A couple of days ago I was listening to Diary of A Wimpy Kid with another class of year 5/6 students and laughing my head off at all the inane humour (“Bad Fart up ahead” gets me every time) when a kid asked me “What the heck’s a 25-year-old woman doing listening to a kid’s book?”
After I recovered from the shock that he thinks I’m only 25, I explained to him that as a primary school teacher it’s part of my job to be aware of what children are reading. But it’s so much more than that.
Kate Forsyth put it best at a NSW Writers’ Centre festival in 2008 when she explained her own love for writing for children. I’ll paraphrase what she said, “Adults who read can be so pretentious. I’m so sick of black clad, waif thin literati coming up to me at festivals telling me they just love Proust. Rubbish,” she said. “Kids never read anything just so they can show off. If they think it’s boring they’ll just say ‘Nah, not reading this'”.
The difficult art of writing for kids has often been undermined, by those who haven’t tried it. There’s a famous quote that when Maurice Sendak was asked why he wastes his talent writing for children his reply was “I don’t”. Apparently I’m not the only one who finds writing for children quite a challenge!
So why do people do it? It’s difficult, undervalued and unless you’re JK Rowling, not very well paid. In researching for today’s post I have dug up old articles from the NSW Writers’ Centre, CBCA and assorted literary journals to find out what the masters say, and I have to agree with the Mel(a)inas (Farranda and Marchetta) who both talk about “hope”. The fact that children’s and YA stories are full of hope is definately an attractive attribute.
I also happened upon Maurice Saxby’s musings on Children’s Books in Australia: Two Hunderd Years of Social Life (Australian Literature in the Primary Classroom p5, published by the Curriculum Development Centre, Canberra, 1988). He states that children’s literature “. . . records as no history book could, the changing relationship of Australians to their land, their institutions and to each other.” Obvoiusly this is true of children’s literature from any culture or country because we as adults only want to pass on to our children that which we feel is of upmost importance, whether it be the deep and touching themes of Libby Gleeson’s writing or the side splitting humour of Bumface and The Cabbage Patch Fib, or even the combination as seen in Oliver Phommavahn’s Thai-Riffic and Con-nerd.
If you want a blatent example of how our mores have changed in under a century take a look at Mary Poppins. The portrayal of the mother alone changes dramatically from the book to the movie to the stage show. In the book Michael Banks calls his mother ” . . . a very cruel woman,” and I must say I agree with him (Mary Poppins, PL Travers, 1934). She shows no concern for the children’s loss when Mary leaves at the end of the book, and in the 1964 film version she is so distracted by the suffragette movement that she fails to give her children the attention they crave. In the noughties stage version she is hamstrung by Edwardian customs, but is liberated by her determination and little song about jelly.
So though I might be ancient (I realise that’s what he meant by saying I was 25), I do love reading children’s books. Not just because I was once a child, though that is part of the reason, and not just because I am a parent and a teacher, though that is also part of the reason. I love children’s books because I am a thinker. I love reading children’s and YA books because I have met a lot of children’s and YA authors and I know why they don’t waste their talents writing for adults.
I also love reading children’s and YA literature because it plays with language in a way that very few adult novels do. And on that note I offer you a link to one of my other passions – the work of Australian Poerty Slam Artist Simon Taylor (though I have to say it was 10, 000x even better live on stage).