Notes on Literature: Children’s Books, a Conversation and Some Thoughts

Last week, a friend and I had a pretty incisive conversation about what we, each, found fascinating about children’s literature as adult readers. She was drawn to the possibility, which children’s fiction affords an adult, of seeing the world from a child’s point of view and the magic and wonder inherent in it. I have always been drawn to the presence, alongside magic and wonder, of darker, even adult, themes, concerns, and questions. (I pointed to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as an instance of this; it’s spectrum of virtually adult themes ranges from religion and science to violence and megalomania to adult and adolescent identity and sexuality, all coloured by a sophisticated sense of moral ambiguity. Thinking back, though, Pullman’s work isn’t perhaps the best of candidates to make as general a point as I did. I’ll get back to that a little later.)

Dark or not, adult or not, the best of children’s fiction (British?), we agreed, is characterised by strands of both subversiveness and moral ambiguity. They brim with dubious and unconventional characters, places, experiences, and events that adults would typically warn children against, but, in this instance, don’t. Rather, they gleefully read such incendiary entertainment to their kids, urge their older children to read them, and, at times, read them themselves! It’s “a means of breaking the rules without breaking them,” as my friend put it.

And right there, we’d hit upon a trinity of paradoxes: adults writing for children; children being sanctioned, by adults, to read morally ambiguous and subversive fiction; and adults reading children’s literature. What kind of adult writes for children? There are theories, I said, of arrested development; that writers of children’s books are big children themselves. There are theories of a darker, Freudian, nature too. (Of which the less said the better, charming though they certainly must be to a psychoanalyst.) We agreed that there does seem to be something of the child, or at least the untainted curiosity and wonder of one, in most writers and illustrators of children’s books. Perhaps just a hint of a twisted mind too; I mentioned Maurice Sendak and Where the Wild Things Are. (There’s even a The Simpsons episode, The Girl Who Slept Too Little, that parodies it.)

Are adult questions, themes, and concerns expressed subtly in children’s literature? I used to think so and had stated so during our conversation. However, in retrospect, having given it more thought, I don’t think so. They are, I feel expressed not so much subtly as matter-of-fact-ly. (Consider, for instance, the casual jokes about death in the Alice books and the darker shades of sibling rivalry in Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life.) Fiction for adults is unlikely to treat such questions this way. And that I’ve come to believe is the essential difference, if there is one, between literature broadly meant for children and that meant for adults. And that, too, is the reason Pullman’s His Dark Materials is unsuitable as an illustration of the way adult themes are handled in children’s fiction. It could even be argued that, despite being filled with a profound sense of mystery and wonder, Pullman’s work is anti-children’s literature in that it rallies against the idealising and romanticising of children and childhood and argues for embracing adulthood in all its colours. And yet, it continues to fascinate me and us that even when shaded by darkness, the darker themes, frequently if not always, coexist with a sense of magic, mystery, and wonder. Sometimes I wonder if they feed into each other and cannot exist one without the other.

(Musings: Could this relationship between the inherent darkness of the world and its undeniable capacity for magic and wonder be described as sublime? That is, could what is unquestionably beautiful also be inevitably terrifying or frightening?)

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