Children’s literature and the great ‘oh’

This post marks the debut of a new series on this blog, namely a collection of longer and more in-depth pieces. Long-reads, essays, that sort of thing. They will be able to be read in sequence or in isolation, and I hope they’ll help to shed some light on children’s literature. And on tigers. 

Let me know what you think x 


I. Introduction

I’m in a taxi, on my way home from a conference, and we’re cutting through the streets of York. As shops blur past us, and tourists pause to photograph each other against increasingly antiquated backgrounds, he asks me, in that way that taxi drivers do, where I’ve been. A conference, I say, and then in that still somewhat disbelieving frame of mind, I add, Cambridge. Cambridge. I have spoken about my research at Cambridge and it is all still a little unreal to me.

Oh, he says, and what were you talking about? Children’s books, I say. Or rather, in my dizzy and deftless and exhausted manner, I fall back on the language of the weekend and refer to it as children’s literature. Pony books, I say, to be precise. Words. I struggle sometimes with them when all I want to do is talk about them. The knot of language in my throat, coupled with the weekend I have had, makes me fall silent. Makes me wait for his reply.

Oh, he says.

But this time his oh is different. It is a flat oh, a sort of dimly appalled oh, the oh that speaks of somebody who has entered a conversation that they do not wish to end.

It is the sort of oh I have heard before.

When you tell people that you study children’s literature, that you research it and, on a good day, could be considered to specialise in it, you tend to get two or three stock responses. One, invariably, is a question about Harry Potter. Hermione, I say, is an icon and I remain somewhat obsessed with Colin Creevey who, whenever I write about Colin Craven of The Secret Garden, ends up merging with his near name-sake and requires me to spend several hours editing him back out of the text. Another response is oh, do you write books then? Yes, I say, young adult, children’s, and secret grande passion projects that I furtively work on on a Saturday morning. And then I realise that I have stopped at the yes, and that our conversation is floundering somewhat, and then I talk about the weather and we settle in that great space of instinctive comfort for us both.

But the other stock response, that is where the hinge of this discussion lies, for it is the person who says, oh. And there is always a pause after that oh which speaks so much more than the oh itself. Humans are stories. We construct ourselves on dialogue on words, in interactions with the person at the checkout or the bus driver. Every sentence we utter, or hear, or see bounding across the television screen in subtitles, enables us to understand a little bit more about ourselves. We are stories, always searching for the next encounter, or the next step in our narrative, and though so much of that urge renders itself through the verbal, a lot of it can be discerned in the silences. The stillness.

The Oh.

And because I am English and cannot cope with awkward silences without spending several years in therapy, I leap in and start to give stock responses of my own. I say that children’s books are exciting. They’re interesting. Why would we not want to find out more about these books that we give daily, blithely even, to children across the world? Don’t we want to find out what they’re telling children to be, what they’re saying you can’t do, how they participate in this process of growing up, of becoming adults?

Usually, at this point, the conversation can go one of two ways. The Oh may reassert itself; stubborn, persistent, crafted of a deep concern to end this conversation.

Or they may ask me about Harry Potter.

This series is an attempt to offer a third way.

I hope to offer an insight into children’s literature and what they are and what they can do. I will show you how these books can, do and should talk to you now as adults, and how they form a part of the everyday world we live in. I will talk about what makes us human; happiness, sadness, love, grief, anger, and I will show you how children’s literature fits into those worlds and how they help to form the sense of what those worlds can be for youthful readers. I will talk about French literary theory (briefly and painlessly, I promise), ballet dancers and boarding schools. I will talk about art and I will call it art without shame and without reticence. I will talk about lines and shading and shadows and colour and the way that a small white rabbit can encompass the breadth of human emotion in the simplest of ways. I will talk about adults and children and readers, reading, even when we don’t realise that we are and that we can.

And I will talk about tigers.


II. Once upon a time…


Beginnings, to paraphrase a famous nun, seem a very good place to start. And for children’s books, or rather a wide and deeply held cultural impression of children’s books, much of the beginning centres itself in four little words: once upon a time. It is an evocative and laden phrase, embedded in our cultural psyches and reinforced over the many, many times we have heard it. Disney. Fairytales. Shaggy dog stories. We hear once upon a time and think of an exchange of a story, loosely placed and perhaps loose with the truth, but the phrase works more precisely than that. It is a shorthand to symbolise what is to come. Once upon a time never ends after the time itself; it is a starting point. Once upon a time there was … Once upon a time a man… Once upon a time a princess. But that’s the thing with language; once it’s been around as long as once upon a … it starts to symbolise something else. It starts to symbolise something quite unrelated to what it means.  Once upon a time asks us to unfix our world. It asks us to go somewhere else.

I am a child, in the first house I remember, and I am sat upon my father’s lap.

            Once upon a time there was a girl…

            And oh, the sheer whimsy of those four opening words, the way they nonchalantly begin a story, I am overwhelmed by them and I always will be. Stories being told out loud are my madeleine; a link between the immediacy of the moment and a memory. Light on water. Burnt oven chips. Orange sponge. The sparking of a village bonfire.

Once upon a time is a beginning, then, but it is not the beginning of story.  It is an expression of the value that story has within our society. It is an affirmation of the fact that sometimes we need to connect with others, that we need to have an indefinable something to tie us together with another person, that we feel the need to connect ourselves into a web of the world. And when we speak, when we begin a story or an anecdote or a half remembered faux this happened to my friend and not to me tale, we make that web stronger. Language is a connection. Roland Barthes, a French critic and perhaps my first literary love, takes that a step further and it’s to him we turn to at this point because, in a way, everything starts and ends with him.

And in a series all about children’s literature, a series so devoted to telling you about the wonders of this great and wild world, please forgive me that my first literary recommendation is not a children’s book.

But then again, maybe it is. It is a book about language and language, as we know, is the root of all that we are. A Lover’s Discourse, fragments by Barthes (1977) is a complex text; ferociously dense at parts, furiously opaque at others, and at moments, so shimmeringly translucent that you don’t read it but rather grasp at the fragmentary beauty that is paid before you. Barthes is perhaps best known for the death of the author. A not literal idea but rather a metophorical and interpretative stance; that to remove the influence of the author from a text was to open up a whole new opportunity of literary critique. But for me his best work is here in  A Lover’s Discourse. It is a text which speaks of an attempt to understand love through the medium of language: the fragments of the title render themselves as brittle, brief, fat, round moments throughout the life of a relationship. He works through the lifetime of a relationship from “s’abîmer / to be engulfed” through to “drame / drama”, “fautes / faults” and “je-t’aime / I-love-you”.  A dictionary, of sorts, for love. The test of whether language can explore the unexplorable, the unvocalisable. It is intoxicating and one entry, amidst many, resonates with me: “Language is a skin : I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my word. My language trembles with desire.” (73). This, the first entry in his entry for “Talking: declaration / declaration”, was a life-changer for me. It made me realise that language is this physical thing. It is desire. It is hunger. We may speak into the silence, we may scream into the night, but when we are heard, oh it sates every part of our soul.

So what does this have to do with children’s literature? Well, perhaps at first glance this looks like a self-serving digression and a part of it is. But every digression begins with intent, every step away from the path is done to round our knowledge of where we are and what we are doing. You walk on a path, maybe, to work or school, every day, but one day  you see a flower growing in the bare-mud of the grass. The flower is yellow, stark, brilliant, and you look for it the day after on your walk and feel oddly proud that it has survived another day.  It has nothing to do with your work or school but it helps you understand the path. It places the path within the world, within the natural world, and it starts to characterise this path as a space within its own right. A thousand people may tramp through it on a daily basis, but this path lives within its own right. It will get you to where you’re going and bring you back, but here, right here, there is life. There is story.

            That is digression, there, but it is digression with purpose, so let’s now return to that quote with the idea of understanding it further. And  if you can’t see the yellow flower just yet, you will. Trust me.

Language is a skin” (73). Language is commonplace then, it is something that we all have, but it’s also something that we wear. The physical connection between self and word. That to write the word cat on the page is to somehow express a movement, a physicalised rendering of the word. “I rub my language against the other” (73). And here we come back to that idea of the physical word. The embodiment of language. That to say hello to somebody is to place something in the world, something as finely crafted as a Fabergé egg or the tiny hand of a newborn child.  ” It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my word” (73). That last word, oh how I ache at it, because it is so precise. Word. Not words, but word, and in the beginning was that word, that pure and deft affirmation that everything we had that was of value could be summed up in communication. ” My language trembles with desire.” (73). The crux, perhaps, of what I’m trying to say. The yellow flower at the heart of all this. Desire. Language aches to be heard and understood. There is a driver behind every word we utter, even when we do not know it or feel it or even register it. It’s what lies behind the internet, the newspaper, the person who talks too loudly on the train. We want to be heard. We want our thoughts to find a space within another and a home.

So we have language, this yearning thing of desire, this expression of attempting to fit into the world and understand and reaffirm our place in it, but I have neglected one part of this argument. The speaker. Every word comes from somebody, somewhere. The spoken, the written, the half-thought. Everything has a beginning so let us try to understand the nature of this one. Let’s add an adult. and, for the sake of argument, let’s create a simple scenario. Something common, every day.

            The adult said, “What time is it?”

            And this is the point where we start to make assumptions. Connections. And they’re not wrong connections or falsehoods, but rather they are the connections that we read into everything. Language is never quite as simple as it looks because,  to be understood, it requires a mental picture to go along with these lines on a page. How ridiculous they are by themselves, a line and a dot and a slash and suddenly we have the word cat and suddenly I am thinking of the fat ginger cat whom, in a fit of childish idealism and indecision, named Prince Marmaduke of Marmalade but ended up being known as Smelly. And so, when you see the word adult a similar thing shall happen with you. You won’t think of my cat but rather, you’ll think of the adults you know. Maybe not a specific one, but rather the idea of the adult themselves. A hybridised figure of authority, perhaps, somebody tall and stern and powerful. Gendered, maybe, too, a man for some reason, though I am not sure at the thought that sends me there.

And now, let’s try that exercise again but change one word in the scenario.

            The child said, “What time is it?”

            What happens when you read the word child in that sentence? For me, there’s something rather Dickensian about this half-thought through scenario; the winsome urchin stepping forward, all touseled blond hair and joyful ignorance, to ask somebody, perhaps a faceless adult, what time is it? The question feels inappropriate suddenly; an expression of impatience maybe, a phrase to be aligned with that tortorous are we there yet and I need a wee. The phatic statements that we make when we do not care about the response but rather say them out of a need to facilitate the contract of discourse. Good morning. Hello. How are you.

Language is a skin, but when it comes to children’s literature, it becomes conflated with a thousand different questions and the most pronounced, perhaps, is the question of separating the adult from the child. I have read a thousand pained, awful books that are written from an adult’s perspective for a strangely idealised idea of the child, a child that bears as little relationship to an actual child as a frog does to a hamster. A memory of what children were, a vague misshapen idea driven from the memory of what our childhood was, and the privilege of adult to determine that that memory is to be the experience of others.

It is at this point that I introduce you to Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958). Tom is in quarantine at his Aunt and Uncle’s flat, one of the many apartments that is nestled into an old house, and  one night he hears the clock in the hallway strike thirteen. It is the trigger for a timeslip adventure for Tom and the start of a novel which deals, resolutely, with friendship and love and age and sadness. The ending, I shall warn you now, sings from somewhere so beautiful that it is to be read in private and with tissues close at hand. What Tom’s Midnight Garden does so spectacularly is that it understands the nature of childhood and the oppressive presence of adults. We are always closer to our parents once we leave home and once we grow up. We understand them more and they us. As children, though, and as mum and dad, we are all complex and confused and problematic. Love is so close to loathing some days, so close. And sometimes to be adult is to forget that urge of the child to find their own identity and purpose in a world that is determined to constrict and deny their freedom. Go to school. Do your homework. Get the bus. Do your allowance. Tom’s Midnight Garden denies all of that through its deft handling of the timeslip. Tom is freed from the restrictions of the everyday to forge his own path and, in doing so, to figure out who and what he can be in the world.

Not everyone though lives in a house where the clock strikes thirteen and so, in order to get their stories started and make the fantastical actual, many children’s writers have to work around the presence of adults in their stories. For some, there’s an easy way out and that is to kill off the parents. This isn’t a new expression in children’s books; there are a lot of orphans here. There are children who have never had parents and there are children who have lost maybe a mother or a father and in the absence of this parent, have had to step up and adopt a position of power. Power. So much of it comes from power, this need to give children power and agency; the ability to interact with the world around them and make their own choices. Children have choices, yes, but they have choices that are crafted for them at the decision of adults. Money, food, lodging, clothing, free time. All of this comes from somewhere and until they are able to provide it for themselves, the child is at the mercy of adults.

Mercy. It’s an odd way to phrase it, but I suspect that it’s an idea that I’ll come back to throughout this journey. Mercy within children’s literature is a potent and precise thing and it is something that quite definitely exists. These boos exist because they are permitted to exist by others. That’s something that happens to all books, I know, but children’s book face a sort of doubel bind in order to be heard. Think of the last book you bought for a child, maybe the last book for yourself. I presume you’re an adult, or at least, somebody with money of your own. Let’s say that you have income, that you have funds of your own, whether scraped together through a job in the city or a paper round, and that you decide to spend some of that hard earned money on a book.  The book is on the shelf in your bookshop. You take it off the shelf, you hand over your money for it, and you take it home. A process of transaction, but also one coloured indelibly by mercy. The book is allowed to be on the shelf because somebody, somewhere was able to write it. Somebody, somewhere, believed in it enough to publish it (or they believed in it enough to learn the nuances of self-publishing, a topic I will leave aside for another book). This, then, is mercy; it is the compassionate belief in literature having a part of this world, and the will to ensure that it can and is and should be made available to others.

But the children’s book is, as I hope you’re gathering, something quite different. It is not your everyday book and so, to be published, it must jump another fence. A gate, to be precise, manned by gatekeepers, and in this case it doesn’t have to leap. It can jog right through the open gate. But the gate requires opening and here, this is where the gatekeepers come in. These are adult figures, all of us really, who have some sort of vested and often, not quite vested, interest in what children’s literature is. Have you ever told a child that they can’t read something?  Or that X isn’t suitable but Y is. That’s gatekeeping; the active influence of the child’s reading matter. And in many cases this is an understood and justified thing. There are things in this world that the child requires a comprehension of before learning about, things that you would want to join in the learning process, things that you would want them to learn when they are emotionally ready and able and willing to process the complexity of life. So, sometimes, we shut the gate and the book stays on the other side of the fence, destined to roam in some green-grass field of its own until we are willing to let it through and meet a reader.

The important thing to note with this process of gatekeeping is that the gate, if I can stretch this metaphor, is not the same for everyone. Life is diverse. Life is different, childhood is different. The childhood that you knew was yours and yours alone. Parts of that were experienced by others, similarly, closely, but your childhood was an individual experience. Adulthood renders that experience differently; the influence of memory, the soft-tinted camera lens and the eternal summers. We forget the rain, the sadness, and we remember the good parts and  it is all too easy as a gatekeeper to return to that point. To insist that only books that fit your memories and your experience and your sepia-tinted photographs go through.

Yet that’s not my childhood story, nor was it, really, yours. Childhood is a uniquely faceted thing, eternally different, eternally unknown. Take a moment to consider that last word. Unknown. It may seem a strange one to take on if you’re a parent, or an Aunt, or if you spend your days at a school surrounded by children that you know.

            But you don’t.

            “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one     tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”

That’s Seth Godin writing in Tribes : We need you to lead us. (2008), and it’s a quote that hits home when we think about children and adults. We are all humans, so we’re all group. So far, so good. But as we start to push through that quote, we start to hit some problems. We are a group, yes, but we’re not a tribe. Think of a baby and that increasingly panicked moment when you try to figure out what the problem is. Are they tired, hungry, uncomfortable, hot, cold, possessed by the devil or what – ? They’d tell you if they could, probably submit a bullet point of everything that could be improved about those early years (number one: let’s talk puree) but they don’t because they are pre-verbal. Sure a baby cries and sure you can discern some sort of meaning out of that cry, but so much of that comes from circumstance and knowing and ambitious and sometimes outlandish hope. We don’t understand children. We can’t. We simply can’t, we’re too removed, too adultish, to distanced from that moment. We can try – and we do – and – we- should. But we can’t, ever, accurately and precisely understand childhood and the childish experience. We can’t turn back the clock. As much as it pains me, neither Hermione’s Time Turner nor Marty McFly’s DeLorean actually exist.

So, I suppose, here’s the time to face the elephant in the room and pose the question we’ll address next. Does children’s literature even exist?







2 thoughts on “Children’s literature and the great ‘oh’

  1. So many ideas here, each paragraph, each sentence a door opening into a chamber, a corridor, a cloister in which I wanted to wander. Loved it, couldn’t bear for it to end but also didn’t want it to go on because it was a kind of sensory overload. Images and sensations — your madeleine metaphor, like ‘the hand of a newborn child’ which I could feel grasping my finger — all were overwhelming at times.

    In fact the whole essay was sensual. I’ve never heard your voice, but this text — like so many of your posts — just begs to be heard, as a lecture or as a broadcast, just like your Once upon a time opening gambit. I always hear a voice speaking your posts, and that is their strength: it’s that communication, that contact you iterate that societies both big and small require to function, to exist.

    The last kids’ book I bought was Emil and the Detectives. Who did I buy it for? Well, myself, but also for the child in me, for the grandchild I think will enjoy it after me, for the bloggers who read my blog, who may make similar or different connections. And also for the adult in me who sees how we are all children, vulnerable, curious, trusting, cautious.

    And see, just reading your posts makes me want to use a conversational tone.

    And yes, Barthes, I ought to read him, though I haven’t yet got past the first entry in his Mythologies.

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