Saturday, 14 February 2009

Gonna Write It In An Attic - John Dougherty

Wouldn't it be nice to write a classic of children's literature?

Well, yes, of course it would. You know that. I know that. Those people who, on discovering you write for children, chuckle, 'Ah, the next JK Rowling, eh?' know that. The question, of course, is: how do you do it?

Actually, even before you ask how to write one you have to define what we mean by 'a classic'. My MacBook's onboard dictionary tells me that it's 'a work of art of recognised and established value'. I suppose on that basis I could argue all my books are classics: their value has long been both recognised and established as £3.99 (well, except for Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy, which is £5.99). I don't think that's quite what the dictionary means, though.

Wikipedia takes an interesting approach; its list of children's classics is defined as 'A list of the most important children's books, which were published at least 90 years ago, and were written for children and/or are still enjoyed by children today'. The 90-year limit suggests the author of this sentence believes either that a book has to stand the test of time before it can be considered a classic, or that classics can only be written by dead people; assuming it's the first, I think perhaps (s)he has a point. I personally think it's highly likely that some at least of the Harry Potter series, for instance, will come to be considered classics, but I think it's too early to start calling them that yet. The point that a book doesn't have to have been written for children to be a children's classic is a good one, too.

I wonder if we need to go back as far as 90 years to find classics, though. What about, say, CS Lewis's Narnia stories? They're over 50 years old, and still in print and loved by children. I'd like to think they qualify for classic status. I suppose by those criteria you'd have to count the Reverend W Awdry's Railway Series as classics, too. And the Famous Five, for that matter.

My musing on this point was inspired by the fact that I've recently been reading Alice's Adventures In Wonderland (one of the obvious classics) to my daughter for her bedtime story (although she's currently taking a break from Alice for a quick whizz through one of the Rainbow Fairies books). She's loving Alice; but one of the interesting things I've noticed is that she's clearly not getting all of it; and in fact, I'm spotting quite a bit that I didn't get when I read it as a child. Winnie-the-Pooh, likewise. There's a lot in the stories of the Bear of Very Little Brain that is actually adult-level (or at least teen-level) humour; when, in my teaching days, I read it to my Year 3 class they completely missed a lot of what, to me, were the funniest bits.

Which makes me wonder: to write a classic, do you actually have to appeal to adults, too? Does there have to be something in there to make parents want to share it with their children - or perhaps to make children keep coming back to it as they grow up, as I did with the Narnia stories? But then - and I speak as one whose son was utterly obsessed with the wretched Thomas between ages 2 and 6 - wouldn't that disqualify the Railway Series (except in the eyes of ardent train-spotters)?

Perhaps there's no one answer. Perhaps there's a certain amount of serendipity involved for the books that rise to the top and stay there to become classics, just as we all know of books that we think are fantastically good but that somehow never got noticed. Maybe many of us who post on here have written books that have already become recognised classics in another universe even though, in this one, they are barely managing to stay in print. It would be nice to think so.

It'll be interesting to see what thoughtful comments members of the ABBA community have to make on the theme of what makes a children's classic. It'll also be interesting to see who is first to get the reference in the title to this piece...

Oh - and: Happy Valentine's Day, book lovers.

8 comments:

Anne Rooney said...

I agree that a classic must stand the test of time, and most do seem to have hidden depths that mean they bear re-reading at older ages. But yes, that does mean those damn train books are out on a limb (I had to read Percy and the Dragon every night for 18 months and still know it off by heart 17 years later). No hidden depths there. I suppose, as with adult books, the classics are those which deal with universal, timeless themes in a way that is independent of culture. For children, the resonant themes are to do with emerging identity and confidence, independence, and recognising and accommodating some of the bad things in the world - from bullies and bad luck to death and despair. Vicarious experience is very important for children, too - identifying with a character who can go on an adventure that would be impossible for the reader. Same as ever, I suppose - fear and pity in a controlled environment. Good old Aristotle...

Pippa said...

A lot of the books that went onto the Classics shelf when I was in bookselling were ones that wouldn't get published today. Little Black Sambo with those crude pictures of the black boy with the Sambo name would be deemed un-PC, The Jungle Book with Mowgli arranging the mass murder of all those red dogs would have been too cruel to animals (although there's plenty of human cruelty in modern children's literature). A Little Princess has breeding and class dominant over material circumstances. Even, John, Alice in Wonderland seems weak with its 'but it was all a dream' ending. But all books with terrific stories, and much loved. I think that Classics label allows us to still care for them, against modern 'better' (?) judgement. Those books are of their time, not 'timeless' as many attempts to define a classic would have us believe.
Pippa

Elen Caldecott said...

Please put me out of my 'where's the title from' misery. I'm guessing the attic in either The Little Princess, or The Snow Queen.

John Dougherty said...

Oh, all right, Elen - it's not a book-related title at all, but I'd expected someone would have got it by now!

It's from a song - 'Classic', by - if memory serves - Adrian Gurvitz. It began:

'Gonna write a classic
Gonna write it in an attic
Babe, I'm an addict now
An addict for your love'.

Why he needed to write it in an attic - and why he was releasing this particular song at all, if he had the potential to write a classic - was never explained.

Nick Green said...

The best theory I've heard as to why the 'Thomas the Tank Engine' books are classics (or at least, still so well-loved) are the illustrations - the trains with the huge range of facial expressions. Kids seem magnetically drawn to them, and I have heard (anecdotally) that even autistic kids respond to them. Perhaps it's something to do with that - children can make sense more easily of human emotions through the exaggerated pictures in the Thomas books. But yes, the stories do rather bore me too...

John Dougherty said...

Yes, I've just found an interesting page here (http://www.nas.org.uk/nas/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=368&a=2683) about autistic children and Thomas; and the predictability and exaggerated expressions do seem to be a key part of it.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A fascinating debate John... If we all had to come up with our top 5 favourite 'classics'... what would they be? Are we worse off for certain gaps in our reading experience? To me it always felt tbat the 'right' book came to me when I needed it and the 'wrong' book was quickly put down... so there are some classics I've never read.

bookchildworld said...

Whether you should include things that only older readers will 'get' in a children's book is an interesting question. As you say, many classic books (my favourite example is Alan Garner's The Owl Service) can be read again and again at different ages, because you discover different things about them each time. Yet the received wisdom is to write your book as much for children as possible, and not always be winking over their heads to the adults. Another of my favourite books, The Mouse and His Child (Hoban) is full of bits of satire that are only relevant to adults, but I loved it anyway. I actually remember liking to read books where I didn't 'get' everything at once - I knew there were things in there that I would understand later, and that was a nice feeling, as if there was something left in store. Perhaps one should indeed write children's books for children - but have a broad sense of what children are capable of understanding and enjoying, and bear in mind that they love a challenge.