There’s a temptation in writing about and describing childhood and children to forget that both are most interesting when they are least about us — the adults, that is. There’s a reason why so many great children’s books begin with the death of parents. The true life of a child, the one most children want to read about, is the one in which children have free rein to be the weird, obsessive, imaginative, odd and powerful people they both are and would like to be. Which is to say, people a lot like adults, except the wildness that we’re all capable of flourishes in great children’s literature because, well, because the adults who’d tell you to stop climbing trees or escaping into a different dimension or lifting horses up over your head are all dead. Or on very long vacations or sea voyages. Or have left the children with nannies who aren’t really adults but are instead magical people. Or are away at war.
The books I most liked as a child had very few adults in them. Books like the Chronicles of Narnia (Aslan wasn’t really an adult was he?) and Pippi Longstocking. You wonder, though, who the adults were who remembered to leave themselves out. So much contemporary children’s fiction fails to do this, because it seems most motivated by a desire to teach children how to become adults. And when that’s your goal, then you end up with an adult-child ratio that’s about even. Not what you want if you’d like to eat candy for dinner.
And because I have to leave for the dentist in about half an hour and still have to make lunches and get dressed, I have to cut this meditation on writing about and for children short. I just want to say this: Alison Lurie had it right in her book about children’s fiction: the best writing for children is subversive, writing that doesn’t really have anything to teach children except maybe that they should hang onto who they are and not be in such a hurry to be adults.
When you become an adult, after all, and wake up in the morning, you will discover you have to go to the dentist. When you are a child and wake up in the morning, you will lie in bed looking out the window and wonder how it is that the moon can still be up in the sky and what would it be like to go up there some morning instead of going to school. And you don’t hear your mother downstairs in the kitchen getting ready for the adult day because you’re inventing whatever you need to invent to get yourself out the window of your room and into the adventure that is your childhood.