23 Jul Looking for the Hiding Child
Professor Andrew Melrose, Winchester University
I have been writing about writing for children for a long time and I do a lot of research. Most recently I have noticed a lot of critics seem to be pre-occupied with the notion that there is no such thing as children’s literature. This is because children read stories written for them and rarely by them, and indeed written by almost anyone but them. Thus, critics imply, that this means the books and stories written for children are invariably full of ‘hidden adults’: that is to say adult ideas, themes, issues, agendas and so forth. But I have to confess, for me these ‘hidden adults’ are nothing but huge, pink spotted, yellow elephants in the room and that as writers, what we really ought to be looking for are the ‘hiding children’ – let me explain.
The experience of an adult writer must inevitably filter into a story or a book written for someone less experienced – like a child. There is nothing unusual about this and indeed nothing wrong with it. Adults and children are tangled up in the same lives, the same stories, the same discourse, the same language, which is only differentiated by different levels of ‘life experience’. Nevertheless, while writers tend to concentrate on ‘softening’ the adult experience, so that a child may come to it in time and when they are ready, it is a HUGE mistake to think that the child reader who comes to a book written by an adult is some passive (innocent) receptacle waiting to be filled with ideas.
In my experience ALL children actually understand more than they can articulate at any given time. What books do is encourage them to learn to say what they know, how they feel and so on, as they go on to learn even more. Every child brings what they know to the table while assimilating it with that which they know not. That is how they grow from children into adults; by assimilating real, actual and vicarious experience handed down to them. As writers, we have to recognise the ‘hiding child’ is still a little unsure about life, but the books we write for them are part of their growing process.
Let me show what I mean here. The writer and the reader are perceived to be a long way apart in terms of experience and other separating forces, where the book is intended to mediate between the two.
WRITER (experienced/publisher) – BOOK – (parent/inexperienced) READER
But both are closer than both realise. The writer invests his or her story in the narrator/ hero/ characters and the reader comes to meet them, hiding among the pages, weaving in and out of the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters, engaging with the story – bringing what they know and absorbing that which they know not (yet). You see, reading is not a passive activity and both the writer (in the guise of the narrator/heroes) and the reader (wrapped up in the story) are actively engaged in the same book.
As writers, we should not be looking for the implied reader, that age group defined, culturally identified child, but the child who comes into the forest of words that is the story, hiding, secretly waiting for the narrator/heroes of the story that will change their lives forever. That’s the child writers should be looking for – the hiding child who is waiting like the book thief to make your story their story.
‘Look, there she goes… there he is… over there… no there… look, look and keep looking, they are depending on you! Can your novel lead them through the jungle of experience?’