Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Why children’s books are the opposite of tragedies - C.J. Busby

I was thinking the other day about how, in so many children’s books, the hero finds they have hidden powers. I think it’s one of the aspects of children’s books I love the most, and loved especially as a child myself – the sense that, however ordinary you felt you were, there might be this magical ability hidden inside you, or some unexpected aspect of your character, just waiting for the right opportunity, the right trigger, to reveal itself. 

In one of my favourite books as a child, Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones, Cat Chant discovers, after many trials and mix-ups, that he’s an enchanter – from being a child who could do absolutely no magic, he becomes one who can make almost anything happen by just telling it to. In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, Will discovers he’s an Old One, and learns to use his new powers to fight the Dark. And Harry Potter, ordinary downtrodden child, finds he is really a wizard, and a very special one at that. 

But in more mundane ways, many children’s books chart the ways their protagonists learn to draw on hidden strengths or find reserves of bravery, intelligence, compassion, understanding, or determination to overcome obstacles and win through in difficult or challenging circumstances. 
In The Lord of the Rings, for example, it is the 'children' of the book, the hobbits, who really save Middle Earth - and they do so by finding in themselves the sort of courage, grit, compassion, confidence and ability to survive that they'd never have dreamed of in sleepy Hobbiton. The change in them is made gloriously manifest in their final return to the Shire and the battle with Sharkey.

In essence, these sorts of stories tell their readers – you can be amazing! It’s a great message for children – indeed, for any reader. It says, nothing about you is fixed, you don’t have to accept that you are only ever going to be this person or that person. Round the corner, an adventure might be waiting that will draw out of you all sorts of things – that will change you into a kind of hero, with new and unexpected powers. No matter that you are not top of the class, or ‘gifted and talented’, no matter that you think of yourself as ‘ordinary’ – there’s always hope.

This kind of transformative possibility in children’s books seems to me to be the very opposite of tragedy. In tragedies, most often, it’s the inherent flaws in the protagonist’s character that lead to the inevitable tragic outcome. Hamlet’s total introspection, his inability to stop dithering; Othello’s insane jealousy; Coriolanus’s pride; or in the classic Greek tragedies, the hero’s hubris, or their rigidity, or the inevitable repercussions of one terrible action. There’s a feeling of watching a slow motion train crash – nothing stops the slide towards mutual destruction because none of the characters are capable of changing who they are. When I was in my twenties, life sometimes felt exactly like this, and when it did, my best friend and I used to wail: ‘Aargh - I’m in an Iris Murdoch novel!’

In much adult literature events unfold in this way – the characters, like Martin Luther, ‘can do no other’, they react to each other and to events in ways that drive the plot forward, and it’s not very often that one of them finds a hidden power that solves the tangle they’ve all got themselves into. For me, then, tragedy is a quintessentially grown-up (‘literary’) form of literature, about people working through the consequences of who they are, who they have become. But children are always becoming, and so children’s literature seems to me in its purest form the very opposite of tragedy – characterised not by comedy, but a kind of positive hopefulness, an expectation of finding some new, positive aspect of yourself which explodes into the plot and turns it on its head.

This seems especially important to me now, when schools – even primary – are riddled with exams and tests and gradings: children, according to Ofsted good practice, should know exactly what National Curriculum Level they are (a 3a, or a 4b) and why they aren’t yet at the next level up. There is only one path allowed: three points of progress in academic work per school year. Ofsted is not interested in whether you might, in the meantime, have fought dragons, or learnt to conjure a whirlwind.

As with all generalisations, I’m sure people will find exceptions and caveats, and I don’t at all mean to be prescriptive. It’s not that I think all children’s books must conform to this model – but for me, the ‘ideal type’, if you like, of a children’s book, is that it has this sort of transformative hope at its centre. And the ideal anti-type is the tragedy.

C.J. Busby writes funny, fast paced fantasy for primary age children.

Her latest book, Deep Amber, is a multiple worlds adventure for 8-12, published March 2014 by Templar.

'This is an adventure... here are runes and swords and incredibly stupid knights in armour – enjoy!' (ABBA Reviews: Read the rest of the review here).

Website: www.cjbusby.co.uk

Twitter: @ceciliabusby


Clémentine Beauvais said...

I would agree with this, absolutely. There must be hope in children's literature, if only by virtue of the fact that children are characterised by having a future in which new and unexpected things can happen. I don't think tragedies can't be transformative for the audience, but children's literature is definitely a type of literature that is all about latency, potential and change.

Emma Barnes said...

Welcome to ABBA, C.J! What a fascinating post. I'm thinking thought that there is a strain of children's humour that is an exception to this: we laugh at Just William, Jennings, Ordinary Jack, Adrian Mole and maybe now the Diary of a Wimpy Kid because we see how ordinary they are, and know that their aspirations are often pipe-dreams. Adrian Mole is not going to be a poet and intellectual, and we wouldn't like him so much if he were.

C.J.Busby said...

That's a good point, Emma. I KNEW someone would come up with an exception almost immediately! But I do think that with William and Jennings part of the fun for children reading them (as opposed to more knowing adults) is that despite the fact that their grand plans often end in being caught and grounded, they have big dreams, and the stories always hold out the hope that somehow, one day, they will triumph over the teachers and the grown-ups! I'm not so sure about Adrian Mole - I never liked it, and really hate Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Are they more adult-oriented books? Certainly Adrian Mole seemed to appeal to teenagers more at the time they came out - but I'm truly stumped with the appeal of Wimpy Kid.

Emma Barnes said...

Ah...have you read Adrian Mole as an adult? I never "got it" as an adolescent, but as an adult I find Adrian hilarious. I think I understand much more about the context, though, and maybe it is more of an adult book. But it was certainly first published as a juvenile.

Savita Kalhan said...

That feeling of hope at the end of children's book is very important - to kids. A lot of the kids I know really cannot understand why an author has to kill of a charcter they've grown attached to. I still feel the same way now, maybe I never grew up! I've read some Teen/YA books recently, a couple in particular, both acclaimed, with horrible endings. It just made me, and my teen, wonder - why??

K.M.Lockwood said...

Lovely post - and I think we adults would do better if we were like children - 'always becoming' as you put it so well.

Nick Green said...

Well said. It makes me think of the quote from Neil Gaiman via G. K. Chesterton (Chesterton said it first in a more roundabout way):

"Fairytales don't teach children that monsters exist. Children already know that. Fairytales teach them that monsters can be killed."

Richard said...

What a fascinating post. It isn't only transformational stories either (The boy who became more motif). The Famous Five and the Narnia books have the same formula without transforming their protagonists.