Tobogganing, childrenʼs writing, lateral thinking and (unfortunately) Martin Amis

Amis as Max – Patricia StormsI 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.

Claire Zorn

Claire Zorn is a Sydney-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been published in various literary journals and she has a particular passion for writing young adult fiction.

More by Claire Zorn ›

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  1. hey clare,

    nice piece on childrens writing. i had the thought last year of writing a post on childrens picture book after attending some workshops with childrens illustrators but never found the way to write it. maybe now that you’ve started the ball on this i’ll try and pick up the threads.

    working at schools i think its quite important to look at the role of writing to and for children and how to engage that. some of the stories the grade 4 wrote were more liberating and rollicking than a lot of serious literature out there.

    my favourite teacher at school was the grade 3 teacher who would read Roald Dahl to us every day and give us a chance for imagination to grow.

    1. Roald Dahl is an absolute master. I had an interesting experience seeing Wes Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ when it came out as I hadn’t revisited the story since childhood, it bought back the intense reaction I had to the story as a kid – mainly strange stuff to do with food, roast chicken, cider and the like!

  2. Thank you Claire,
    My three year old son has been insistent on hearing the Easter story at every opportunity this week, his version illustrated with an appropriately kind-looking Jesus and all the naughty, pointy-browed villains any of us would expect.
    It is of course a difficult story to censor, with rather a complex (read ‘non-linear’) plot and some concepts that in any other childrens literature would likely be considered downright inappropriate.
    And yet he takes it in, and is absolutely and honestly (non-morbidly) fascinated!
    My early attepts at ‘softening’ the story on my sons behalf, quickly ‘bullshit detected’, and now your article have left me with a renewed sense of joy in experiencing a developing mind, and not a little disappointed with the state of my own.
    Perhaps I should take up childrens literature… how much do they get paid again?

    1. I had a very similar experience over Easter, Aaron! And it was interesting because we were going through the story right at the same time that my son was beginning to understand emotions, he really got the ‘sad day/happy day’ aspect. The brutality of human behaviour didn’t phase him either.

  3. The darkness thing is right – more than a tinge is needed, I reckon. I went to the bookshop the other day to get a book for my daughter. There was an archness to the narrative tone in nearly all the books that I found entirely unpalatable. They are being written for the parents, not the kids. I remember when I was little I loved the Greek myths – folk tales have a similar appeal – a sense of real strangeness, wonder, danger.

  4. Hi Claire and thanks for this, that raises a number of issues I think.
    First, interesting that you started with a kind of apology, as though doubting the validity of a political discussion of children’s lit.
    Memories of childhood are often not just straight ‘memories’ are they (ie: like photographs or videos) but as you say are formed of all kinds of layers. This is true of memories generally, but childhood memories, especially early childhood memories, generally fall into a special category. It’s not that they can’t be accurate in an objective sense but that they also are very compact, filled with all kinds of metaphors and understandings. Your picture- book-drowning memory was very interesting. I wouldn’t take it so literally myself, but would ask questions about your own sense/anxiety etc of ‘drowning’ and so on. I say this not implying anything pathological at all, but just out of friendly curiosity, telling a child’s story.
    I calculate that I have probably read about 20,000 children’s books to children, which is something of an odd realisation to have. As Joshua pointed out, many children’s books (probably 98%) are actually written with an eye on adults (think Grahame Base, Mem Fox)and have an archness to then that is indicative of something very, very strange in the mind of the writer, something to tip-toe away from in fact. Children’s books are often suffocatingly didactic too, exhorting children to behave better, love their parents, save the planet and so on. An original book for children is hard to find. When Tan’s The Red Boat came out some years ago, I grabbed it immediately. The children who read it and who I read it with, found it very intriguing and very satisfying. It wasn’t read as frequently as say, Burningham’s The Shopping Basket, but it was read very attentively.
    There are very few writers who can write as well for children as well as Miyazaki can make films for children. I wrote and had published a children’s story a few years ago – the only one I ever intend to publish/write – written for a 7 year old friend of mine who was in some difficulty. I took Miyazaki as my starting point, but it was very hard work, a success with my friend, but a failure as a story I think. One’s own politics and assumptions tend to jump out of prose for children undisguised and unashamed.
    And just finally, I’m not sure about the four year old suddenly being galvanised into self-awareness. I think that babies can show great awareness of self and other, and in fact this is a baby’s main developmental task I’d say. The laterality of children’s thinking is more notable for the ways in which it is frustrated by adult translations, institutional politics and so on. Eventually we have to spend some parts of our adulthoods re-translating ourselves.

  5. Thanks Claire- I wonder if there is now room for a reflection/discussion about children’s book illustrations matching the tone and style of the writing you’re talking about, being involved and curiosity driven with paths to follow and related images to expand the meaning of the text. Just a thought for another day…

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