Writing For Children
Peter Hunt writes that â€˜some idea of a child or childhood motivates writers and determines both the form and content of what they write’ (2009a, p13). PromptingÂ Â that an author’s choice of book type and content stems from their image of the child they are writing for, elements of which come from their own ideology of society and childhood often shaped by their own lifestyles. It is arguable however if the authors idea of childhood is indeed their motivation or if there are other factors in their writing that point to an additional agenda. In considering Hunts statement we will see the changing childhood ideologies of Victorian and postmodern realism in Louisa May Alcott’s, Little Women (1868), and Melvin Burgess’s Junk (1996), and also the differing concept of childhood in fantasy literature with Phil Pullman’s, Northern Lights (2004). It is also significant to discover what constitutes the authors notion of childhood in their books, and if there are external elements which can shape the content and form of children’s books such as mass marketing and the commodifying of children.
Early children’s literature was highly didactic and as Zipes (2009) suggests even the earliest renderings of fairytales were designed to turn children into the type of adults their societies would prefer. Its First Golden Age from the later half of the nineteenth century introduced a change in how we viewed children, we began to celebrate the joys of childhood, (Carpenter, 2009) the most notable books entertained and also gave their readers a sense of empowerment and individuality. An example of such a novel is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women,following the narrative tradition of domestic and informative stories for girls such as Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749), and ostensibly remaining within the conservative restrictions of her era, Alcott presents the contemporary life of four sisters growing up during the American civil war. Her book, written as a request by her publisher to fill a niche in the market, is to all appearances moralistic and patriarchal. The title, as phrased by the children’s father â€˜little women'(Alcott,1868, p12) exemplifies the Victorian ideal of childhood, where children were seen as miniature adults and taught the puritan morals to be dutiful , obedient , hard-working and God-fearing (Styles,2009), puritan John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress(1678) is used extensively throughout the book . Little Women’s third person omniscient narration is also in quite a condescending adult voice effecting to keep the March girls as children who need guidance, even when they mature, â€˜Amy’s lecture did Laurie good, though, of course, he did not own it till long afterward’ (LW, p384).The narrators frequent interjections with opinions and views guides the readers into making the required conclusions, thereby giving instruction to its girl readership on how to be good wives and mothers. Arguably however as Fetterley (2009) suggests there are statements within the novel that portray an undercurrent of ambivalence, showing Alcott’s perhaps true feelings to opportunities available according to gender and class, depicted primarily in her portrayal of Jo an antagonistic of the submissive young girl of the times. Alcott herself was rather an oddity of her time, a spinster, woman activist and the family breadwinner, her motivation to write was often purely financial (Alderson, 2008). Accordingly Jo is often seen as based on Alcott, portrayed as a talented headstrong writer, Beth’s words â€˜You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone.'(LW, p361), echo Alcott’s own lifestyle, yet could also be seen as advice to her girl readers to embrace their freedom, rather than their expected domesticity. Even the outwardly repressive marmee, and her ideas of marriage â€˜the sweetest chapter in the romance of womanhood’ (LW, p95)’, also states â€˜better be happy old maids than unhappy wives'(LW, p95). She also occasionally shows her ambivalence to her life, â€˜Mother isn’t sick, only very tired,’ (LW, p109), as Hannah their housemaid points out â€˜housekeeping aint no joke’ (LW, p109) and as Alcott is perhaps trying highlight, domesticity is not so wonderful a role to aspire to. Alcott quite understandably given her precincts denied any subversion in her novel yet it is arguable that it contains many instances of her own childhood. In her journal she recalls the daily drudgery and struggle of her mother as she strived to sustain her family while her father as in LW gave little help (Alderson, 2008). Alcott used the then accepted ideal of the quintessential patriarchal Victorian family childhood and her own family memories to give form and content to her book. The March girls are lost in their own wonderful family plays and games, a loving safe playful family unit that nurtured and trained the child, giving much needed stability to a society shaken by war. This was not however Alcott’s only motivation, she disliked her own novel as she says â€˜I do not enjoy writing moral tales for the young, I do it because it pays well’ (Alcott cited in Alderson, 2008, pxxiii), and her covert messages of rebellion, portray distaste in the directives which shape the young, especially girls, to be compliant adults. Her novel is also motivated and shaped by her social stance on opportunities available to the gender, class and race of her time, Little Women represents childhood as preparing for future roles, yet covertly it also uses its representation with the potential to disturb societal expectations.
Over a century later Melvin Burgess again fills a publisher recognised niche in the teenage market also focusing on the adolescent experience, Junk is unrestrained from nineteenth century conservatism in its graphic depiction of the fall of two runaways into prostitution and drugs. Burgess states children or young people should read about their lives not idealistically but as they really are, his characters are not invented but based on his memories of real people, he also does not preach to his readers yet allows them to evolve their own conclusions, (Burgess, 2009). It has been said Junk â€˜neither glamorises nor demonises drug addiction’ (Falconer, 2009, p375), yet Junk conceals a strong sense of morality within its text, its principles obscured so the book appears to be non didactic or opinionated and so appeal to Burgesses’ idea of the modern teenager. Junks individual character narration lends to a documentary style of neutrality, yet textual guides bring the reader to the required conclusions, as Tar says â€˜If you don’t mind not reaching twenty there’s no argument against heroin, is there?'(Burgess, 1996, p166), Gemma is the spoilt little runaway child â€˜How do you think her parents feel?’ asked Vonny. They were just keeping her in. It’s not like Tar is it?'(Junk, p75). The events have a moralistic ending, Gemma recognises they have all been deceiving themselves and condemns them all to their fate; her own is to be a single mother. Such reality based writing lends itself as Tucker(2009) says to the author’s belief that childhood is primarily a transitional stage leading to adulthood â€˜giving readers the truth is seen as providing them with an important aid to their own eventual better understanding of themselves and others’ (p190). Junk follows this form well, Burgess gives his child readers autonomy in interpretation, viewing them not as innocents, but inexperienced young people, who need empowerment and guidance to make the right decisions. As we have seen it is impossible to read Junk and come out defending heroin or the runaway, it could be said that Burgess brings Alcott’s moral tale for the young into today’s modern world.
Yet in challenging the ideology of the innocent child, Junk’s view of childhood is at the opposite end of the spectrum to that of Little Women, he dispels the nostalgic innocence critics connect with childhood. His explicitness â€˜Lily said, I’ve been a little prossie for half an hour’ (Junk, p158) â€˜foregrounds how altering conceptions of the childâ€¦can cause both controversy and anxiety among consumers’ (Squires, 2009, p189), leading to Burgess having to defend his authorial intent over the charge of sensationalism. In response to criticism from Anne Fines, and defending the explicit nature of his books, Burgess says â€˜Underneath Anne’s whole article is that same nasty sneer I remember from when I was small – How revolting. Aren’t you a dirty little boy? – the same attitude which was exactly what made me want to write the thing in the first place’ (Burgess, 2004). It could then be suggested that part of his motivation was indeed to rebel against as he calls it â€˜the moral majority’ (Burgess, 2009, p317), and stretch the boundaries of appropriate childhood reading matter. Nevertheless saying that drugs and underage sex are what teenagers want to read about could perhaps show that Burgess himself has a distorted idea of today’s childhood. An idea he needed to uphold in order to construct his model of the non-reading (conceivably moronic) teenager and defend the sensationalism of his novel, he is perhaps modelling his child to suit the aspirations of his book. Junk’s content worked as a hook for his teenage audience and also generated him much publicity, conceivably showing another aspect of his motivation, content and form set to shock the critics, produce an outcry and gain him notoriety, all in addition to providing teenagers realistic age related literature. His post modern realism , takes the assumption that children are not innocent, but they still need guidance, also that in order to connect with today’s child , this guidance must be hidden allowing the reader perceived autonomy in their decisions. Burgess also shows a sad irony in the loss of childhood, Gemma wanted â€˜a slice of life'(Junk, p161) but could only find this in leaving home, unlike the March girls, in Junk childhood was something to be quickly left behind in order to really live.Â
An authors understanding of childhood as Hunt says can influence the form of their writing ,â€˜ those who see childhood more as an end to itself may prefer literature that is clearly more fantasy based’ (Tucker, 2009, p190). Phil Pullman’s Northern Lights conforms to this ideology using a fantasy world to rewrite the biblical story of creation. Eighteenth century philosopher Rousseau stated that â€˜Nature wants children to be children before they are men’ (Jenks, cited in Hunt, 2009, p23), he believed childhood should be a time of innocence , with children allowed to grow at their own pace not forced into civilisation. Pullmans similar view on childhood freedom is apparent in Northern Lights , Lyra is safe and happy in the freedom of Jordon College, â€˜What she liked best was clambering over the college roofs'(Pullman, 2004, p36), as she grows her freedom is stifled by the intervention of her mother, state and church .
Poet William Blake also used Rousseau’s concept of natural innocence, corrupted by adult intervention, and Pullman uses Blake’s contraries and commentary on Milton’s Paradise Lost to â€˜reverse the morality of the biblical fall to celebrate knowledge’ (Squires, 2009, p278). He advocates the co-existence of good and evil (body and soul) and free will, which the church refuses to, acknowledge (Bird, 2009, p264).Â As such Northern Lights, casts an unfavourable light on how religious fundamentalism suppresses knowledge, the Magisterium symbolising the church is shown as repression and death, killing the children whose souls or daemons it removes as it endeavors to preserve innocence â€˜all that happens is a little cut, and then everything’s peaceful .For Ever!…at the age we call pubertyâ€¦daemons bring all sorts of troublesome thoughts and feelings’ (NL, p283).
Pullmans idea of the child is shown in Lyra, her innocence and freedom of mind give her the ability, unlike adults, to easily read the alethiometer, Lyra’s â€˜childlike state'(Squires,2009, p281) when reading makes her feel â€˜like a young bird learning to fly'(NL, p152). Which is a suitable metaphor for how she represents Pullmans main concepts of innocence and experience, seeing similar attributes in young people giving them the ability to deal with significant issues free from outside influence; as he says â€˜he hopes that young readers will finish â€¦having gained the understanding that trusting one’s own thoughts and feelings is an essential part of self-discovery and growing up’ (Travis, 2010).
Through his use of the fantasy form Pullman is able to transgress difficult subject areas normally out of bounds within a children’s book, capturing his young readers’ imaginations while keeping the stark realities of his metaphors at bay. He insists on realism and the â€˜real’ implications of his fantasy stories (Wood, 2009, p274), exhorting his readers to take an activist role in creating the world that they want. So saying â€˜If I write fantasy, its only because by using the mechanisms of fantasy I can say something a little more vividly about, for example the business of growing up’ (Rustin and Rustin , 2003 ,cited in Montgomery, 2009, p255).
Within Northern Lights, Pullman shows Lyra’s growth from innocence, he demonstrates the malleability of childhood with the changing form of the children’s daemons that represent their character , which set at puberty into the type of person they are, for example â€˜he was a servant , so she [the daemon] , was a dog’ (NL, p7). Pullman promotes childhood as an innocent time when children are impressionable and make the important decisions that mould their moral fibre, he follows the traditional pattern of childhood freedom, as seen in the like of Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons() as the children create their own idyllic morally responsible world (Squires, 2009, p282).
Northern Lights uses the Magisterium to establish anti-religious ideology and shows the infallibility of religion in that Lyra’s saviours are those marginalised and demonised by society; the non religious gyptians (gypsies), risk all to rescue the children, and the witches save their lives in the final battle. Such radical views may seem better placed in adult literature yet as Reynolds (2009) informs â€˜avoiding cultural spotlight is one reason why writers may find themselves drawn to write for children’ (p109). Pullman may be using children’s literature as a vehicle to publicly air his opinions on religious fundamentalism safely hidden within children’s fantasy, to a less judgmental audience. It could be that Pullman simply finds this medium more liberating; however Northern Lights also manipulates its readers’ opinions in line with Pullmans, ultimately, as with Junks evils of heroin, the reader cannot fail to see the Magisterium as the evil villain. Pullman’s use of fantasy fiction proves he can more succinctly air his own opinions, and he could be seen as using the medium of children’s literature in the same way. As he states â€˜there are some themes, some subjects too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book â€˜(Pullman, cited in Falconer, 2009, p378). His view on how we underestimate the potential of the young in order to maintain our own nostalgic view of childhood has certainly shaped the form and content of his book. Reynolds (2009) informs that â€˜childhood is a time to negotiate and find a place in society’, yet more so with Northern Lights â€˜it is also about developing individual potential suited to a future in which societies could be different in some significant ways'(p100). It could perhaps then also be said that Alcott, Burgess and Pullman’s motivation to write for children is also their aspiration to create a better society, â€˜So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked towards the sun, and walked into the sky (NL, 397).
As authors draw on their ideals to write for their audience, it is the book publishers who set the market trends and decide what children would like to read and subsequently influence what an author writes, an area touched upon with LW and Junk. Twenty first century novels show a commodification of children’s literature (Squires, 2009), in which we also see the decline of the individual author with publishers such as â€˜Working Partners’, where a storyline is created by a conglomerate of author /editors then given to a writer to create the book (EA300, DVD2). Thus providing a quick turnaround and commercial sense but little scope for individual ingenuity and signifying that as Hunt (2009b) says, â€˜the cart of marketing, is driving the horse of creativity’ (p81). A further consideration on external influence is the competition from digital media, which as Burgess (2009) says also has a great impact on what children are exposed to, compounding the difficulty in producing literature that appeals to the modern child ,a fact he uses to support his hard hitting realism. Children’s literature has been seen to catalogue social, economical and political changes, embolic of society’s view of childhood (Hunt, 2009b, p71), a view set as the gate keeping adult world considers what children need to read, putting additional pressure for authors to produce the â€˜right’ book.
In conclusion to Hunts statement, it would seem that in order to write a children’s book, the author must indeed have an idea of the child they are writing for, and this determines the form and content of their novel. Yet as we have seen they are also motivated by their own additional agendas, and this can lead to their constructed child being modified for their own purposes and also manipulated by the forces of modern media and marketing. This contributes to the complexity and often popularity of a novel that can then be read on many levels, Pullman could be seen as writing a religious allegory, propaganda or an adolescence adventure story. Authors still have their own view of what childhood should be, and incorporate this into how they believe it is or wish it to be seen. Our realistic view of the modern child is radically different from earlier popular books, such as Little Women, or Swallows and Amazons and as contemporary writers make efforts to loose the nostalgic view of childhood innocence, there is also the concern that we are now ending childhood too soon, and as Jacqueline Wilson says forcing children to conform to society’s teenage image (EA300, DVD2). Yet from Little Women’s childish carefree plays to Junks depiction that children are now living real life adventures, we find that, as Lyra does, there is still always hope in children’s books. Children’s literature as Hunt (2009a) says shows what society thinks of childhood, and also what the author and we as adults need to believe it represents.