Sometime in May there was a short blog post on children’s literature at Meanjin. One of the premises of the blog was that there is ‘a huge, and largely under populated branch of children’s books that are written specifically for adults … just as Pixar realised the potential in populating their kids’ movies with scenes adults would enjoy.’
There’s a lot that could be said about that statement I think, not least addressing the crass marketing machines that are Pixar films, and the idea that the writing of children’s books for adults is an underpopulated area. In fact I’d argue, from long experience, that nearly all children’s picture books are written beneath, within and at the adult gaze. I thought about responding in a comments thread, but it was July before I found the post and anyway attached to it was a solitary comment by Overland’s Jacinda Woodhead that said most of everything I wanted to say and said it better.
In part Jacinda wrote:
Go the f*ck to sleep and the Lisa Brown books seem to me to be written from the position of the ironic parent: the joke is for grown-ups about their children and the frustrations of parenting; it was never really intended for a child audience … But I don’t think the works of Dahl, Blake or Sendak were produced to fit the landscape of this adult world; I suggest their works totter on the precipice of the uncanny and the sublime, the adult knowing and the child sensing. Two of my favourite children’s books are Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake, and Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There, both of which terrify me with their impressions of a kind of Otherness that comes from experiencing grief or horror. They are concepts so adult that I still don’t have the words to quite express how unsettled they make me feel, but they seem to me to totter in that space where adult and child readers might meet.
I was particularly taken by Jacinda’s image of the tottering space where children and adults might meet, and her use of two remarkable children’s picture books to illustrate that space, Maurice Sendak’s uncanny Outside Over There, and Michael Rosen’s extraordinary Sad Book, sublimely illustrated by Quentin Blake. Both also happen to be favourite picture books of mine. The Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe was so taken by Sendak’s book that he wrote about it extensively in his novel The Changeling.
For a long time I got paid to work with young children, aged between three and six years. What that meant in practice was the engaging of children in conversation. When children are asked what they think, when their theories about the world and their place in it are taken seriously, investigated, thought through, they say the most amazing things. As an act of political insubordination, I highly recommend talking with children, especially for men, whose contact with children, especially young children, can be very limited. The space that children inhabit is always a marginal one and indeed can be both uncanny and sublime. It’s also politically very fraught and highly contested, especially by children.
It’s also a space that’s difficult for adults to locate. For adults, children are largely invisible. Unless you have some children of your own or work with them professionally it’s very difficult to find a space where you can interact. And inhabiting a family or a classroom are not necessarily ideal spaces in which to have conversations with children, both arenas being burdened with so much structural anxiety.
Films like those of Pixar and children’s picture books written for adults (think of Possum Magic or Animalia) are largely attempts to regulate an unstable and liminal event, the tottering space that Jacinda so clearly named where children and adults might meet.
In that tottering space adults talking to or playing with children tend to look either very uncomfortable or very bossy, either very unsure of where they are or extremely sure that they know what is going on. Given that we have all been children – at least at some stage – it’s strange that we seem to have lost the ability to talk to ourselves, to live with ourselves in a way that doesn’t make us feel like we are colonisers on a strange shore, faced with restless natives who need better systems of administration. Children’s conversation can often seem so purposeless to adults, so very organic and interior, full of apparent non-sequiturs, always on the point of bursting apart social niceties, of troubling adult boundaries. When we talk of play we think of children’s games rather than children’s conversations, which in their excess are always ready to burst the bubble of mundane life. The rules of speech are not enough for children. They do not have enough languages with which to speak of their embodied experience, which is why they engage in what we call play.
Both Sendak and Rosen’s books seem to offer two parallel mirrors up to childhood, and illuminate a space which adults prefer not to explore, probably because of the uneasiness it generates. Rosen’s extraordinary book speaks to children in a direct and candid voice that is not didactic, patronising or overwhelming. It speaks of terror, loss, the ungovernable – all states that children can know all too well. Sendak’s book may well get under children’s skin, or perhaps takes something seriously that children already know, which adults have forgotten or prefer not to know.
In an earlier post I wrote about reading Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree to groups of preschool children. If the children had their way, I’d have been nailed to my chair, force-fed and made to read Blyton from sun-up to sundown. The only way to read Blyton to children is to take it seriously, to speak of her characters as though they were real, and had real thoughts, reflective capacities and who suffered. To read Blyton to children as a flippant and careless fantasy would be a great mistake, almost an act of humiliation. And Sendak must have gained that kind of knowledge long ago, or he couldn’t have created Outside Over There.
Adult attempts to regulate the thing we call children’s play, that tottering space where children live and where we might meet them, can look very much like attempts at authoritarian closure. What may well be troubling us is our own lack of playfulness, and the subjection of our speech. It is surprising – or not – that so many adults can’t recognise play when they see it, or perhaps would prefer children’s play to look like a Pixar film.
One of the many things that children can do is get under our skins, as though childhood were something outside us and not within us, already under our skin as it were. It is as if there is a thing called childhood out there that is just too much trouble, that we wish could be abolished, or somehow be transformed into a smaller version of us as we are now.
And that’s probably the thing about adults talking to children: our uncomfortableness or didactic bossiness are both ways of managing the ever-present possibility of our humiliation at children’s hands. Playfulness, or transgressive speech, is not something that adults aspire to. Whatever we think it is, our tolerance for it is low, and adults playing and talking with children tend to look either uncomfortable or bossy, very unsure of where they are or extremely sure that they know what is going on. Given that we have all been children, at least at some stage, it’s strange that we seem to have lost the ability to talk to ourselves, to live with ourselves in a way that doesn’t make us feel like we are colonisers on a strange shore faced with restless natives who urgently need draconian systems of administration.
To be troubling though, as children well know, can be a very effective type of protest, of marking your place where you have none.
In his history of the pre-Second World War culture of working-class children in the UK, Hooligans or Rebels?, Stephen Humphries examined the phenomenon of British childhood (particularly in northern England) called ‘larking about’ – a phrase that describes the ‘huge repertoire of practical jokes known to working-class children, many of which are aimed at the humbling and humiliation of adults.’ Humphries speaks of children embarking on a variety of tricks, jests and group campaigns – including school strikes, over 150 of them between 1889 and 1938 – to derail adult abuses.
But larking about may also include such things as:
Singeing adult bottoms seated in outside lavatories by thrusting a stinging nettle or candle through the rear flap doors; the tempting of passers-by on dark evenings with coins attached to cotton, which would be pulled away by the hidden tormentors as soon as the victim grovelled toward his find.
Humphries makes the point that ‘larking about’, rather than being simplistically categorised as childish activities, can be reframed as ‘an expressive and effective form of resistance to authoritarian control’. This of course is not how such behaviour is viewed by power elites, who may view it as childish insolence, a lapse in behaviour or an interruption in the quest for maturity.
Larking about can disrupt roles, structures of authorities and identities and in doing so bring some flux into an adult world too keen to hold itself in particular shapes.
The fact that something as essentially unproductive as play might give us wellbeing and an ability to be more troubling than troubled is as difficult a thing to grasp as it is to put into words – which is somewhat of the point. Play doesn’t lend itself to concrete identities and in its larking about, identities – who we think we are, and who everyone else is – are the first things play disrupts. That there might be a gap between who we think we are and what we actually are is what play trades in and larking about exposes. If the consolidation of power is also the consolidation of my identity, no-one with interests in power will have any interest in play, and may well devise a whole array of sophisticated systems for detecting anyone so foolish as to lark about and trouble identity in any way.
Larking about as a valid form of resistance, a kind of guerrilla tactic of choice, has been so marginalised that its main protagonists have been children. The problem with children as the embodiment of a lineage of larking is that children can have their playfulness legislated out of existence and even criminalised. Anyone who is not a child and who larks about, who uses humour as a guerrilla tactic, is of course childish, infantile, immature, rude, all states associated with being unavoidably young.
If a child puts a dog turd in the shoe of a particularly obnoxious adult, there could be something humbling or at least funny in that. But if an adult puts dog turds in the shoes of obnoxious children, a slightly sinister shadow seems to fall across the scene.
Perhaps this is what children’s larking about does: asks the bleeding obvious about who and where we are. In Shakespeare’s plays those who make the sharpest and most acute comments are frequently fools, lunatics or the traumatised. So, in our sometimes un-Shakespearean-seeming lives, it takes a sharp gaze, a gaze quick enough to catch what’s happening in those margins, to see that larking about, the actions of fools and children, always accompanies some fracture in the social fabric, in the crack opening between the way things are deemed they should be and the way they actually are. And this is where the question hidden behind the intent in larking about is found – behind the tricks, the school strikes, the public pranks – a question that might sound something like, ‘Why is this important?’ Or perhaps, ‘Why are any of us doing what we are doing?’
That a lineage of fools and fooling is what could be reclaimed to keep us in the search for a reality less rigid and prone to power struggles (and in that reclaiming think more about the politics of the margins than the gravitational attractions of the centre, to become inheritors, or practitioners of fooling, of a kind of carnival) requires a kind of moral discipline, an eye for the vernacular of power, of where power is and what it does. When it becomes criminal to be a fool and fool around, then we could really be in trouble: cut off from any form of mockery, perhaps the last resort of the marginalised and the dispossessed. To live outside the law, it may not be enough to be honest; you may have to be funny as well, in the way of having some kind of ironic self-regard, and if we can’t have that we may well only be extreme.
Even in our physical environments, the traces of larking about are found in in-between places. Graffiti often appears in the most dour and utilitarian of environments, railway yards, the backs of warehouses – places of transience. This kind of marking of a lark seems to arouse ungovernable fury in those adults who have the most hierarchical power (or wish they had), politicians for example, creating a kind of pious rectitude behind which can be heard the grinding of teeth and which foreshadows the enacting of dismal laws to prevent children buying spray paint.
Graffiti leaves an almost indelible mark and its creators larking about in the deserted hours in deserted spaces are invisible, and no amount of policing or surveillance either extinguishes graffiti or makes its protagonists appear to us.
The thing about liminal spaces, the tottering spaces, is that they can’t be easily policed. When put under surveillance, they both disappear and appear elsewhere on the boundaries of the new policing, created by the policing itself. But somehow, when we left childhood, we learned, for the most part, not to be troubling; to abandon liminal space for the safety of well-policed zones of control, where we watch everyone else as they watch us, alert for the first sign of trouble.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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