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Some reflections on children’s stories
Have certain children’s stories made a deep impression on you when you were “growing up” ? (growing old is mandatory: growing up is optional). I have several which are quite unforgettable, and I can’t decide whether I’m just an immature individual, a child at heart, or if some children’s books are more than that, touch some centre of awareness we will always carry with us in our path through life.
Ever noticed how many great (children’s?) stories began as tales? Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was a story (and then an illustrated book) made by Dodgson for Alice Liddell; Dr Doolittle started life in letters written to Hugh Lofting’s children while he was at the Front in WWI and later elaborated as a continuing bedtime story; Richard Adams started Watership Down on drives in the English countryside with his children; Kenneth Grahame made up The Wind in the Willows for his son while taking walks along the banks of the Thames. Are we repeating a more primitive, pre-literate way of communication here, an oral mode that gave us the Odyssey and other epic tales? Can children’s stories sometimes approach the stature of myth?
Here are the stories that mean the most to me. My selection is dated, of course, and I hope you sympathise with my predicament. I’m stuck in time.
Lewis Carroll’ s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was a tale told by 30 year old clergyman, mathematician, inventor, photographer and poet Charles Dodgson to 10 year old Alice Liddell and her sisters on a boating trip in 1862. Attention has been focused on Dodgson’s relationship with little girls by the survival of six nude photographs (he took thousands of photos on many subjects) by people who refuse to acknowledge that pedophilia is an emotional malfunction, and cannot be demonstrated in neutral artifacts such as photos. A glance at one of these photos is enough to disallow such claims, or else start a witch hunt to investigate the putti in Renaissance art, for which children posed naked and were at the sexual mercy of painters like Michelangelo. Dodgson had friends among the pre-Raephalites, and like Conan Doyle his interests spanned logic and deduction, and spiritualism. Dodgson was interested in logic, and equally in anti-logic (much the same thing). This was his bond with children, who all show a fascination with taking logic to “unrealistic” extremes. If you’re a parent you’ll know what I mean. The White Rabbit, the Pool of Tears, the Caterpillar with his hookah, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, the Mock Turtle, and (from the sequel) the Jabberwock, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee are all characters equally at home in Carroll’s world, where they often stand for friends and family, in your and my dreams/nightmares/subconscious, and as archetypes at work in some eternal playground we once knew in another life. The story shows what happens when mathematics meets poetry. I loved the story as a child because it all made sense to me when much around me didn’t. As an adult I find it still emotionally moving, mind expanding, and comforting. Despite the dated whimsey, “nonsense” and Victorian sentiment, this is a picture of existence as it very probably is, beyond our misconceptions of reality. It’s a work of genius as unlikely as a work of genius always is. John Tenniel’s wonderful illustrations speak the same language and are a perfect complement. Here is a Dodgson nude.
It doesn’t take a reading of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces to realise that with Alice (far more than a whimsical portrait of Alice Liddell) we are following the journey of the hero. There are ancestral heroes like Odysseus, who bring honour to the clan, spiritual heroes like the shaman or the Catholic saint who mediate between god and man, cultural heroes like Prometheus – and a collection of unlikely heroes, children and animals, whose adventures are chronicled in the tales mentioned here and who tell us something of where we come from as well as where we might be going.
Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book was published in 1894 and based on his knowledge of Indian village life garnered as a six year old child. Kipling, a journalist and writer from his teenage years, scores twice in my world, his story collections Traffics and Discoveries (1904), Actions and Reactions (1909), A Diversity of Creatures (1917) and Debits and Credits (1926) containing the most powerful and unforgettable stories I have ever read. And his three books often called children’s books, Kim (1901), Just So Stories (1902) and the Jungle Books (1894/5) come very close to attaining the power of myth. What impressed me most when I first read the Jungle Book were the Mowgli stories. Mowgli, his adopted parents Raksha and Father Wolf, Grey Brother, his friends Bagheera, Baloo and Kaa, and the vivid sense they convey of how animals might actually live should they have (an admittedly humanoid) consciousness. Kilping had astonishing powers of empathy, for animals, poor native villagers, and, regrettably, for ordinary tommies in the Indian and Imperial Army who inspired his wildly popular and now mostly unreadable patriotic verse. Kipling in his time was a superstar adulated throughout the British Empire, but paradoxically his best work was written from grief. The death of his son in 1915 broke his heart and gave birth to some of his most deeply felt stories, and his Indian stories show a sympathy stemming from his feeling of being misplaced, of belonging to neither culture. With his extraordinary sensibility Kipling would have been a foreigner in any country. In his sojourn in India Kipling would have become aware how structured Indian society was, even at a fairly primitive village level. He transposed this structure to the animal world of the jungle (and later to his wonderful Just So Stories) and so doing vividly illustrated how much a part of the natural world humans are, and what our bonds with animals and nature mean. By far the best illustrations were his own for the Just So Stories, showing that among his other gifts Kipling was a great artist.
Great children’s story writers all have a gift for the simple. This is much harder to achieve than at first you might think: it is much easier to be complex, to explore the myriad dimensions of experience we have as adults. Writing specifically for children does not achieve simplicity. Many children’s books are easy for a child to understand and nothing more. The simple is something at the core of our being. Look closely and you’ll see most of us want very little: love, safety, security. The great writers of children’s books show us the path we can follow to achieve these goals.
Kenneth Grahame was secretary for the Bank of England when he wrote and published The Wind in the Willows in 1908. It had begun life as stories told his son Alastair as they walked the banks of the Thames near their home. Grahame was a brilliant scholar denied an academic career, and an unhappily married man in an at times uncongenial job, and he poured his longings into these carefree stories of life on the river. There are few more indelible characters than Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad, thinly disguised human beings more than animals. Read at a certain age, it’s never forgotten. Right at the start is the first lesson: life is to be enjoyed. Simple and solemn Mole is doing his spring cleaning, hampered by his poor eyesight and distracted by silly frolicking rabbits when he throws his tools down. “O bother!” he says, and goes exploring. He never looks back. Ratty embodies the second lesson: enthusiasm is the spice of life, and Toad the third, enthusiasm to the state of obsession is an evil. And Badger stands for the old fashioned virtues that are the foundation of such a world where life can be enjoyed: courage, affection, simplicity and honesty. There must be something in it, for these are my values too. Even the god Pan, the divinity who shapes the lives of these animals, has a part to play, though I have never felt Grahame was fully successful with this aspect of the story. On the other hand, I’ve never been to England, yet I have an extraordinarily vivid sense of the English countryside, in Spring and in Winter, and I can thoroughly understand Mole’s apprehension of the Wild Wood. This is a portrait of life as it never is, as it always will be, should we ever attain the perspective to see things as they really are. It’s getting to be too simple for children to enjoy now. Like the Pilgrim’s Progress it’s for all ages. Although there have been many famous illustrations of the Wind in the Willows, the outstanding ones for me are those by Arthur Rackham, an artist whose control of watercolour is linked to an apprehension of the absurd, grotesque, just-outside-reality nature of the fantasy world, yet whose warren interiors, with their well stocked larders, are thoroughly convincing.
Children’s stories often contain a moral, or lesson, something the author wants to say for the benefit of his or her reader. Like all such attempts, it is a mistake, and usually fails. I remember ignoring the moral at the end of Aesop’s Fables when reading them as a child. If you can’t say it through the story you shouldn’t say it at all, especially to children, who have their own world to retreat to, where there are no adults. The best children’s stories all have a message, and readers realise it much later, when they are adults. That’s the way it should be.
Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Dr Doolittle was published in 1920, developed from illustrated letters he sent to his children during the first world war. This horrific experience, which traumatised the lives of those who were not killed, on pretenses which engage scholars till this day to elucidate, included much inhumanity to animals. Horses were used on the battlefield and were often wounded, dying in agony. But the animals encountered by Dr Doolittle are just as much human beings, and the stories are also a deeply felt plea for a “humane” attitude to others, set in the past of 1820 before the inhumanity of WWI would have been possible. Lofting was an engineer, and only the popularity of his first book turned him into a writer and illustrator. I first met the doctor, Polynesia the parrot, Jip the dog, Dab-dab the duck, Tommy, Matthew Mugg the cat’s meat man and some of the wonderful animals they met along the way like the Pushmipullyu, when I was 12. My aunts whom we visited had a set of the 12 books which I read while the adults talked, and I set out to buy my own. I still remember vividly the sense of wonder, and also, strangely, familiarity, I experienced when reading the books. The idea that a man could talk to and understand the language of animals was an extraordinary concept to me as a child. I understood just how painful and distressing it must have been for the doctor to enter a pet shop. I started noticing the way animals communicated, and soon found they were far from dumb: they had a limited, but still expressive, vocal range, and supplemented it with a much more extensive range of what we call “body language” than humans are usually capable of. This transformed the way I related to animals, and I soon noticed some of the same non vocal signs in people I met, which made my personal interactions a bit more complex. I was “growing up”. The books are just as much concerned with the wonderful world we live in, and beyond, for the doctor travelled to the North Pole, and even to the moon. Lofting succeeded brilliantly in painting a portrait of a genuinely kind man, not often done in fiction. And the books’ impact was all the more profound for the fact that Lofting happened to be an enormously gifted illustrator as well.
Could it be that the great children’s books help the child navigate the passage from their world as a child to the experience of being an adult? A book that can portray the world convincingly as a child sees it, where the wonderful is just around the corner, while conveying dearly learned “adult” values without being so obvious as inculcating a moral, is a kind of halfway house, where you can be both a child and an adult at the same time. I wonder what happens to those who grow up without the benefit of such books.
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are was published in 1963, with both story and art created by Sendak. Although the book made him famous and he is still best known for that title, Sendak is a major artist, illustrator, set designer and writer and producer for television. Recommended for an awareness of his range and the extent of his achievement is Selma G Lane’s The Art of Maurice Sendak (Bodley Head 1980). Sendak became “controversial” in 1970 when his book In the Night Kitchen was denounced by the Fig Leaf Society of America for including three illustrations of a naked boy showing male genitalia, although it caused no known problems to the book’s child readers. I came across Where the Wild Things Are during a period when I had the care of two young children, one of whom had a copy of the book. I loved it, and I did a deal whereby I bought something for him, and he gave me the book. During that time I became aware of how important ‘monsters’ are to children. They love them, and enjoy being frightened by them. Some people keep this up in adulthood, and there is a genre of trash cinema to cater for them. Controlled fear as a way of dealing with anxiety I guess. One of Sendak’s influences was Disney, and I’m not surprised at that, for the illustration for Where the Wild Things Are is far from fearful. The monsters are always smiling. The story is a simple one of role reversal: Max is naughty and gets sent to bed; he encounters the wild things, who get naughty and Max chastises them, then goes home and has his supper. Almost alone of the books I have chosen for this survey Where the Wild Things Are is a real children’s book, a picture book with a simple story and lots of pictures. The illustrations are not just good, but works of art, and have made an enormous impression on me. In a field where great illustrators proliferate, I think Maurice Sendak is probably the greatest still.
Illustration is often considered an important element in children’s books, but I wonder if the full colour, surreal and sophisticated illustrations often found are really rather for the adults who buy the books, the equivalent of the expensive packaging on supermarket products that actually make the sale. Many children’s stories started as tales, and the bedtime story ritual that children have with their parents show that telling is still the most important part of any story. On the other hand children’s stories often release creative levels that perhaps artists couldn’t access in other ways, with their appeal to subconscious urges, fantasy and the surreal.
Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy began with A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968, followed by The Tombs of Atuan of 1971, and The Farthest Shore in 1972; two other Earthsea books were published later at the end of the century. The Earthsea books sound like a sword and sorcery prequel to Harry Potter but in fact Le Guin is exploring in some detail the concept of magic, usually presented as a matter of spells and potions with a medieval Christian pejorative approach. By contrast, in Earthsea magic is a matter of laws and procedures, just as science is in our world. The substance of the first book is Ged’s confrontation with the Shadow, a presentation of some of Jung’s ideas which is the last thing you’d expect in a children’s book. The second book is the story of Tenar, a young priestess of gods called the Nameless Ones. Tenar forms a relationship with Ged, and finally flees the sterile rites of her cult. The book is partly a girl’s coming of age story, influenced in the telling by the very active Women’s Liberation movement of the time, and partly a reworking of the story of Theseus and Ariadne. In the third book Arren, Prince of Enlad, travels with Ged to the land of the dead. Together they overcome the sorcerer Cob, heal the land and enable Arren to unite all the islands in a great kingdom. Ged however has lost his power, and sails off at the end of the book to an unknown destination. Most of Le Guin’s work presents ideas from the social sciences, such as anthropology, psychology and comparative religion, often with a environmental or political approach, as when she shows the people from the planet Winter in the Left Hand of Darkness as sexless, but subject to ‘kemmer’, a sexual cycle that makes them either male or female for the period. That book explores the sensibility of characters who have experienced both masculinity and femininity. The Earthsea books are very close to Le Guin’s other books and qualify as children’s literature mainly because the protagonists are very young. Le Guin is a great stylist (unlike Rowling), and I remember how much I loved reading her prose, quite apart from the interest of the story. Le Guin is a science fiction and fantasy author mainly because these genres are ones open to her themes. She adopts the paraphernalia of the genre, in a highly innovative way, but is mainly interested in psychological processes, and how these are affected by gender and environment, and the fact that she has accomplished this exploration while becoming a best selling and prize winning author says a lot for her gifts as a novelist. She lead me from exciting adventures on other worlds to discoveries about magic, paths to maturity, explorations of sexual politics and environmental issues. She also has gifts as an illustrator and it’s a pity more of her drawings are not available.
Is the category of children’s literature somewhere where we place uncategorisable fiction? Is Alan Garner’s Red Shift (1973) a children’s story? Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a brilliant and effective satire of aspects of 18th century civilisation, ends up there, where it meets the folk tales collected by the Grimm brothers, sometimes horrifying ghost stories that German peasants told each other. Who decides just what makes a story genre (including childlit) or mainstream (in terms of bulk, mainstream accounts for about 10% of published stories). Is it a marketing decision? Is it because critics like classifying stories so they can accord them relative status? There are children’s stories for children of course, but I’ve remembered a bunch of them here which are just as much for adults. Are they children’s stories just because the characters in them are animals or children?
Richard Adams’ Watership Down was first told to his children on weekend drives in the country, and published as a book in 1972. Adams was a career civil servant with initially no idea of authorship. His book, which broke all the rules of children’s fiction, was a huge bestseller and became equally popular with adults. Surprisingly, Adams turned out to be one of the greatest of contemporary novelists, each of his books totally unlike its predecessor, when he embarked on a literary career at the age of 52. Watership Down is an astonishingly accurate description of the English countryside. It vividly describes several hundred species of wildflower, gives a detailed depiction of the life cycle of the rabbit, and welds elements such as these to a fantasy in which a rabbit and his companions embark on an epic quest for a new warren. Depictions of the violence which is an inescapable part of the life of all wild things, and of mating behaviour, are presented realistically. Actually Watership Down is not a children’s book at all, merely one treated as one by its first readers because bunnies weren’t taken seriously by adults at the time. Somehow in the writing process Adams accessed the world of Jungian archetypes that was to power all his fiction. His books are neither fantasy, children’s literature nor historical fiction, but explorations of basic psychic patterns we all share. Fiver the seer and Hazel the leader may not be easy to identify with, and trying to identify themes with those found in epic poetry now seems rather silly, but there is no doubting the book’s power. Like all Adams’ fiction it is immensely gripping. Much that has been written about this and Adams’ other fiction is a record of how uncomfortable readers often are with the experience of reading his books, with readers and critics alike raising non-relevant issues of sexism, political conservatism, classical allusions and claims of mythic status. The book, while not a children’s book, needs to be read as a child reads, with total acceptance and no preconceptions. Parallels with Adams’ other books, Shardik or The Girl in a Swing for instance, can then be seen. There are few worthwhile illustrations for the book available.
Are there such things as children’s books? I suppose there are, alphabet books, picture books of animals, monsters and fairies. But the children’s books that are highly regarded, and often read by adults, are they children’s books really? Or just examples of a type of fantasy literature, which also includes Mills and Booners, comix, bodice rippers, ghost stories, sci-fi, horror stories, pornography, crime novels, detective tales and virtually everything that doesn’t deal realistically with the adult world of human relationships – the genres which form, in fact, the major component of reading matter.
Ratsmagic was published in 1976, a story by Christopher Logue and illustrations by Wayne Anderson. The story of Bluebird’s egg and it’s mysterious promise, and how it was stolen by the witch Dole and rescued by Rat with his magic wand is poetic and symbolic and only marginally within the reach of a child. Adults would probably get much more from it. But the story is not really the important part. The illustrations are by British artist Wayne Anderson, who went on to illustrate another book by Logue, The Magic Circus, and many other books for both children and adults, as well as successfully exhibiting his work, and contributing to film. Anderson is a painter in the style of Hieronymus Bosch or Salvador Dali, and his mysterious, disturbing and evocative art sets off depth charges in my subconscious whenever I look at it. Ratsmagic is an example of a children’s book that successfully travels between the worlds of children’s literature, fantasy and science fiction, anime and the surreal. Perhaps it is not a children’s book at all. Examples of Anderson’s art are at his website http://www.wayneandersonart.com. Unlike the other books mentioned here, most of which are text based, this one is an art book as far as I’m concerned (with apologies to Christopher Logue), so I’ll leave out some words and put in an extra picture.
I started out by calling these books children’s literature, but now I’m not so sure. Is it because I’m now an adult that I see more in them than I did as a child? Are they books for adults of all ages? Are they books which have been marginalised by being labelled as children’s literature, with all the assumptions that label carries with it? Some books take on a key position in your life. Read them at a certain time and you grow with them, as it were. These books have meant that to me.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.