Monday, December 14, 2009

On Settling for Less

The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk About Writing for Children

The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk About Writing for ChildrenThe viewpoint mystifies me—that works for children must necessarily be minor works by minor writers, that deliberately they are generated and projected at reduced voltage, that they evade truth, that they avert passion and sensuality and the subtleties of life and are unworthy of the attention of the serious artist or craftsman.

The sensitive child, the core of everything that I, for one, wish to write about, is the direct antithesis of this milk-and-water proposition.
Adult scaling-down of the intensity of the child state is a crashing injustice, an outrageous distortion of what childhood is about. Physical frailty is not weakness, gentleness is not spinelessness, delicate sensitivities are not sentimental trivialities, apart from those aspects of childhood that are as rumbustious as run-away bulls. As we grow older we look back more and more, not, I suspect, because a mature person really wishes again for the agonies and ecstacies of youth in the immediate sense, but because he has the need to recall the enormous impact, the enormous importance, the sheer magnitude of childhood events to compensate for the lower key of subsequent adult life. I am sure they are recalled because they are the most worthy of recall, because little else in life surpasses them.

I suggest it is possible to extend the intensity of a sensitive childhood into maturity without wearing yourself out or giving yourself ulcers or coronaries or other undesirable side effects, although it may add to the daily anguishing of your heart. But was there ever a joy worth having that did not exact a price? Children’s literature, so-called, the creation of it and the appreciation of it at a significant level, is one way of charging adult life with some of the extrasensual dimensions of childhood. Someone long ago, in different words, made a related statement and it is the key, from where I look at life, to being alive from the tips of your toes to the hair on your head and to every nerve-end in between.

-Ivan Southall, “Sources and Responses”, The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk about Writing for Children, ed. by Virginia Haviland, Fredonia Books, ©1980, 2000

We had our first "real" family portrait taken when Oldest was two years old and Middle was an infant. We got all bundled up and went to church to have our pictures taken for the directory, and I was very excited because we would get to keep a copy for ourselves. The photographer got us all set up, went back to his camera, and proceeded to pull out a squeaky toy which he held over the camera and squeezed like a madman. I tried to tell him that our child responded very well to things like, “Hey, look over here!” but he refused to try it. Apparently he thought it would work better to treat our toddler like a dog. And you know what? The man got the look he deserved (“What’s wrong with that guy?”) and we got a family portrait that never made it onto the wall.

I think sometimes we get wrapped up in our important adult world and fool ourselves into thinking that because kids are less mature, less experienced and take up less space that they are somehow less, period. Less human, less interesting, less interested. And if we get fooled into thinking that, won’t that affect what we offer them in terms of books, education, and art?

More from Ivan Southall:

What I wish for the writer for children, what I wish for myself, is the ultimate compliment—the return of the child in maturity to read the same book with new insight, new discovery, new joy. I would not wish for the writer for children, or for me, that the child in maturity should come back with the accusation: “You deceived me. You sold me short. You did not write from your heart. You wrote in a hurry off the top of your head.”


  1. This made me think of C.S. Lewis: "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest."

    Great post! I agree wholeheartedly and refuse to 'settle'.

    Oh, and the photographer story sounds SO familiar to me!!! Great analogy--treating our children like dogs.

  2. Thank you for that quote, Shonya! It's a thought that I've carried around with me for quite a while, but I didn't remember where it came from.


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