I recently got word from my literary agent in London that my young adult novel, As Stars Fall, will not be next year’s UK smash hit. It’s true. I won’t be an international YA superstar by next Christmas; not a Suzanne Collins, JK Rowling, or Veronica Roth. Despite the novel doing very well here in Australia, getting a gong in the national awards, and despite it being represented in the UK by this top-shelf dream agent, those publishers on the top side of the world have turned it down, deeming the book ‘too quiet’.
‘Too quiet,’ I told my writer friends.
They scratched their heads. ‘But things happen in it,’ they said.
Things do happen in my book. Lots of things. But not apocalyptic things. Or world-changing things. Or battle-to-the-death things. The things that happen go on mostly inside the people.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good battle-to-the-death. But I also love a quiet book.
When I was growing up, Ruth Park’s Callie’s Castle was the most-read book on my bookshelf. I still own it. The spine is creased, and the edges folded, and all four corners of the book have gone felty. Nothing much happens in Callie’s Castle. A girl, after moving house, finds herself moody and her family abrasive. Her grandfather visits and spies a secret cupola at the top of the old house, and together they break into it and do it up as Callie’s new bedroom. That’s it. That’s the story. And I returned to it again and again. I loved it, exactly because nothing much happened.
So why do we feel this need to constantly stimulate our young people?
One morning every week my one-and-a-half year old twin toddlers amuse themselves for a number of hours while I clean (when I say ‘clean’ please read ‘work harder than I knew was possible to bring the house up to just base-level functionality that no one in their right mind would call “clean”’) and every five minutes I mentally remind myself that it’s okay that the kids are amusing themselves.
Why is that? Why do I feel I have to remind myself that it’s okay that I’m not interacting with them? There’s no neglect – I throw them food every now and then and keep an eye out for potential death or injury – but I do feel this weighty eye-in-the-sky mother-guilt for simply ignoring them while I clean. Sometimes I even google ‘independent play’ on my phone while scrubbing their high-chairs to read the reassuring search results.
‘Autonomy teaches self-confidence.’
‘Important for your child’s well-being.’
‘Unstructured solo play makes for highly productive, happily occupied kids.’
And on an instinctive level I really do feel all that. They love it. And I love it. I love the calm sense of each of us working independently on our own projects: my daughter carefully trying to find the perfect fit for her toy mouse inside my husband’s shoe; my son making a stack of blocks counting ‘2, 3, 6! 2, 3, 6!’ until it falls and he begins again; and me, on discovering that the flywire that for years we had thought were trapping our windows and making them unwashable actually unclipped with a very simple mechanism, so I set about taking each one down and cleaning it and replacing it and finally seeing the outside world from inside without a softening mist of domestic grime. The companionable quiet of the three of us; I really enjoy it.
So where does the guilt come from? This perceived requirement to excite, to entertain? Why is it so difficult to accept quietness, uneventfulness, gentle receptiveness, despite all the research telling us it is so good for us? Why do parents often feel guilt when we prioritise something else over being the all-singing, all-dancing entertainers to our children? And on that note, why should stories for our young people be selected against on the basis that they are ‘too quiet’?
My book has bushfire in it. And death. And peril. But in between that, there is a lot of thinking, and watching, and relating, and wondering. And although it hasn’t been lucky enough to have been published north of the equator, or filmed in high definition, I have been lucky enough to receive mail from young people letting me know that my book has been important to them, how it has made them see things differently, that they have come back to it for a second read, and how pleased they were to inhabit its world for a while, and then to re-open the pages and inhabit it again.
So for now I’ll try to remember to congratulate myself on my quiet book, and concentrate on my ability to cheerfully neglect my children and their quiet play – until of course their play becomes too quiet and I find them giggling softly together, a metre and a half up, on top of the piano.