I have often wondered whether a blog on childrenʼs literature was appropriate for the Overland blog. Then issue 202 appeared with cover feature on Shaun Tan and a column by Alison Croggon about the experience of childhood and the often-inaccurate interpretation of it …
Many years ago I found myself hurtling down a snow-covered hill aboard a toboggan. As the toboggan, captained by my elder brother, hurtled toward the large mound of snow that bordered the carpark – with no sign of slowing down – two things were at the forefront of my mind. The ﬁrst was the knowledge that the toboggan had no braking system; I knew this because I had inspected it thoroughly before reluctantly climbing on. The second was the feeling that most of the people in the world were clearly idiots, particularly those who seemed to enjoy and willingly participate in snow sports. I was three years old.
Croggon writes: ‘it is difficult to remember what it is like to be a child, because it’s impossible to undo adult knowledge. Memory and ﬁction are closely related capacities that together form the raw material of the human drive towards narrative: what we remember is a ﬂuid retelling, not a ﬁxed photograph.’
According to this theory, my childhood memory isn’t only a memory, but a layered narrative, fused with ﬁction, born of re-telling. Yet, when I picture the moment in mind, the strongest feeling that accompanies it is the sense of bafflement at the adult world. This memory, not only of an event but of an interpretation of the world around me, is a precious resource to me as I have began over the last year to work on a children’s book. It shows – however ﬂeetingly – just how sophisticated the inner world of a child can be. It shows the childhood mind not only as a ʻspongeʼ, but also a critical faculty. It is an artifact of that potent transition that a child’s consciousness undergoes around the age of three or four, as they become self-aware, as they begin to understand that their experience of the world is unique, separate, and private from everyone else’s. Or maybe I am just kidding myself. (Apologies.)
A few weeks ago at the last of the UTS Creative Connections talks, psychiatrist Professor Russell Meares and novelist Sue Woolfe discussed ʻCreativity and the Mindʼ. (To be broadcast on ABC later in the year.) Woolfe researched neurology and the brain in an effort to better understand her writer’s block, later using her ﬁndings to pen The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: a Novelist Looks at Neuroscience and Creativity. She told the story of a four-year-old doing a drawing. When her teacher asked the child what she was drawing, the child told her she was drawing God. ʻBut we don’t know what God looks like,ʼ said the teacher. The child replied, in perfect earnestness, ʻWell, we will in a minute.ʼ
Meares and Woolfe went on to discuss how children’s minds, particularly those under ﬁve, are incredibly creative and unaffected by the restrictions of linear thought. They have great capacity to think laterally, as us boring old adults would say.
What this means for children’s writing, as Croggon notes in her column, is that ʻit is crucial not to patroniseʼ. The best children’s writers ʻtake children seriouslyʼ. They know that children have a very ﬁnely tuned facility for bullshit detection and a mind that is dedicated to expanding itself and seeking new experiences (read: a short attention span). These elements combined make for a very difficult and demanding audience. Indeed the wider world, including the literary set (I’m looking at you Martin Amis) often fails to comprehend just how tricky it is.
A few years ago, during a stint as a publishing assistant, I answered a telephone call from a newly retired woman. She said she had walked into a children’s bookshop on the weekend and thought what a thrill it would be to see her own name up there on the shelf. She then asked me how much money people normally made from children’s writing and told me to expect her manuscript in the post in a week’s time.
I should have hung up on her.
In order to write well for children, one must un-learn much of what restrictive adult thinking has taught us. (Far more complicated than having a good long walk down memory lane.) Back in February Martin Amis commented that he would have to suffer brain damage before he could write for children, describing children’s writing as requiring a ʻlower registerʼ than what he is capable of writing. (Don’t worry, Overlanders, the level of frustration you feel toward Mr Amis is perfectly natural. Allow yourself a moment to go smash something or write a threatening letter before returning to this post.)
However ignorant, arrogant and downright twattish Amisʼs comments might be, he may unintentionally be making a fair(ish) point here, only in that children’s writing requires a completely different mode of thinking than writing for adults. (That’s different Mr Amis, not less intelligent.) Where people like Amis may think this means more restrictions, it is obvious from looking at any great children’s books that the opposite is true. Surrealism, absurdity, quirkiness roam free in children’s books. As does a certain darkness, reﬂective of the ʻincommunicable privacies, bizarre myth-making, perverse games, inchoate fears, passionate desires and griefsʼ that Croggon refers to. Sentimentality is an adult construction.
When I was very young I owned a picture book that told the story of a girl getting ready for bed. I don’t remember details, but the last page – and my childhood interpretation of it – has stuck ﬁrmly in my memory. It was a simple watercolour picture, quite beautiful, of the girl’s shower cap ﬂoating in the bath, the girl gone. My adult mind now knows that this was meant to infer that she had ﬁnished her bath and gone to bed. Yet I distinctly remember thinking that the girl must have drowned. This macabre notion fascinated me. I was both terriﬁed and captivated by it. (And before you ask: no, I didnʼt know of anyone who had drowned or even died at this stage. I was wonderfully twisted all by myself.)
More often that not, the best children’s stories have a tinge of darkness. They have for centuries. They all have layers of complexity that are remarkable for stories whose words often number less than one hundred. As wonderfully self-contained exercises in the concise, I ﬁnd they inﬂuence me just as much in writing for an adult audience as they do in my attempts to write for children. And after laboring through Amisʼs undeniably dreadful Yellow Dog I dare say he could learn a thing of two as well.
In the end, when my brother and I got to the bottom of the hill, the toboggan ﬂew up the snowy embankment and took ﬂight, sailing through the air, over cars and startled onlookers, before landing with a dramatic slide on the carparkʼs icy surface. Or maybe I made that bit up. Either way, I still havenʼt changed my attitude to snow sports.