Thursday, 18 February 2010

Taking Issue with Astrid Lindgren - John Dougherty

Okay, it's a deliberately provocative title, I know. I almost called it Taking Issue with Sally Nicholls, because, really, what I want to do is reply to the last Awfully Big blog entry of 2010, when she posed the question, Who Are You Writing For, Again?

So if you haven't already read that one, take a quick look at it. I found it very thought-provoking, but I think it somehow got lost in all the kerfuffle of New Year's Eve, which is rather a shame. I was going to reply to it in January, but then I broke my wrist and decided to write about that, instead.

The wrist's coming along nicely, by the way; and I've got this very fetching purple cast now instead of the grubby white one.

Anyway: what issue is it that I want to take? Well, it's this: Sally tells us that Lindgren believed "children's writing should be aimed directly at the people it's for - the children - and that anything aimed at anyone else should be deleted" [my bold]. And I'm just not sure I believe that.

Yes, you can go too far in the other direction. It's possible to bung in so many knowing winks in the direction of adults that the children, the intended audience, end up being left out. But if you do that, it's likely that children will just give up on the book and go and do something else instead.

On the other hand, it's also quite possible to successfully use references that none of your intended readers is likely to get. At least, I hope it is; because I've done my best to do so - notably in my third book, Jack Slater, Monster Investigator. There's one running reference, in fact, which I sincerely hope will go right over the heads of the children who read the book; because it's a reference to Dirty Harry, and - call me old-fashioned if you like - I just don't think that's a suitable film for children.

So why reference it in a children's book? Well, let me give you a few reasons:
  • because it amused me; and I believe that a writer has a duty to him- or herself as well as to the reader. I think that if I'm not enjoying what I'm writing, the reader is unlikely to
  • because, actually, sometimes I like to think that I write family books rather than children's books. I enjoy the idea of parents and children sharing them; and just as a good family film may have bits that some members of the family won't get, that's okay for family books, too. As long as the whole is accessible to everyone, it doesn't matter if some of us don't get bits. You can completely miss a line of dialogue but still understand the scene
  • most importantly - because it worked. I'd begun to picture Cherry - whom both Jack and the reader were about to meet for the first time - as feisty and fearless. She was going to rescue him from a monster after his weapon - his penlight torch - had been broken in a scuffle. I wanted the rescue to have an edge of mystery and drama...
...and it occurred to me that an effective way to tick all those boxes would be the sound of a battery-cover snapping menacingly shut, and a threatening voice telling the monster that she knew what he was thinking: that surely she must have run out of batteries. And, to tell him the truth, she'd kind of lost track herself. But considering that this was the Night Blaster 35, the most powerful hand-torch in the world, and could light him up like the Blackpool Tower from half a mile away, what he had to ask himself was: did he feel lucky? Well - did he?

So... actually, even though the reference wasn't aimed at the children I see as my primary audience - I suppose I was thinking about them. I was wondering how best to introduce Cherry to them, and keep the story moving; and when I came up with my Dirty Harry reference, it really didn't matter if they got it or not. "Getting it" might add an extra layer of enjoyment for the parents, but the reference was there to move the story along. I hope it did that, and did it well.

Maybe, in the end, that's the only good reason for adding any reference to anything into a story - to make the story better. If it does that, maybe it doesn't really matter whether the reader gets it or not. The one who does has the fun of a secret shared; the one who doesn't just gets on and enjoys the story.

And maybe, in that, I'm not as far from Astrid Lindgren's position as I thought.

John's website is at His latest book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom.


Katherine Langrish said...

I wonder if Lindgren really believed that? Maybe she did. And like you, I don't really agree. I think it's OK to layer meanings. I think it's totally OK to have stuff in your book which children may not initially see is there, because what I hope for my books is that those children who read them will re-read them - and carry on re-reading, all their lives, the way I do with favourite books from my own childhood. I accept that no child (or even adult) is going to get all the references in Alice in Wonderland, but that's not the reason I, as child, never really took to the book. on the contrary I dilkied it because it all happened down a rabbit hole, undeground, which gave me claustrophobia. I liked 'Through the Looking Glass' much better, becasue it was 'open air'.
I write children's book because thats the way my publisher markets them and becasue I'm not going to put in 'age-inappropriate' stuff; but that doesn't mean my books are closed to adults.

And where are all the other comments? Is nobody reading ABBA this week?!

Katherine Langrish said...

that word was 'disliked' btw, not 'dilkied'.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Hi John : I'm reading ABBA this week! and most weeks. I also put in references : such as to Bob Dylan : in my so-called children's, Y.A. - heck anyone can read them - books and they probably won't get it but those thoughts just appear at times and if they present themselves convincingly then they find their place. And yes, as Kath says, hopefully they will go on reading my stuff even when they are so-called grown up and maybe then they'll find out about the Watchtower. It took me from 15 to my late twenties to really understand who the Joker and the Thief really were.
Best, Miriam

Gillian Philip said...

Believe it or not, John, I read the whole of the Narnia Chronicles without getting the Christian propaganda (all my other friends got it. D'oh.) I still enjoyed them hugely (actually, being a child I think I enjoyed them more without 'getting it'). I'm all for bunging things in that children won't necessarily get - but they will later. I still have fun re-reading books and seeing things I didn't see last time.

All the best kids' movies, after all, have hidden fun for adults. The adult references shouldn't take over, of course, but that's no reason they shouldn't be there.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yeah, it's all part of the richness of the writing, and actually I think there SHOULD always be things in a novel that are not immediately obvious to everyone. In my novels set in Germany I tend to use punning with the German names, and these are not always things - often things - that the British readers won't get, like the fact that my heroine Jenny Friedemann's name means 'peace man' in German. So congrats on doing it - after all, you are part of the culture which is many-layered and it's all what Eliot was talking about - that is, TS Eliot - can't remember the exact quote, but we hang in a web of meanings.. oh, I give up. It's getting late. Cast looks good, btw, but it will look best, I'm sure, when it's sitting on a table cut up for you to discard it.

John Dougherty said...

So nice to know I'm not the only one of us who thinks so!

And as a child I didn't get the Christian subtext in the Narnian chronicles either - what a great example.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great post. Picked up on this a day late. But I agree and the part I like best John is that you put some things in not only to move the story along but to amuse yourself as well. Because let's face it sitting in front of a laptop all day is not always the most exciting way to spend a day... so if one can have a bit of fun trailing clues for the astute reader... why not? And the reader has the fun of knowing that they are part of the secret... a society only for the iniated.

MagicMadzik said...

I wonder what it is, exactly, that Lindgren was speaking of. Did it really have much to do with referencing other, grown-up sources? Her book worlds always struck me as self-contained and unique- a hidden reference to another work would feel extremely out of place, I think.

But her stories do contain many things which, depending on one's parenting tactics, could nowadays be considered unsuitable for children. Most notably, there is rarely the guarantee that everything will turn out all right- a young reader is faced with the horrifying possibility of the protagonist he identifies failing and suffering the consequences. The very serious, very real and often long-term consequences.

I think if we consider that many of Lindgren's books for children speak of the same weighty and emotionally loaded issues an adult book might address, her position makes more sense. The great difference was in the approach to the subject. She would not want her dialogue with children to be interrupted by something only an adult could understand. I take that as a sign of respect- there is nothing so unnerving and humiliating as,in childhood, having a serious conversation with your favourite relative and suddenly seeing a knowing smile creep onto their face. You know, THAT smile. The one that makes all of your hard-earned knowledge and experience seem irrelevant.

I am grateful to Astrid Lindgren for never giving me that smile.

Leila said...

When I was a child I absolutely loved reading books that had different layers of jokes and meaning in them. I knew that even if I didn't get them at first, I could come back to them later, when I was older, and the book would just keep on giving. When you read a book and everything is just there on first read, when it's over, it's over. Your Dirty Harry example works really well. It's funny and good even if you don't know anything about the films, but the reader can come back to that book when they're ten years older and find something new to giggle at. Brilliant!
What you say about family books makes me remember that, if you look at recent children's animations (The Incredibles is a good example, so is Shrek, but any of those Disney/Pixar ones) they are just chock full of references that only adults will get. They really are family films. Children seem perfectly happy with them.