Writing About Children

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.


18 thoughts on “Writing About Children

  1. So true. We’ve recently finished reading JM Barrie’s Peter Pan for the second time. While I giggled at the bits where Mr Darling remonstrates at himself for setting off the chain of events that allow the children to fly out of the window with Peter, and enjoyed the Darling seniors’ tender relationship, my kids weren’t remotely interested. They just wanted to get to Neverland, where the wild stuff went on.

  2. What a wonderful description of what it’s like to wake up in the morning a child, as opposed to an adult. I’m always wishing I could go back to that time and place when 3 hours was an endless amount of time for all kinds of adventures (or maybe way too much time with nothing interesting to do, depending on where you were) instead of being not enough time to get everything I need to do done.

    And I loved Pippi and her parentless life, too!

  3. Oh, another huge Pippi fan as well – what remarkable insight about children’s literature, bloglily. there really was something so fascinating and weirdly wonderful about orphans. A neighbor and I used to play “runaways” as well, which was our most favorite game. I used to imagine whole great adventures for myself, if only I didn’t have my parents reigning me in all of the time.

    I no longer read much children’s literature but I do hope the opportunity arises me for me to some day.

  4. Great point about letting children look out the window while still in bed (the child, not you anymore, unfortunately, unless there’s some childness still there) and letting that imagination kick in instead of being rushed away to scheduled events; as I hurry to go to haircut and then to investment adviser.

  5. Charlotte — The other day one of my sixth graders told me he didn’t want to grow up (not if it meant having to be like the decidedly disturbing eighth graders at his school, boys who spend all their time making prank phone calls to the girls they like) and then he ran upstairs to his room and I heard, floating down the stairs this: “I’m going to be just like Peter Pan.” Thank heavens he isn’t aware of the reams of things written in women’s magazines about the man who refuses to grow up!

    Hey Smokey, A haircut and an investment advisor seem two things that go together quite well. And yes, very adult! Maybe sometime today you’ll be able to waste some time.

    Emily & Courtney — I just remembered Huck Finn, one of the finest orphans in all literature! I wish I didn’t wake up weighed down by responsibility. Someday, maybe I’ll be able to stop doing that. And Courtney, your game reminds me of the major fantasies I used to have that my wonderful third grade teacher with the amazingly beautiful handwriting, Mrs. Topel, was my mother and she let me read all day and, most important of all — she never, ever, ever had any other children but me.

  6. I always wanted to be an orphan (not that my parents weren’t great, I was just strongly influenced by orphan lit!).

    Interestingly, when I think of the happiest times in my childhood, adults are mostly absent. The best times were when we had the time and space to wander and explore unencumbered by adult expectations… Not sure many kids these days get the chance.

  7. “they should hang onto who they are and not be in such a hurry to be adults”. Amen to that!

    I do think as adults that we need to be conscious of trying to have some of these whimsical, childhood moments as we go through life. One cannot underestimate the importance of keeping a childlike heart.

  8. An interesting subject. I, too, loved orphan lit, though I was madly devoted to my parents. Still, as a child, I think you need to envision yourself navigating the world independently with only your peers to lean on. In some unique way, reading like that must prepare and help us to grow up.

  9. Such an interesting post. I think children are absolutely fascinating, and I think adults that want to treat them like little adults (in life or in literature) are jealous of their access to that secret world of freedom and imagination that we lose when we grow up. Adulthood is about the self-imposition of constraint, childhood is not. Incidentally, both Enid Blyton and Tolkein are reputedly supposed to have had such wonderful childhoods that they never became accustomed to adulthood, preferring instead to crystallise the era in prolific writing for children. I wonder if that has anything to do with their enduring popularity?

  10. One thing that occured to me is that all writing for everyone should be subversive. I actually got gently ticked off in my evening class last week for asking the role of the post-modern was to subvert. “That’s a value laden term,” the lecturer commented.

    Yup, I thought – you bet it is.

    I know, you can’t go back to being a child. But one of the things Jesus implies that I have no argument with is our capacity to be as children. If we want to. What I mean is, every time I look at the moon, I want to see a rabbit, not a scattering of major astronomical impact zones…

  11. Excellent post. Very inspiring. Your bit about laying in bed and inventing ways to travel to the moon made me long to be a kid again, which I suppose is also why adults enjoy children’s books: so they can feel like a kid again.

  12. These re-spectives on childhood make me wonder how many people still do something, either as a job or hobby, that they really loved as a child. I know you obsessive readers (just kidding) can answer that easily, but I was wondering about actual play– some exploration and imagination and creation around things. I know I started at an early age to invent games and new rules to games, and I still do that, even though the new rules part isn’t always appreciated. So what joy of childhood got lost and what remains/sustains?

  13. Yogamum, Yes, absent adults are crucial. It’s hard to remember that when we’re busy keeping children safe from all the things we fear might harm them. Carl — Here’s to whimsy!
    Patry — It’s funny how you can love your own parents very much and still long to be on your own. Dorothy — I suppose the best literature is like that in not trying to teach, but to give pleasure.

    Dear Litlove, I didn’t know that about Enid Blyton and Tolkein. It’s a good answer to the question of how certain writers seem to understand how to leave adults out of their books.

    Hello Dad — Yes, to subvert is to be alive, isn’t it! (As for value-laden terms and whether we should be throwing them around, well, that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

    Hi Writer (I can’t call you struggling, you know!) — One of the pleasures of being a parent is being able to read those books out loud.

    The joy of childhood that remains, Smokey, is reading. And the one that gets lost is running around and being gone all day without ever for a moment thinking of that as “exercise.” That’s my answer anyway!

  14. Great post. This is why I still like to read children’s books. I just reread The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton, where the adults (the nice ones) are child-like, and hardly hinder the child heroes from their activities.

  15. Wonderful post Lily. I too was (still am) a Pippi fan and as a kid, loved to make up story games that started with, “Let’s pretend we’re orphans and we live on a [boat, island,mountain etc.] and…” I never really thought about “orphan lit” before. I just assumed, when reflecting on how we always played that our parents were dead, that we were just weird (thought that may also be true).

  16. What a beautiful piece of writing, Lily. Your words moved me to tears, especially at the end. I am inspired to celebrate the child in me, and launch myself more fully into the adventure of my life!

    ~Love and Blessings,

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