From Notting Hill Editions
Children's books are a preparation for adulthood, says children's author, Philip Womack. The best children's literature reflects and distorts grown-up life, allowing children to get used to troubling thoughts, before returning to safety in the last chapter.
If you mention, at a party, that you are an author, you usually receive a raised eyebrow and a mildly patronising, sub-voce question: "Are you published?" Well yes, I would like to reply, because I wouldn't say so if I wasn't; and yes, it wasn't just my mother making three copies on her printer and binding them for her friends.
Mention you are a children's author and you might as well hang an illuminated sign round your neck saying "Handle with care: possibly a lunatic; certainly mentally deficient". "Do you illustrate them yourself?" is the usual next question; once you have managed to clamber over that hurdle ("No, my book has got actual sentences and at least 200 pages in it. It's got semi-colons, for heaven's sake! Semi-colons!"), your would-be acquaintance will say, in tones as inevitable as the death of Lord Voldemort, "Well, isn't it much harder to write children's books?" The implication being that you must be mad to want to write a children's book, when it would be so much easier to write about your own life.
Harder than what? is what I'd like, at my fantasy party, to reply, but never quite pluck up the courage to do so. It's harder than putting up an IKEA bedstead, for one thing; but not as hard as solving the eurozone crisis, I imagine. One thing that it's certainly not harder than - and I know from direct experience - is writing an adult (that sounds naughty - let's call it "grown-up") novel.
All writing is difficult. It's not easier to write one thing than another thing, if you are a writer, since writers, like actors, if they are good, ought to be able to experiment with different personae. When you are writing a children's book, as opposed to that long-cherished monograph on drawing pins or Winston Churchill you've always wanted to write, you are merely tapping into another layer of your consciousness: you are remembering what it is like to be a child.
The most successful children's writers manage to present the world to children as children see it - in other words, as a completely bonkers place where grown ups talk about things like the eurozone crisis, when what's really important is whether or not there is a magical country, which certainly isn't the eurozone, in the back of the wardrobe. (To which, if you're a child and reading this, the answer is yes, you just have to look harder.)
But what about the fact, says my would-be acquaintance, that children are terribly discerning creatures who won't read a book unless it's a sort of rarefied essence of The Gruffalo's sneezes, Philip Pullman's leftovers, and J K Rowling's shopping list? This is not true. Children will read anything. Honestly. Especially if they've just learned how to read. Give yours a train ticket and it will keep them busy (this I witnessed only yesterday.) "Children need plots!", my would-be acquaintance will cry; but that, too, is arguable.
The minds of children are highly attuned to the sensual pleasures of words and the pictures they create. They have no interest in literary quality. Witness the continuing argument over Enid Blyton. "She is a terrible writer!" squeal librarians and teachers, "Not to mention politically suspect!" But children will devour them.
What children do have an interest in is perspective. Successful children's books take a child and put them into a place that has recognisable elements which are then distorted, just as in a dream or a nightmare. That child is thrust into danger - which does not have to mean being chased by zombies or being almost killed by the Dark Lord; it could just as well mean, à la Jacqueline Wilson, being left on your own at home - but there is the knowledge that safety will, eventually, be attained. The magic ring will always be found (see Ursula Le Guin); or destroyed (see The Lord of the Rings.)
The classic dream-children's book is Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), in which Alice wanders (and wonders) through a world where flowers can talk and, if you run very fast, you stay in the same place. There is nary a plot to be seen. These are exactly the sort of vivid imaginings that children, with their hyper-senses, experience. Why shouldn't a flower talk? For very young children the world around them is alive with inexplicable noises and sights and sounds - even your own bedroom becomes a place of danger, with your bed the only safe island in it.
Another glorious perspective change, inhabiting a satirical stage halfway between dream and reality, can be seen in the Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans (the first published in 1953), with their fantastical, spidery illustrations by the late, lamented Ronald Searle. There is no plot at all - but a series of sketches and squibs, written in Molesworth's inimitable mix of bad-spelling and world-weariness. Here you will find mythical beasts - well, gerunds and gerundives, which might as well be mythical beasts to your average 10-year-old (""Fancy a grown man saying hujus hujus hujus as if he were proud of it it is not english and do not make SENSE," said Molesworth about Latin) - skulking alongside prunes who, in the childish imagination, become generals and fight wars.
Willans so perfectly gets the skewed viewpoint of a young boy that children today still thrill to his books, despite their references to the Cold War and so on. Perhaps it is also owing to the peculiar timelessness of the English education - even in 2012 there are children scratching their heads over "hujus hujus hujus", no doubt using the same primer that Willans and Molesworth themselves used. I suppose the modern equivalent (though far inferior in style and wit) would be The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which sees the world through the eyes of an average American boy.
And what Willans and Searle do as well is hint at the possibilities of grown-upness - Sir Nigel Molesworth QC (a possible career choice, after all, for the little tyke) is placed on pretty much the same level of attainment as Nigel Molesworth, space explorer. There is, though, a sense of the inevitability of it all - that one day a child will have to deal with such problems as the eurozone, but that such things are fanciful and best left to the realm of imagination, whilst more pressing issues, such as teasing the weedy Fotherington-Thomas, are dealt with. ""Grown ups are what's left when skool is finished," says Nigel. A more sinister - and prescient - aphorism comes from Nigel's little brother, Molesworth 2. " 'Reality,' says molesworth 2, 'is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder.'"
So you see, it isn't just to do with plot. Although the shape of a story is also important to children. We can see this in E Nesbit's Five Children and It (1902). The young cast live a very ordinary Edwardian life - only there's a grumpy psammead, or sand-fairy, who can answer their every wish. The children are put into different degrees of danger (ranging from embarrassment to, when they wish for wings, possible death). It follows the "safe to strange to safe" arc in each chapter, and as a crescendoing line throughout the whole book. There is even a chapter in which the children wish their baby brother, the Lamb, to become older so that they can play with him; only, when their wish is granted, to be confronted with a swearing, sex-obsessed, smoking dandy who'd rather be spooning with a floozy than buying lollipops with his annoying brothers and sisters.
That sense of the otherness of the adult could not be better captured - why on earth would anybody want to "spoon"? Yet at the same time it is also quiet preparation for when the child him (or her)self becomes a smoking, swearing, sex-obsessed dandy. Oh, they will say, once they have grown up a bit. That's why he wanted to spoon.
Plot must always be underlined with that perspective shift, which is what I tried to do in my children's books. In the first, The Other Book (2008), my hero, Edward Pollock, led a life at his preparatory boarding school hitherto undisturbed by anything more exciting than dodgy lasagne and over-zealous masters. His world changed, however, with the arrival of a book that seemed to have power over reality; and with the subsequent appearance of a woman bent on retrieving that book from Edward. I layered the text with references to other books - Narnia, King Arthur - to show how deeply they enter into a child's mind.
I wanted to do two things: one, to suggest how powerful simply the reading experience is for children - it can alter reality for you, even alter the way that a child consciously behaves; and two, to show how children find the world a confusing and mysterious place and, as far as you are concerned, the new teacher might as well be an ectoplasmic avatar as anything else. And underneath was the plot - would Edward keep the book from those who sought it?
My second, The Liberators (2010), saw another, slightly older hero, Ivo Moncrieff, going to stay with his aunt and uncle in a gloomy and frightening London. Here any adult might appear dangerous; you might make friends with somebody, only for them to turn out to be a 1,000-year-old monster bent on removing people's consciousness and turning the world into chaos. The plot here hinged on Ivo stopping The Liberators, including said 1,000-year-old monster and his brother: a vulnerable boy set against forces he doesn't understand.
J K Rowling and Philip Pullman, the Gog and Magog of the children's book world, marry plot and perspective with elegance and vitality. Rowling's book is a melange of ideas, but her originality lies in bringing that child's perspective of wonder - perhaps best exemplified by the wizard's attitudes to things such as kettles. A kettle is a wondrous thing to a child, after all. Pullman throws new light on our relationship with ourselves - what more fascinating and beautiful idea could there be than that our essence can exist outside of ourselves, and reflect who we are?
Children's books are works of art, just as grown up novels are. Many of them deal with darker and deeper strands of our psyches than grown up novels. They occupy a special place in the mind of the reader. They are keenly formative, and they act as a treasure store of imagery. More importantly, they are a place where the reader is liminal, teetering somewhere between the knowledge of a child - that anything is possible - and the sadder knowledge of the adult. In making a children's book work it is essential to retain that sense of being on the boundaries.
Childhood is not a place totally separate from adulthood, but a borderland - a mirror world, even, distorting as well as reflecting (as Alice through the Looking Glass exemplifies). Whereas you might argue that the best grown up novels directly reflect the world (I think of the 19th century realists, as well as more recent works by Edward St Aubyn and Tessa Hadley), successful children's books alter it, as in a carnival mirror. Here adults can appear as dark and strange beings; a dog can become a monster; the child itself can stretch and become something other.
Children's books act in much the same way as dreams and nightmares, in that sense - you are given special powers, or made into a giant - but at the end you wake up, and you will be in your bed. In this way they are a preparation for the adult world, since they allow children to become accustomed to troubling thoughts and emotions. Children hunger for the safe world that they know, made strange - as long as it flips back to safety at the end. You can leave the carnival. It is only in grown-up novels that you gain the knowledge that, perhaps, you're stuck in it for ever.
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