Monday, 28 April 2014

Looking at Children Reading - Clémentine Beauvais

OK, who's up for some more controversy? Just kidding. This time, what I've got in mind shouldn't earn me so many death threats and marriage proposals; I want to talk about child-reading 'scopophilia', a term slightly nicer than voyeurism: the pleasure adults derive from looking at children reading.

Henri Lebasque
Visual art, in particular painting, is full of children reading, presumably in part because posing for hours is an incredibly boring thing to do for an eight-year-old so it's a good way of keeping them still. Look at the amazing number of paintings on this Pinterest devoted to that theme.

But it's not just convenience, it's also a fascination of sorts. There is, apparently, something profoundly romantic, profoundly moving, and also rather erotic, about the image of a child reading. This is by children's literature scholar Peter Hollindale:

One January afternoon many years ago I was window-gazing in the shopping streets of Cheltenham... In the window of an art shop I sawa  picture of a boy, lying on his bed, reading. He was dressed in pyjama bottoms, spreadeagled over the bed in an attitude of rapt and intense involvement in his book.... "That", I thought, "is what I want to produce. If being an English teacher is about anything worthwhile, it's about that." (The Hidden Teacher, 2011 p.12)
I don't need to stress the transgressiveness of this description: the adult's delight in this very intimate scene (a child on a bed, lost in his fantasies, in "rapt" and "intense involvement" - onanistic to say the least...) and his desire to elicit such jouissance in the future, too... Of course, Hollindale is aware of all these innuendos. There is something in visions of children reading that creates longing and a kind of pleasurable loss in the adult viewer. And art and literature frequently attempt to capture that something.

It's all the more interesting when it happens in a children's book. Matilda is the perfect example. 

Over the next few afternoons Mrs Phelps could hardly take her eyes from the small girl sitting for hour after hour in the big armchair at the far end of the room with a book on her lap. … And a strange sight it was, this tiny dark-haired person sitting there with her feet nowhere near touching the floor, totally absorbed in the wonderful adventures of Pip and old Miss Havisham. (Matilda, 1988 p.19)

There's a form of religious adoration in the way adults look at Matilda while she's reading. Mrs Phelps and Miss Honey are described as 'stunned', 'astounded', 'quivery', 'filled with wonder and excitement.'

What's the position of the child reader when they read this passage? Well, it's quite weird. They're aligned with an adult viewpoint on another child reading, and enticed to take pleasure in it too. But by virtue of being themselves child readers, they're also enticed to see themselves as a pleasurable sight to adults, an object of quasi-religious desire and fervour. 

Why are visions of children reading so inspiring for visual artists and authors? It's not just that they like children who are 'absorbed' in a story: the vision of a child 'absorbed' in a film or video game does not have the same effect. There's something about reading that makes adults particularly nostalgic, and particularly emotional.

Part of it is simply nostalgic remembrance of our own days of reading as a child, if we were also big readers. Part of it is also linked to the ideologically problematic celebration of reading over other activities (cf previous controversy ok I'll shut up).

But part of it may be also that we can't have access to what exactly the child has in mind when s/he reads - we may know the book, but what we picture of it in our minds cannot be the same as what s/he is currently picturing. There is mystery there, something secret, and like all secrets of childhood, we are quite fascinated by it.

Maybe we like to see children reading books because there's just enough mystery (what exactly are they seeing there?) and just enough control (it's a book; s/he's safe). This Goldilocks zone is  perfectly titillating.

is that child reading
or thinking of something else?
In Claudine's House, French writer Colette writes about how disturbing she finds it when her daughter, Bel-Gazou, is sewing. It is more dangerous, scarier than when she reads, Colette says. When Bel-Gazou reads, "she comes back, looking lost, flushed, from the island with the jewellery-filled chest... She is full of a tried and tested, traditional poison, the effects of which are well-known."

But when Bel-Gazou sews, "Let's write the word that scares me: she thinks…" 
"What are you thinking about, Bel-Gazou?"
"Nothing, Mummy."
"Is it only when you're married that a man can put his arm around a lady?"
"Yes... No... It depends... Why are you asking me this?"
"No reason, Mummy."

With no trace in her daughter's hands of a book that could have triggered these questions, the mother is faced with Bel-Gazou's thoughts in freefall, and a terrifying question - where are they coming from?

Clementine Beauvais writes children's books in both French and English. The former are of all kinds and shapes for all ages, and the latter a humour/adventure detective series, the Sesame Seade mysteries, with Hodder. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.


Catherine Butler said...

I looked at a lot of pictures of children reading when trying to choose a cover for a book a few years ago. I particularly liked this picture of the infant Cicero, or "Lil' Chickpea" as I think of him. But alas, the copyright fees were extortionate:

This doesn't really answer any of the points you made your post, sorry - I just wanted to share!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for the Pinterest link - lovely pictures! I have the impression I like them just because they're pretty, and because I have very happy memories of the closeness of reading with children - but maybe it's all more sinister than that. Oh, you academics!

Becca McCallum said...

Thank-you for the pinterest link - off to have a proper look now, and probably pin some to my own boards!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Oh gosh now I should tear up all the postcards of paintings I've collected of children reading? What do you say about women reading? Somewhere on my shelves I recall an entire book of images of women reading.
Thanks for the Colette... that was brilliant. One doesn't often see a girl sewing nowadays but if I do, I'll be wary.

Jenny Schwartzberg said...

Interesting! I think of my own Pinterest board on the subject as a celebration of children liking to read. I was one of those avid child readers myself. I hadn't thought about why artists like that pose though... Here's the board:

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Oh don't worry, I'm just as taken with pictures of children reading as the next person... :)

Clémentine Beauvais said...

and thank you Jenny, that's amazingly spot-on for this post...

C.J.Busby said...

My children hated Matilda because she was such a know-it-all. Could't take the 'adult' view on her at all!!

It's interesting, though, the question of why we're so happy to see children absorbed in a book but not in a video game.

Have to think about that one. Are we just too accepting of the negative press on games, or are they actually much less creative and much more damaging?

Clémentine Beauvais said...

the former! the former! :)