The Dark Pasts (and Futures) of Children's Writers, Expanded

The best scene in The Secret Garden is when Mary, infuriated by Colin's tantrum, accuses him of self-martyrdom. Colin, who is truly frightened by the idea of being a hunchback, claims that he "felt a lump." Mary insists on seeing his back and then states, emphatically, "There's not a single lump there! There's not a lump as big as a pin! If you ever say there is again, I shall laugh!"

The narrator continues:
No one but Colin himself knew what effect those crossly spoken childish words had on him . . . now that an angry unsympathetic little girl insisted obstinately that he was not as ill as he thought he was he actually felt as if she might be speaking the truth.
In this passage, Frances Hodgson Burnett reveals why she deserves her place in the echelon of children's writers. Like E. Nesbit, Burnett knew, or remembered, the quality of child fear—quite different from adult fear--the dull terror that children can live with without fully comprehending why and don't have rationals or experience to combat.

It is this quality that keeps Burnett (more than Nesbit) from descending into the maudlin. In The Little Princess, the true horror of Sarah's loss is captured in her nearly catatonic behavior. Little Lord Fauntleroy never experiences anything as horrific but Burnett does a fine job illustrating his homesickness:

Perhaps he was a trifle tired, as his bed-time was nearing, and perhaps after the excitement of the last few days it was natural he should be tired, so perhaps, too, the feeling of weariness brought to him a vague sense of loneliness in the remembrance that to-night he was not to sleep at home . . . and the more he thought of [his mother] the less was he inclined to talk, and by the time the dinner was at an end the Earl saw that there was a faint shadow on his face.
It is this ability to capture childhood unhappiness that gives good writers for children such power. It isn't the same thing as going back and creating a childhood memory. For all the great creativity and fun of Rowlings' books, I never get the impression that she actually remembers how children behave. (C.S. Lewis remembered how children behaved, but his children are ambiguous beings, not adults, not children.) But Burnett and Nesbit had remarkably clear recollections of the fear, terror and uncertainty that children carry with them. (Of the two, Nesbit is somewhat more detached.)

Now there's a difference between remembering one's childhood emotions and being so damaged by one's childhood that one's entire life becomes an attempt at exorcism. Elizabeth Enright, E.M. Boston, Z. Snyder, Barbara Robinson, J. Spinelli, Edward Eager and Laura Ingalls Wilder belong to the first group. Dahl and Barrie belong to the latter, and I can't say that I have ever cared for their books. (There are also writers who remember their childhoods and those who just know what kids like: R.L. Stine belongs to the last category.) The overall inference is that through children's literature, good children's literature, a dark thread runs, a thread that Lemony Snicket exploits quite mischievously. It cannot, however, be recreated in a serious-oh-I'm-reaching-children-now sense. The writer either has it or doesn't.

This more or less brings us to the issue of children's lit v. adult lit. The dark side of children's literature is often dismissed by people who think that all children's literature is sweet innocence and who, furthermore, mistake sweet innocence for a lack of quality. I have never fully understood these people, but then I surprised my mother by browsing the children's section well into my teenage years (and still do, but presumably teenagers are more abashed by that sort of thing). Whenever adults produce that particular 'I'm too mature for those kinds of books' moue in reaction to children's literature, I get nervous, like I do when people tell me that they "LOVED Junior High." These are the sorts of things monstrous aliens say before they bite off your head.

In terms of subject matter and approach, the split between children's lit and adult lit has validity (even in this day and age of supposedly corrupted youth), but often the people promoting the split (like the New York Times Bestseller List) are more concerned with profundity than adult themes. Children's lit, they believe, simply isn't as well-written and deep as adult lit. It's superficial, light, airy, "okay for kids," and so doesn't have to be taken seriously.

Which is just foolish. Harry Potter may be as pointless as Harold Bloom contests but it isn't any worse than The Da Vinci Code. In fact, in many ways, it is far superior.

The problem is the same problem that angstifies the Academy Awards people every year: how do you honor comedy which, on the surface, just doesn't seem as earth-shattering and profound and deep and all that as, say, American Beauty?

Well, first, you acknowledge that comedy is incredibly difficult to make, like Olympic gymnastics: sure, it looks easy, but you go try it. Slight tangent: in High School, I had to do a bit of abstract art with oils. I failed miserably. It basically ended up a dirty mess of paint on a board. And not an on-purpose dirty mess of paint. Just dirty. I only passed because the final project was painting from a still life, and I can do still life with, well, one hand holding a paintbrush. So, don't tell me your 3-year old could paint a Pollock. Cause she can't.

Secondly, profundity is not only easier than comedy but there's profundity and then there's profundity. Crime & Punishment is profound. Not much else is really. Maybe Moby Dick. There you go. There's your standard. A lot of books come off as profound because people die and have affairs and question their purpose in life and have those contemplative well-that's-life endings where people sit around and think about how much they've grown. I HATE those endings. I think they are lousy. (One reason I believe mysteries are so popular is because the ending IS an ending: bad guy dies or gets arrested or, occasionally, gets let go, but something happens.) And for those of you who think art is supposed to imitate life and people do sit around contemplating how much they've grown, see my post under Fiction on why I don't think that's the point of fiction.

Now, there are kids who react well to this kind of profundity, who like the deaths and divorces and mixed plots of young adult literature. Such kids go on to select the same kinds of things from the adult section. I am not trying to argue that such pseudo-profundity doesn't exist in children's literature, I am arguing that lack of profoundity doesn't translate into a lack of profoundly good writing. If you accept my earlier claim, then most things aren't really profound anyway. So the criteria of what makes something worthwhile to read has to undergo re-evaluation. I personally like: it's worthwhile if it's well-written. And it's well-written if it keeps your interest (isn't dull), reads smoothly (or, if it doesn't read smoothly, it reads not-smoothly on purpose), tells a story and isn't stupid.

I don't think my criteria will get me hired on at any universities, but it's a useful standard against which most things can be compared. And a great deal of children's/YA literature compares against it very well indeed.


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