Kath here. Butting in to SQUEEEE! Sophie’s book My Australian Story: The Hunt for Ned Kelly has been shortlisted for a prestigious Patricia Wrightson award! Congrats from your WU friends, Sophie! We’ll have our fingers crossed for you. And p.s. Sophie’s donation is up on the auction block this week: a critique of your query letter to a young adult or children’s editor. Click to bid.
No—those are not my words, but the words of British author Martin Amis, notorious both for the size of his advances and his controversial comments. This particular comment was made in a recent radio interview in Britain, and was followed by Amis’ ‘explanation’ that he didn’t like the idea of having ‘constraints’ put on his fiction(as if all fiction doesn’t have ‘constraints’ of one sort or the other!).
Of course this boorish and ill-judged(and it has to be said, pathetic and ignorant)outburst was met with outrage from British children’s writers—though an exception was Jacqueline Wilson, who, knowing Amis personally, said he’d probably not intended the offence but often blurted out things that were intended to be deliberately provocative. But beyond the feeling that Amis’ rude ignorance does not merit being dignified with a response—it got me thinking, once again, about why it is that so many people think it’s quite OK to talk about children’s writers and children’s literature in such a way as to imply we are really defective pretend-adults, most likely the prey of all kinds of babyish hangups, and our books are hardly worth mentioning in the same breath as ‘real’ literature. (In fact, I’ve been asked more than once that very question—’when are you going to write a real book?’ And I know I’m not alone in that!)
Of course partly it’s an extension of adult society’s attitude to children. All adults were children once upon a time—but many of us seem to want to forget it. And not always because our childhoods were bad—rather because it was a time of life when we often felt powerless. Dwarves in a land of giants. Mutes in a country of big talkers. Invisible without invisibility cloaks. Because we had to accept things as they were not as we wished them to be. Because we weren’t sure about the world and what it might contain. Because we felt like anything could happen and yet here we were stuck in a kind of endless home-school-home routine. So many people can’t wait to grow up, to put it all behind them. But within those ‘constraints’ what dreams there were! What amazing adventures in your head! What jokes and ironic asides you made up with your friends about the giants towering above you! How amazing the world could be, unpredictable and weird and terrifying and exciting! What moments of intense pure happiness there could be—including that plunge into a book that completely enveloped you, wrapped you in the likes of a spell that would never come again in adulthood or only very very rarely.
And I think that’s part of the other problem. Children’s writers haven’t lost touch with those things—the highs, the lows, the in-betweens. We haven’t forgotten what it was like, the years before we entered the morphing chamber of adolescence to emerge blinking into the ‘new light’ of adulthood. (And YA writers, are of course often routinely derided in the same way as children’s writers, for similar reasons, with the added rider that ‘nobody needs YA fiction. Teenagers should ‘graduate’ to adult fiction.’) And sometimes I think that is seen both as a scary thing—what might such a weird unforgetting creature do, given half a chance—and a thing to envy.
Because here’s the crunch: when a child loves a book, it is a passionate love. That love stays with them, blood of their blood, bone of their bone, imbedded in their most cherished memories as they grow up. People remember the books they read as children far more than any books they read later. Not only do they remember the books themselves; they often remember the moments they read them, and the feelings, those intense feelings of pure happiness or excitement or fear that the books might have evoked in them. They remember details they often don’t remember with books later; even apparently ridiculous details like where the book was on the shelf when they took it out, the smell of the carpet in the library, the way someone had turned down a corner of their favourite page….
But what of the ‘constraints’ Amis talks about? He means of course that when you write for children, there are certain things that probably ‘constrain you’. You can’t be self indulgent. You have to steer clear of graphic sex. Graphic violence. Ugly political sentiments. Nihilistic hopelessness. Long convoluted explanations of finance or politics or religion or philosophy. Look-at-me experiments with language. Stories where nothing happens, people are indifferent to each other, and you have to guess what anybody thinks or feels and it all ends pointlessly. You have to—oh, the horror, the horror!- think of your reader, not just indulge in a pompous orgy of navel-gazing. And oddly enough those very constraints often produce books that are elegant, entertaining, funny, beautiful, exciting, moving and totally unforgettable in a way that Mr Amis could only dream of. And as to approaching topics of the ‘seriousness’ that critics all too often assume is missing in children’s fiction, due of course to its writers’ defective understandings—let’s just say that sometimes restraint and constraint produces far more telling, subtle and deep explorations of life, death, love, and human nature than those of an unbridled, literalistic permissiveness where anything goes.
Critics will sometimes also say that children’s books are ‘escapist’. That is also the charge levelled at genres like fantasy or thrillers or mysteries—genres that are also regarded with suspicion by many critics as being altogether too close to the inner child. When this is said, I’m always reminded of how somebody once took Tolkien to task for writing stories they deemed were ‘escapist’. Well, Tolkien replied, only jailers fear escapees.