On Children’s Literature
“Why do we give children the illusion of a world that doesn’t exist and which all their lives they will compare with a harsh reality?” –Georges Simenon
A few weeks ago I published my 300th post since I launched the blog back in 2013. In recognition of this dubious anniversary I’m going to talk about an unconventional topic: children’s literature.
I never gave a thought to kids’ books until, well, I had kids. Then I was appalled by most of what I saw.
There are some wonderful exceptions, of course, but stroll through the kids section of a bookstore (if you can find one) or your local public library and you will encounter pretty much only two kinds of books.
The first are the namby-pamby, completely sanitized books that parents believe will be “safe” for their tender-minded kids, but which actually bore kids to death. If parents insist on forcing their kids to read this stuff, the kids will develop a lifelong loathing for literature.
Barely better are the Politically Correct children’s books (of any era) designed to teach children what they ought to think and believe. Even when we agree with the world view these books espouse, the stories are deadly, having nothing to recommend them but their Approved View of the World. Kids know when they are being hectored.
Maybe Dorothy Parker summed it up best when she wrote in her New Yorker column, “Constant Reader,” reviewing a children’s book of her era: “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
Maybe this was the sort of thing I was thinking about or maybe not, but in the mid-winter of 1980–1981 I sat down to write a children’s story. My eldest child, Sarah, was then turning four. I was turning thirty-four.
Whatever motivated me to write the story, I found the process much more enjoyable than I imagined it would be. It was fascinating to try to put myself into the mind of a child, to inhabit a world where fantasy and the imagination are far more real than reality. After all, the fantasy is created by the child, while reality is something imposed on her from outside.
And Sarah definitely had an extensive fantasy life. Her mother and I were both working hard in those days and Sarah would spend long hours out on our wide front porch, deeply engaged in whatever fanciful and complicated world she was inhabiting. I well remember that that porch hadn’t been cleaned since Truman was President, with the result that Sarah would emerge from her fancies covered in soot from head to toe.
Over the next two years I continued to write children’s stories, mostly in prose but sometimes in verse, and then, in late 1982 or early 1983, I stopped writing them. I no more know why I stopped than I’d known why I started.
Over the years the manuscripts of those stories became lost—they’d all been hand typed, of course. WordStar had come out as early as 1979, and by the early 1980s I was using a Wang word processer at the office. But it would be later in the 1980s before I owned a home computer that could use Word Perfect.
And then, miraculously, in the spring of 2017—35 years later—Sarah’s mother found the stories and typed them all up in Microsoft Word. By that time my one child had grown to six, ranging in age from forty (Sarah) to fourteen. I also had five grandchildren, suggesting that there might eventually be many more. And so it occurred to me to sort through the stories and publish them, mainly for my grandchildren.
As noted above, when I wrote the stories I was thirty years older than my daughter. But now, so many years later, I was thirty-five years older than the young man who’d written them. It’s always a disorienting experience to go back and review something you’ve written decades earlier, but in this case it was especially bewildering because I hadn’t even thought about those stories for many, many years.
The stories are all quite different. The first story, “The Magic Seed,” is merely one page long—except for the (surprise) second page, which is one large picture. “Emily Snitz,” by contrast, written in verse, is over 5,000 words long. (Imagine an adult today sitting down to enjoy a 5,000-word poem.)
Most of the stories were simply invented by me out of whole cloth, but several were based on my experiences as a father. For example, in those days my daughter’s favorite TV show was reruns of “The Incredible Hulk,” which she called “The Credible Hark.” When I would ask her if she wasn’t frightened by the Hulk, she would say, “No, Dad, he’s just on TV.” So I wrote “The Green Goblin,” in which a scary monster jumps out of the TV set and chases a little girl around the house.
While I was in children’s-story-writing-mode, Sarah began to learn to read. Some of the kids in her class had been reading since they were three years old, so poor Sarah was often at a disadvantage and didn’t always enjoy reading class. So I wrote “Learning to Read with Mr. Withers,” in which a kid gets the better of his reading teacher.
Finally, Sarah sometimes complained about her teachers (usually by way of explaining a lousy grade). So I wrote “Witch Hazel,” in which a kindly teacher named Miss Hazel turns into a witch and terrifies her students into behaving themselves.
When I decided to publish the stories my first inclination was to revise them substantially, to create stories I might have written today, not way back then. This was especially tempting when I came across juvenilia—the Dr. Seuss-wannabe sections of “Emily Snitz,” for example. But ultimately I decided to leave the nine stories as they’d been written, warts and all.
Before he died, my father wrote his autobiography, and I’ve always been deeply grateful that he did. I hope and expect that my great-grandchildren will read his book and come to know their great-great-grandfather in an almost intimate way. And I hope the same for these stories, i.e., that my remote descendants will read them and, perhaps, even enjoy them.
If you have children or grandchildren between the ages of one and about twelve, you might check out “Emily Snitz and Other Stories,” illustrated by the very talented April Hartmann. The book was published in 2017 by Lilting House Press and is available on Amazon here.
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