The Child in the Adult, the Adult in the Child

7_15Goethe“Good children’s literature appeals not only to the child in the adult, but to the adult in the child.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Last week I jumped with all four feet into the controversy set off by an article stating that adults should be ashamed to be reading young-adult literature. Our community—the community that creates or teaches or otherwise takes its value from such literature—was incensed. Of course.

But the controversy itself is a healthy one and one we should be grateful to have out in the open. Because we writers for young people are constantly battling the silent contempt directed at all whose lives are focused on children. Our society claims to value its young but withholds the support needed for strong schools, libraries, recreation centers—even adequate food and shelter—and all other manner of support which would turn this soft “valuing” of the young into sustenance for their developing lives.

Last week I both countered some of Ruth Graham’s assertions and climbed on board with one crucial one. Perhaps young adult literature can be too insular, too limited to the daily angsts of the narcissistically young, to do a good job speaking to a wider adult audience. I even suggested that middle grade literature and even picture books more easily evade the same limitations, because they rise out of family, and because families are grounded in the world, inevitably enlarging the picture.

All of which brings me back to the quote from Goethe that I opened with: “Good children’s literature speaks not only to the child in the adult, but to the adult in the child.”

It’s an idea that we who are immersed in children’s literature, writing it, teaching it, purveying it, lose track of at our peril.

But how do we speak to the child in the adult, the adult in the child?

We start, I believe, by taking childhood seriously. By remembering deeply and honestly the nastiness children are capable of as well as the transcendent. When we touch into what is true, deeply true about being a child, we touch into what is true about being a human being . . . at any age or stage. Because we change in size. We change in understanding. We learn some interesting things about our bodies. Most of us even develop self-control, something society is high on. But we don’t change who we are.

7_15PeterPanAnd it is making contact with that real child still living within us all that connects us to our own humanity. What about that first audience—stuffily British, no less—that rose to its feet in appreciation of Peter Pan . . . and clapped for fairies?

So that’s the child in the adult. Speaking to that child begins with a fundamental appreciation of the children we all were. But what about the adult in the child? How do we read that? More to the point, what do we do with that concept when we sit down to write?

It is, I believe, the other side of the same coin. We start by taking children seriously, recognizing their intrinsic value as human beings, acknowledging the very substantial place our own childhood still occupies in our psyches. We recognize their inherent wisdom, their dignity, the fact that they are still whole people. Being small in stature doesn’t make them incomplete human beings.

I have written many different kinds of books, fiction and nonfiction for all ages, and I have never once consciously dumbed down what I wanted to say for a young audience. I have found myself severely limited by the number of words at my disposal, but that’s a different thing. For instance, when I wrote a biography of Christopher Columbus in 250 words, I wanted to tackle the aftermath of his “discovery,” which, as we are all aware now, was horrendous. Because my very tight word limit made that impossible, I ended at an open place from which the repercussions could be imagined and further information sought. No white wash. I had too much respect for my audience for that.

The concept of speaking to the adult in the child and the child in the adult is too amorphous to provide an easy answer to anything. Still, I can just about guarantee that work written for young people that honors the fullness of our humanity will be work that can be read to enlarge the perspective of any reader of any age.

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