Friday, 28 May 2010

Childish Things - Charlie Butler

Exhibit A: One of the more annoying adverts I've seen on buses in the Bristol area was paid for by my own university. A few years ago, they tried to attract students with the slogan "Real life starts here!" The implication, I suppose, being that childhood is merely a kind of marking time, a training on the (literal) nursery slopes for real - that is, adult - life.

Exhibit B: an official sign spotted recently affixed to a local lamppost: "Do not feed the seagulls. They annoy people and children."

What is one to make of it all? That children are but half-formed adults, and childhood meaningful only in so far as it points the way to better things ahead? What could be more calculated to make one march down the street shouting "Children are human beings too!"? This attitude affects children's writers as well, who are notoriously grouchy at being asked when they are going to start writing "real" books - that is, books for real people - that is, for adults.

Prompted by all this, I've been thinking about the ways children's books portray the transition from childhood to adulthood, and I've come up with one of my trademark taxonomies:

1) Avoid it! This subdivides into two categories:

a) The School of Death. From Helen Burns to Leslie Burke, there are heroes and heroines (the latter rather more than the former) who have cheated adulthood by dying before it could get its clammy grey hands on them.

b) Supernatural Solutions. Peter Pan is the obvious example here. But of course, he is a slightly tragic figure, who can stay a child only at the cost of forgetting people and events, and by being excluded for ever from the embrace of a mother. I might mention Pippi Longstocking, too, who at the end of Pippi in the South Seas gives herself, Tommy and Annika a pill that should keep them children for ever. Alas, for jaded adult readers this is clearly a case of whistling to keep her spirits up. The book closes with Pippi blowing out the single candle that sits on the table before her, and we all know what that means.

2) Accept it as a painful necessity. This is the Christopher Robin solution. We much prefer childhood, but there's nothing to be done, and so we must reluctantly leave the Hundred Acre Wood behind. Sometimes, we might hint to those still on the near shore of childhood that it's not so bad when it comes to it (Peter Pevensie says something on those lines when explaining to his younger siblings that he'll never be able to return to Narnia) but while we appreciate the thought, we don't believe a word of it.

3) Celebrate it! This approach is appealingly optimistic, but can sail awfully close to the dismissive attitude towards childhood with which I began. Perhaps the classic instance in modern chidren's literature is Philip Pullman's Northern Lights and its sequels, in which the old polarity which saw childhood as an idyllic time likely to be ruined by the onset of puberty was reversed, and Lyra's entrance into sexuality was shown quite literally to save the universe. (Caveat lector: losing your virginity isn't always that cosmically significant.) But I was bothered by an exchange in the first book, in which the "settling" of a person's daemon was explained in terms of discovering "the kind of person you are". The implication that children have shifting, unformed personalities (even feisty Lyra?), and that adults are "settled" from puberty onward in an unchanging and unchangeable form, seems pretty insulting to both parties, and not much like life as I, at any rate, have experienced it.

Which leaves me with my favourite category, which is that of the books whose authors recognize that "growing up" isn't an event, even an extended one, that takes place some in one's teens, or when one leaves for Prep school, or decides one is ready to sleep outside the Nursery. It's a lifelong process, carried out on many different levels, and different rates, and sometimes in different directions. I won't list all the books that do this, because luckily there are quite a few, and they don't tend to be seen as books that are "about growing up " at all. But, because I don't want to leave the category entirely empty, let me just say that hallowed name of Tove Jansson (whether writing for children or for adults) and leave it at that.


Alison Waller said...

Quite right Charlie! Children's books that suggest growing up is a one-off event and that a true self only emerges in adulthood always trouble me. I found the concept of Pullman's daemons becoming fixed difficult to swallow for exactly that reason. I was recently cheered when interviewing a woman in her late seventies who believed that she didn't feel in any way settled in her identity until well into her forties (and enjoyed the process of revising and reforming herself throughout adulthood).

Joan Lennon said...

Nope - the forties are still too young - it's the FIFTIES when you start to get an inkling of who you are and then you're just in time to reinvent ...
This seems great news to me, but teenagers tend to look at bit appalled when you mention late - or even, no - closing dates on growing up. There's a strong wish out there for it to be simple, and not just from the sign makers.

Charlie Butler said...

People do like neatness, I guess. Some people, anyway. Personally, I can't understand this urge to make ossification a life goal.

Katherine Langrish said...

Great post, Charlie! And too right - though personally I didn't see Pullman's children's daemons shifting shape as a sign of a unformed personality (Lyra?!) but as a wonderful way of suggesting the multiform talents of children, the way children around ten yars old appear to have the world at their feet (well, the happy ones anyway.) It seemed as though it was the adults who were stultifiying, having to settle for one shape. Which makes your point again in a different way, I guess. Why couldn't some adults on the book retain that shape shifting daemon? Was it because he was using the daemons as a short cut/ clue to character?

catdownunder said...

My father would tell you that he is fortunate enough to still be growing up at 87!

Leila said...

Really interesting post, Charlie, thanks!