Wednesday 29 May 2013

Leaving the Land of Make-Believe

The first indication I had that I was crossing the frontier from childhood into adolescence was during a game of make-believe. I remember sitting on the floor of the landing outside my bedroom, a box of Playmobil knights beside me and a gate-leg table before me, ready to act out adventure stories and create valiant knights and wicked kings and queens from the plastic figures.

The gate-leg table was the only piece of furniture in the house that ever transformed itself into a castle. Its construction made it the perfect backdrop for elaborate battles because of the carved steps and ridges on the feet and legs and the broad plank connecting the legs at the base. The table top never figured in my fantasies; it was far too flat and boring. The base, on the other hand, was perfect for laying out a battle scene. I would place some knights at various points along the ledge, perhaps balancing a princess on the highest point as though imprisoning her in a tower. Other knights would take up position to defend their fortress (and their princess) while an army of attacking knights would surge forth in a pincer movement along the conveniently grass-green carpet. The fantasies were hardly original, but nonetheless real for me.

So, there I was, happily settling down on the landing of my parents' house, putting everything in place for a long, dream-filled afternoon of play. And that's when it happened. I picked up a knight, ready to make him charge at the castle, knock down the gate and scale the walls to perform his daring deed when - suddenly there was no castle. It remained stubbornly a table. I narrowed my eyes to try and shift my focus, to will the knight in my hand to take over and make the magic happen. But precisely nothing happened: the wooden legs and decorative carvings of the table refused to mutate into battlements and crenelations, and the knight remained small and stiffly plastic in my hands, his painted-on smile mocking me.

After this, similar things would happen in the playground at school. The corner I had used to play "imaginary houses" with my best friend was now merely an empty corner of tarmac. One by one my portals into the freedom of childhood's imagination were closing.

And so it was with books. Stories which had once instantly transported me into their worlds where I could be an orphan or a time-traveller or a rabbit running side by side with Hazel and Fiver were now merely words on the page.

Francis Spufford expresses this feeling of loss perfectly for me in his book The Child that Books Built. (If you have not read it, I urge you to do so.)

He says:

". . . the sensation was receding from the sentences that had once given me shocks; The Silver Chair and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader had no new news to give me, and so they were fading out of my repertoire of important books, reduced to the mild status of former favourites. I would have to find other stories to love."

Spufford explores the loss of the wonder we (well, some of us) feel when our childhood favourites no longer seem able to work their magic on us.

Reading this made me take a look at my own children, on the threshold of adolescence, and realise how lucky they are with the wealth of reading material made available to them; stories written especially for their age group, bridging the once vast gap between children's and adult fiction.

In the early 1980s, such a literary bridge was only at the early stages of construction. By the age of thirteen, I knew I had to leave Narnia and grope my way blindfold into the adult world of reading. I was not successful. People would push the Classics on me to no avail, and I was not blessed with an engaging and inspiring English teacher, as my children are today. And so I fell by the wayside: I stopped reading. I did not pick up a book to read for pleasure until I was twenty-one, by which time I met a man who was able to enthuse me by his own love of literature.

People often ask me why I write for children. Until I read Spufford's book, I do not think I had seriously considered the reason. But it is obvious, I suppose: I am still yearning to recapture that sense of wonder I felt when I sat on the floor of the landing at my parents' house, where a table was a castle and plastic knights were kings.


M Harold Page said...

That's what Dungeons and Dragons is for!

A Wilson said...

Yes! My husband has recently introduced our son to Fabled Lands, too. My husband seems to be getting rather a little more pleasure out of it than our son...

Unknown said...

I loved outdoor games that involved a tent or a den.

M Harold Page said...

I know the older generation whinge about how they used to be happy with a cardboard box and a few sticks, but I think modern childhood is far richer in possibilities than before, especially at that transition point. Our kids are still fighting battles with Playmobil, but gradually drifting into Warhammer, Lord of the Rings and D&D. They also have a wonderful range of YA books that bridge the gap between childhood and adolescence.

A Wilson said...

I am with you on the YA. So lucky to have that these days. It would have prevented me from those blank years of no reading.