Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Monsters, under the bed and in your head: Gillian Philip



Uh-oh, I thought as I picked up the next competition entry. Inanimate object develops emotions and thinks like a human being. I am SO not going to like this one.

So there I was, five minutes later, using the hem of my jumper to dry my sodden face and pretending to the cat I had something in my eye, and thinking ‘That’ll teach you to rush to judgment, you cynical old bat.’

I’ve just got home from Erskine and the annual conference of the Scottish Association of Writers, where I’d been asked to adjudicate the competition for Unpublished Authors. It was tough ranking the runners-up, but the tale of a Little Christmas Tree who has her roots cut off was my unchallenged winner from the start. (To check I wasn’t just hormonal, I gave it to my big ruffty-tuffty husband, who cleared his throat as he passed it back and pretended he had something in his eye. And when the winner read out her story at the adjudication ceremony, a surprising number of hardened writers had eye problems, so it wasn’t just me.)

Anyway, my winner (M.T. Kielty is her name) approached me afterwards to question something I’d said in my written adjudication, which was that it would possibly (but not necessarily) make a Christmas story for children. Wasn’t it a bit too harrowing for children, she wondered?

Well, I sort of knew it wasn’t too harrowing for children, but I had to ask myself why. A child would certainly have found the story affecting and understood what it was saying about Christmas, about love and family, about how grown-ups behave and misbehave; but I don’t think a child would have got unbearably upset. Possibly a child wouldn’t even have cried the way adults did.

When my kids were little and I was reading them picture book stories, I occasionally used to get quite choked up (Debi Gliori’s No Matter What, anyone?). One in particular came to mind: it was by Chris Wormell, it was called The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit, and I’m going to have to get another copy, because I’ve either lost it or it’s fallen apart. It’s an incredibly sad and beautiful story about a monster who is so ugly even the weather rejects him; his only friend is the little stone rabbit he carves. The story ends as the monster dies, still all alone, and flowers begin to grow where they wouldn’t before. My children found the book sad, and it raised a lot of questions, but they weren’t ‘upset’ by it. They took it, and its subtle and delicate ‘message’, in their stride.

Not every adult does. The book gets eight 5-star reviews on Amazon, and a single one-star review from an adult who missed the point in absolutely spectacular fashion and had the book removed from their child’s school library. (Forgive my shocked italics. He or she had actually convinced the children this was the right thing to do, had talked them into misunderstanding the book.)

It’s not that a child can fully comprehend the occasional awfulness of life and the inevitability of death; that’s our job. But isn’t it also our job to introduce them to concepts of unhappiness, and despair, and the consolation of friends, and superficial judgements, and fear, and mortality?

I wish I’d sneakily kept a copy of that winning story. I’d like my children to read about a little dying Christmas tree, just as I’d want them to read the sad tale of a lonely monster: it’s how a child starts to understand. It’s what the best books have always been for.

It’s not the whole story of life – who ever wants the whole story written on the first page? – but it’s an introduction: it’s the springboard for questions and the beginning of wonder. We don’t have the right to deny it to them.

15 comments:

karen ball said...

As ever, a wonderful post from you, Gillian. It's fascinating how accepting children are of things that we find difficult. As you say, it's because they may not fully understand all the ramifications, but you're quite right - children need to be gently introduced to all of life's variety.

Katherine Langrish said...

Wonderful post, must read the monster book. And I totally agree children need books that deal with big emotions - because children FEEL big emotions. Between the covers of a book is a good and safe way to encounter them. On top of that, you can never second-guess what is going to upset a child (see my blog post on 'Disturbing stories' at:http://steelthistles.blogspot.com/2009/12/disturbing-stories.html )

Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Wonderful and beautiful post, Gillian.

Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Candy Gourlay said...

moving post. chris wormell was illustrator keynote at a scbwi conference two years ago and his books have these sad themes, about characters left on the outside. off to order a copy of the monster and rabbit book. thanks for reminding me!

Jo Treggiari said...

I so agree with you, Gillian. Books are such a wonderful way to introduce difficult and sensitive topics to children without making them feel as if they have been preached to or lectured.
I took my 7 year old to see the "Where the Wild Things Are" film and was concerned that he would find aspects of it depressing and worrying. The 'Max' character is clearly troubled in the frustrated and emotional way I remember feeling as a child myself, the wild things are very wild, and there is no obvious 'happy ending' in the film, but he loved it and thought it was just a wild rumpus. I found the scuffling and fighting alarming. Clearly it operated on two different levels.
I cry every time I read The Little Prince or The Happy Prince or The Missing Piece, but my kids just think they're good stories and ask a few questions.

bookwitch said...

Us adults will always cry over books that our 'hard hearted' children find perfectly OK.

I'm also very good at rushing judgment. I'm often wrong.

Lucy Coats said...

Thank the good lord! I am not the only big jessy woosie cry baby in the pack! I am an unashamed weeper at picture books (Badger's Parting Gifts?)--but not only sadness makes me cry--beauty does too. Children, it seems to me, are much more matter of fact than we are a lot of the time. I remember reading that same Happy Prince to my daughter (aged about 8) and having to stop for the tears. 'Why on earth are you CRYING, mum?' she asked. And when I retold the Selfish Giant, I had tears falling on the keyboard. And when I was writing my version of the Achilles/Hector story I cried then too. Dear me, where are those tissues? Thanks Gillian--I really enjoyed that!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

You've put it so brilliantly Gillian that here I am having trouble with my eyes too! Can you remember all those stories that were harrowing but you still loved as a child. For me'Jenny'stands out. My mother read it to me and yes 'The Little Prince' and 'The Happy Prince' too. I wanted and needed those stories.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Entirely agree with you, Gillian! And beautifully put, as ever. I think the first time I realised this clearly as a mum wasn't even with a sad story - but it still made me cry. It was Go To Sleep, Little Bear and when I got to the end, I always had to have a surreptitious snuffle. Even remembering it now brings a lump to my throat. Charlie adored it - but I think adults see something over and beyond the comforting story in it - perhaps the sense of something larger and more enduring. The Selfish Giant always provoked tears - in me, not him! I remember crying over it when I was a child. And the Little Match Girl. And the death of Aslan...But is was ALL good.

SharonM said...

Great Blog, Gillian.

You only have to think of Bambi to realise that children don't have to be sheltered from everything. And I've got a funny feeling that The Yearling was sad too - though I read it so long ago, I can't remember very well.

It was certainly an excellent story and it would be a shame if it wasn't published.

Bill Kirton said...

Once again, you made me think about something which (to my shame) I hadn't really considered before. You're absolutely right, of course, that it's up to us to expose kids to all sorts of reading (and life) experiences, happy and sad, but I don't remember reading sad things to mine, or to my grandchildren. I wonder whether my desire to keep them believing in Santa for as long as possible made me too selective.

kathryn evans said...

I am not alone! Was nearly blubbing reading this wonderful post...for a little while Archie had me read him Goodbye Mousie we very single night. Was never sure if he really loved the story or really wanted to know why it made me blub every time...

Gillian Philip said...

Thanks everybody for the lovely comments - sorry I haven't responded till now, I've been away. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who has to explain to my children why I'm blubbing! Just thought of another one, too - Nothing by Mick Inkpen. It doesn't even have a sad ending, but the beginning gets me every time.

Stroppy Author said...

I've come to this late, Gillian, as I've been a miserable outcast from blogland for too long. It's a lovely post, and all so true. Thank you :-)