The Lonely Prawn

Lonely Child

Photo by Henrikke Due on Unsplash

It never surprises me when it happens.  In fact, after nearly fifty years as a children’s writer, it usually gives me a good laugh.

What am I talking about?  The potshots “grown-up” writers love to take at anything written for the young.

I watched the film Wonder Boys the other eveningRe-watched it would be the more appropriate term, because I’m certain I had seen the film before, but so long ago that every line was new to me, albeit each arrived carrying a whiff of deja-vu.

The film, for those who haven’t seen it either once or twice, is about a novelist/professor who, after a spectacular success with his first novel, cannot finish his second.  And it’s about his brilliant and troubled—aren’t all brilliant writers also troubled?—student.

(I sometimes grow annoyed with the way writers are depicted on the screen, poor neurotic, suffering and insufferable souls.   But then I remind myself that the people behind that depiction are, themselves, writers and decide we have permission to poke fun at ourselves.)

The line that caught my attention occurred during a writers’ festival.  It’s the final gathering and those who placed a manuscript with an editor during the weekend are being congratulated.  Before we get to our brilliant but troubled student, the sale of a children’s book is announced.  The title, The Lonely Prawn.

If you’re someone out there writing for children or who actually knows children’s books, you get the joke.  But what I react to isn’t so much the amused contempt for children’s literature revealed in such a title; it’s the much deeper, darker contempt for childhood itself that lies beneath it.

Many years ago, after I’d published my second novel for young people, a journalist was sent out to interview me for our community paper.  When he arrived, it couldn’t have been more obvious that he considered the story he’d been assigned—a housewife who’d published a kiddie book—beneath him.  After a brief and annoying conversation, I handed him a copy of the novel and said, “Read it and then come back if you want to talk to me.”

He returned with a whole different set of questions, beginning with “How can you write things like that for kids?”

I think the mistake that many people make, a mistake even some who are trying to write for young readers make, is one of “othering.”  We cannot believe that children are yet human beings, that they have serious and complex inner lives and thus that serious and complex literature can serve them.

And this despite the fact that we all enter the world as infants and live long years as children and never leave the deep impact of that experience behind.  Why then do we block out both conscious memory of and respect for childhood?

Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to recall our own powerlessness, our total dependence on those who met our needs so imperfectly.

Perhaps it is also because we live in a society immersed in a profound ageism, one that denigrates both young and old, dismisses youth as not being important yet, age as being past all importance.

But then that’s another blog entirely, isn’t it?

One of my memories of being a child in the 1940’s is of standing in a circle of my mothers’ friends who were talking about me.  They discussed me as though I might be a lamp or a table, some object completely without awareness.

Don’t they know I’m a person? I thought.

They didn’t.

And then I also thought, Wouldn’t they be surprised to know what’s going on inside my head?

They would have.

More than seven decades later, the grown-ups struggle with that concept still.  That children are real, that they contain whole worlds of thoughts and feelings, that they deserve a complex and demanding literature . . . and that, believe it or not, such a literature exists.

I do hope, though, that poor lonely prawn does finally find a friend.



10 thoughts on “The Lonely Prawn

  1. Linden McNeilly

    Oh, gosh, this was marvelous. Thank you, Marion. I can’t tell you how many times this type of condescension has happened in my world. (When I told a friend I had a number of books for kids published he asked, “For money? Real money?” I replied that it was not Monopoly money.) I will say that I have had my book group, which always read exclusively adult writing, read a young adult novel and they were very impressed and engaged. Possibly surprised, but I’ll take it as a good first step.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      The only thing I have loved about being on faculty of a mixed–adult and juvenile–writers’ conference is the response from the writers for grown-ups when we kiddie-lit folks read our work. It’s quite delightful to watch the jaws drop!

  2. Norma Gaffron

    Works both ways, doesn’t it! I just got another phone call asking me if I’d do a survey: “Is there anyone there between the ages of 18 and 65?” I’m here and I’m 88 and I still have opinions… these days you can’t even SLAM down the receiver. You have to just firmly say NO, and place the phone back in its holder.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      You are so right, Norma, that it works both ways. I love being 81. For all the indignities my body manages to produce to keep me on notice my psyche has ripened into something that feels like a truly good life. It’s been a messy journey getting here, but here is such a good place to be!

  3. Sabrina Mock-Rossi

    It’s funny, because I was recently having a related conversation with my mother — about how much the adult world, and adult literature in particular, doesn’t really respect children’s literature. Some do, of course, but many do not. I watched one episode of Friends From College and barely made it through. One of the major thread lines was how the writer in the group was going to write a YA novel as a last ditch effort to save his career because his own second novel ideas were terrible but YA was easy to produce. This was bad enough, but then, his wife and friends were all appalled (dare I say, horrified) that he would stoop to that level. It was honestly dismaying to see that in today’s day and age, writers and producers could be not only so ignorant, but so insulting.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      Isn’t the ignorance amazing? Especially considering what young-adult literature is these days. I remind myself, though, that those who are important respond to what we are doing fully and with a passion that goes far beyond respect. May we keep the ones we are writing for in mind and block out all the rest.

      1. Uma Krishnaswami

        Yup, They ignored us or made fun of us until they realized there was actual money to be made in our marketplace. Then they strolled in thinking they could knock out a picture book or a YA novel on a free weekend. Ah, the hubris!

        1. Marion Dane Bauer

          Yes, the money is an interesting part of the equation, isn’t it? I know there have been any number of periods when major publishers were being kept afloat by their kiddie lit division.

  4. Judith Logan Lehne

    Wow! I was recently at a wedding where someone shoved a woman in front of me and told her, “She’s a children’s writer. Tell her about the book you want to write.” The woman told me her idea and then said, “Of course, I’d dumb it down for kids.” In the interest of civility, I wished her good luck, but internally said, “you’re gonna need a lot more than luck with that attitude.” Still makes me furious to think about it, but I’m distracting myself by working on my latest: Freddie the Can’t Hop Frog.


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