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 evening. Re-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.
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.