Thursday, 11 May 2017

Signs of Childness?

An Unsettling Number of Children's Literature Academics

Twenty years ago, Peter Hollindale of the University of York published a book that has provoked and inspired scholars of childhood ever since. Signs of Childness in Children’s Books discussed many things, but its main aim was to identify the qualities that characterise the state of being a child. “Childness” is an unusual word, though it was not Hollindale’s coinage; he wanted something without the heavy connotational baggage of words such as “childlike” (which seems to invite an idealistic view of children) or “childish” (which pictures them as defective). By contrast, “childness” is, semantically speaking, a tabula rasa.

It’s a fascinating question, and one often pondered. Although people talk of childhood innocence, for instance, I’ve never been clear whether innocence is a real quality that for better or worse children eventually lose (but, if so, what does it consist of?), or merely an absence of something else, which (again, for better or worse) experience eventually supplies.

I read Hollindale’s book many years ago, but it was on my mind again last Friday because the sagacious Clémentine Beauvais, ABBA blogger and York academic, organised a one-day conference to mark its anniversary. It was a delightful occasion, with contributions from many of the big names in children’s literature studies in the UK and beyond, including Hollindale himself, who came out of retirement for “one last job”, much like John Rambo. I wish I had time to tell you about all the papers, many of which were excellent, but I’m going to stick the one that was perhaps the most unusual – the attempt of a musicologist, Liam Maloy, to quantify the “childness” of various pieces of music and to supply them with a “Children’s Music Quotient” (or CMQ). He proposed to do this by making lists of qualities that he associated with childness, assigning a score for each one to a candidate piece of music, and combining those scores to create the piece’s CMQ. The qualities were listed under three broad headings: music, lyrics and sonics. For example, major keys were deemed to have more childness than minor ones; full rhymes more than half rhymes; percussion more than strings, and so on.

Literary scholars don’t generally work this way, and it took us some time to decide whether this was brilliance or nonsense. (Perhaps you have an opinion of your own?) I will mention, though, that Maloy confessed himself surprised at how often “adult” themes crept into music written for children, including music that otherwise had very high CMQs. Think of the death and murder meted out in such children’s favourites as Bernard Cribbins’ “Hole in the Ground” (“It's not there now, the ground's all flat/ And beneath it is the bloke in the bowler hat”) or “Right, said Fred” (“half a ton of rubble landed on the top of his dome”), or even the double murder of Alma Cogan’s “Middle of the House” – all delivered in jaunty 4/4 time.

But did these songs become successful with children despite their violence, or because of it? Playground rhymes are notoriously violent after all, from the parental hacking of “Lizzie Bawden” to the multiple limb losses of “Baby Shark”. Perhaps it’s a mistake to put these things under the “Adult” column, when so many children appear to be fond of them? Might a love of gore be a sign of childness rather than its opposite?

I was recently reminded of one of the Grimm brothers’ tales, called “How Some People Played at Slaughtering”. The plot is simple, if sanguinary. Two brothers see a pig being slaughtered, and decide to imitate the procedure in a game. Unfortunately, the elder brother takes the game too far, and slits the younger brother’s throat. Their mother, attracted by the noise, enters and, seeing what has happened, takes the knife in anger and stabs the killer. However, meanwhile she has left a third brother, a small child, in the bath, and when she returns finds him drowned. In despair, she kills herself. Her husband, returning from work, discovers the melancholy scene and dies of grief.

I’m not sure if the story has a moral, except perhaps “Right, said Fred”’s “You never get nowhere if you’re too hasty”, but there’s an appealing neatness about the way that each death leads domino-fashion to the next. Also, death and pain being pretty frightening things, it may be comforting to be able to take them out and look at them, and perhaps even find them funny, in the safe and structured confines of a tale or cheerful song. This I suppose is why people enjoy watching horror films, too, although that’s a taste I can’t claim to share.

In any case, Wilhelm Grimm removed the story from later editions on the grounds that it was too gruesome. He probably thought he was doing so to avoid scaring child readers. But perhaps it was really for sake of the adults?


Farah Mendlesohn said...

Not being a literary scholar I was just fascinated. I love this kind of distant reading (see Morretti).

Liz W said...

Fascinating. My main issue as a child was bewilderment: I didn't know what the hell was going on half the time, and I found other children's behaviour baffling (adults behaved coherently, in my experience, but God knows that's not always the case), so books in which children co-operated and behaved rationally, and in which they sorted out problems by themselves, appealed to me.