One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons depicts a nursery worker explaining her establishment’s ethos to a pair of prospective parents. “We teach them that the world can be an unpredictable, dangerous and sometimes frightening place,” she says as toddlers play around her feet, “while being careful not to spoil their lovely innocence. It’s tricky.”
That combination of mutually-exclusive demands – teach our children about the world, while keeping them innocent of the world – is one that children’s writers also face, from parents and others. When I talk to adults about children’s literature one of the qualities mentioned most often is that of “innocence”. Books that represent innocence, and especially books that work to preserve innocence in their young readers, are to be applauded. Books that raise unpleasant subjects, or include taboos such as death, sex, violence and abuse are to be treated with suspicion. For teenagers, maybe – but for young children? At the same time, there is a demand that books should have some kind of educative value, teaching children about the world in which they live and preparing them for adult life.
As a matter of fact – and this may seem an embarrassing admission for a children’s writer to make – I’m not at all sure what innocence is. It’s usually discussed as if it were a positive quality, but the only ways it seems to be commonly defined are in terms of a lack: lack of experience, lack of knowledge, lack of adult responsibility, lack of cynicism, heedlessness, perhaps even heartlessness. Perhaps innocence is like Captain Hook’s “good form”: you’re not allowed into Pop until you can prove that you don’t know you’ve got it.
I think that there are two contending ideas about childhood here, ones that go far beyond children’s literature and early-years education. They can be represented by two Biblical texts:
Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10.14)
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly: but then face to face. (I Cor 13.11)
Jesus and St Paul seem here to be singing from different hymn sheets. What are we to make of it? Is growing up a fall from grace, or a consummation to be wished? It may be relevant to remember that St Paul, who I think rather liked the idea of being able to mix it with the Greek philosophers, was addressing a Greek audience. For Greeks such as Aristotle children were simply incomplete adults. Human development was teleological: it had a direction and a goal, that of being a mature (and preferably male) human being. In that context it makes perfect sense to put away childish things, and to associate children with poor spiritual vision. After all, they’re only half finished.
But this Hellenic vision of childhood seems quite incompatible with the one articulated by Jesus, which reverses the direction of travel and says that one must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. These opposing visions have coexisted uneasily throughout the last two thousand years. You can watch them contending in all sorts of places. For those of us interested in the history of language, it’s enlightening to see how individual words can become a battle-ground. “Silly,” for example, is now a pejorative – but in Elizabethan English it means something much closer to “inexperienced”, while in older forms yet it means “blessed” or “holy” (as modern German selig still does). That particular word, we might say, has fallen prey to the Pauline vision of childhood. “Innocent” is at the centre of a similar tussle. We like children to be innocent, and in law innocent is the desirable opposite of guilty; but no one wants to be considered an innocent. That would be to be thought ... well, silly.
As the nursery worker said: it’s tricky. But it might help if I had a better idea of what innocence actually was.