seek to limit what they see as excess in children – which is not to say that is excess, just that excessive children seem to cause excessive adult anxiety.

  23. In The Book of Brownies, you meet Saucepan Man in his own place – I remember as a child being quite astounded by that, him having a life outside of the Faraway Tree trilogy. It was high up a cliff, I remember, and the stairs were all made of saucepans (of course). I wasn’t much of a fan of the Angry Pixie because I didn’t want ink on my party clothes (no wonder I thought they were all horrible to poor Connie, must’ve been a priss at heart).

  24. Ta for that. Tell me who you identified with in Enid Blyton and I will tell you who you were…

      • Sorry. I can’t hear what you’re saying Penelope. I’ve always been more of a Saucepan Man, making so much noise I can’t hear myself think

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