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Who Is “The Child”?

by Natalie Babbitt

I remember my childhood vividly: what it felt like, what I thought about, what I did and said as opposed to what other children did and said. My views on the variety of types of children were, and are, the same as my views on the variety of types of adults. So it always comes as a shock to me to hear people talk about “the child.” I’m never sure what child they mean.

I have a sister who is two years older than I am, and we were never anything alike. There’s a truly distressing snapshot of the two of us at ages seven and nine, sitting on a park bench. We are dressed alike, but that’s where the likeness stops, because she was fat and I was emaciated. We are wearing identical cotton dresses with puffed sleeves, and my arms hang as loosely in those sleeves as the clappers in a pair of bells, while my sister’s cuffs are like tourniquets. A sorry sight, indeed. We were different in more important ways, too. She was an excellent student, while I was what the teachers now tactfully refer to as an underachiever. She was gregarious, and I was pretty much of a hermit. If anyone had tried to define either one of us as the child, the confusion would have been monumental.

People say to me occasionally, “Do you have the child in mind when you write?” What child? Myself? My sister? Or, possibly, Tempy Pitts? Tempy Pitts — whose full name was Temperance Pitts — has assumed for me by now something of the status of a folk hero. She was in my sister’s class in third grade, and she was a member of one of those families from West Virginia and Kentucky who, in those days, came across the Ohio River when summer was over to find work in the southern Ohio factories. Our town was the home of Armco Steel and attracted great numbers of these families — known locally as “poor white trash” — who would dutifully enroll their children in the schools and then, at the end of the school year, go home again back across the river and live all summer on what they’d earned. This particular fall, my sister’s third-grade teacher was taking her students through the annual September ritual of telling what they’d done during the vacation. When it was Tempy Pitt’s turn and the teacher said, “Now, Tempy, tell us what you did last summer,” Tempy stood up and said, “Aw, ah juss run up ‘n down a mountain ‘n eat a piece of bread.”

So do I have Tempy Pitt in mind when I write? Of course. Tempy is always in my mind, I’m happy to say. I am less happy to say that Norma Cox is also always in my mind. Norma Cox was in my class. She was little and even thinner than I was, and her clothes were even thinner than that, and we all avoided her because she smelled very bad indeed. I was once kind to Norma Cox for half an hour at recess and will never forget the surprise and gratitude in her pinched little face. I then, with the supreme cruelty of childhood, ignored her ever after, feeling that I had done my duty and could face my Sunday school teacher with a clear conscience.

So, yes, I have Norma Cox in mind, but also Janie Dorner. Janie Dorner was blond and beautiful, with shiny straight hair and sweaters that matched her socks, and she was always smiling, in spite of the fact that her older sister, equally beautiful, was an epileptic who sometimes had seizures in school.

There was Beth McKinnon, who passed through my second grade only briefly. She was, as I recall, a certified genius who could draw like Leonardo da Vinci when she was only seven and was soon placed in some special school where she could blossom. Before she came, I was the best artist in my class. I was the one who got to draw the princess for our frieze of the story about the princess on the glass mountain. Beth put my nose out of joint, and I was very glad when she left. Do I write for Beth McKinnon? Certainly not. Let her write her own stories.

There was June Green, who didn’t have much hair and who had to miss a chunk of third grade when one of her many siblings got bitten by a mad dog and the whole family had to get dreadful, debilitating hydrophobia shots. June was shy and pale and earnest. But Jane Rettig was ruddy and assertive, even in grammar school. She had frizzy hair and a big nose and gave great birthday parties. And there was Marsha Klein, who was fat and had a face like an English muffin. Her grandfather had had a stroke and used to sit on the Kleins’ front porch and mumble and drool. Marsha Klein spent her summers in Montana and expected everyone to be impressed by the fact. I guess I was impressed; I’ve remembered those vacations for more than forty years. And then there was Sudie Riley, who was spoiled and had mountains of toys. Sudie Riley once slammed down, on purpose, her overhead garage door on her kitten. As for boys, I fell in love in the first grade with Dwight Neill and was faithful to him until we moved away in the middle of sixth grade. My mother, driving by the school once while we were out for recess in second grade, saw me corner Dwight among the bicycle racks and kiss him. He was very handsome, and I didn’t, and don’t, apologize.

And there was, ever and always, my hero, my sister, with her stunningly large vocabulary and her tree house where she read Little Women and Oliver Twist; she sobbed up there among the catalpa pods while I, down below, in answer to some obscure diabolical urge, occasionally strung up a noose or two and lynched my dolls, a ritual which seemed to worry no one.

So, tell me, who is the child we hear so much about? The children I remember had precious little in common. Well, I’ll tell you who the child is. The child is a construction put together by adults, that’s who. The child, once out of diapers, does not cry. The child is beautiful and honest and never without a Kleenex. The child watches some television but accepts parental guidance cheerfully and would rather read, anyway. The child is clean all the time except when being picturesquely dirty. The child is never sick except for measles, mumps, and chicken pox, which are passed through with forbearance, dispatch, and without scratching. The child is not afraid of the dark or of swimming or dogs or Great Aunt Hepzibah’s mustache. The child has better manners than Amy Vanderbilt. The child will qualify for Harvard without ever having been a bookworm or a grind. The child, in short, will go out into the world and stun everyone, especially jealous relatives, with his or her splendid genetic make-up and obviously superior parenting, a combination of nature and nurture impossible to improve on, thereby insuring lasting self-satisfaction for “the parent.”

The child, then, is as utterly different from anyone we know personally as are children. Children, once you get past our national concept of them as “The Future,” are not necessarily desirable or attractive on a day-to-day basis. And they are certainly not important except insofar as they will someday be adults. Childhood is something to be got through as quickly as possible so you can get to the good stuff that comes with maturity, and one part of the good stuff is evidently the privilege of looking back and being sentimental about childhood. This means, of course, that one’s own childhood was either sweet beyond the dreams of Paradise or difficult beyond the novels of Charles Dickens. So maybe it would be more accurate to say that one’s own self as a child was important, but children, in general, are not. In the eyes of the world they’re not, anyway. If they were, we would pay our elementary school teachers a living wage.

Let’s face it: children are not a power group. This is largely because they don’t have any money. If they had any money, we’d probably let them vote. But they don’t. They also don’t have any experience — that golden quality, so hard won, that makes it possible for us adults to conduct our lives without any mistakes in judgment, without any problems, without noise or social disruption or unreasonable behavior of any kind. Children are also unfinished as to education. They have not yet read Proust, like us, and they don’t know what words the singers are singing when they go to the opera, and they don’t read The New York Times front to back every day the way we do. And they don’t know how to spell rhinoceros. We, of course, all know how to spell rhinoceros. The ability to spell rhinoceros is one of the hallmarks of an educated person, and children have yet to come to it.

It is for these reasons that people who write children’s books are suspect. The world looks at us in a puzzled way and wonders, “Why devote your life to writing for a group that has no money, no experience, and can’t spell rhinoceros? Such writing can’t be serious.” And it isn’t just we writers. My husband once worked for Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and one time at a party I talked to the chief of pediatric services. He told me gloomily that pediatric services are classed among other medical services just as children’s writers are classed among other writers. So if it has to do with children, let’s face it — it’s got no clout.

Some of my colleagues are very defensive about their work. Many say sniffily that they don’t write for children; they write to please themselves. Beatrix Potter even said so. But I say, “Horse-feathers.” All writers hope to please themselves by what they write, but it seems to me that it’s possible to please oneself at the same time as one is writing for, and hoping to please, children. Why not? Why should those two things be mutually exclusive?

Now, I want you to understand that when I use the term children, I do not mean it to include teenagers. Teenagers are something else again. One does not call them children in their presence and expect to be applauded. In fact, they aren’t children, technically, because they aren’t powerless. It’s doubtful that they have much experience, and my guess is that few of them can spell rhinoceros, but they’ve got money. So they have the most telling kind of importance. I read somewhere recently that the big spender now for movies is a fourteen-year-old boy. Hollywood producers are taking this into account. And that’s clout.

Writers of books for teenagers are higher up on the prestige scale than writers of books for the prepubescent group. This is because the public is afraid of teenagers and imagines that people who write for them have some inside track on understanding them. I imagine this myself. My picture of the situation is that during the teenage years, people are far more alike than they were as children and far more alike than they will be as adults. This picture makes of life a sort of hourglass with the top part labeled childhood, the squeezed-in neck part labeled teenagers, and the bottom labeled adulthood.

Or let me put that another way. Childhood is South America, in all its warm and infinite variety from Rio to the Andes. Adulthood is North America with its cold Canadian fronts and all that open land demanding to be dug up and built on. And the teenage years are the Panama Canal — hot and volatile, with everyone in battle fatigues, looking just like Fidel Castro, and utterly inscrutable.

Well, I am probably wrong. But I was a teenager in that pointless and arid period between Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley and so have grown up uninitiated. I collected Mario Lanza records. When I went away to college and was feeling lonely and homesick, I’d just slip up to my room and put on a recording of Lanza singing “Be My Love.” A person who is turned on by “Be My Love” is not going to feel common cause with the Rolling Stones.

So, anyway, teenagers are not children, and I don’t write for them. This has caused no outcry in the high schools, so it’s all right. My books are for children — specifically, I guess, for the last best year of childhood, the fifth grade. And I resent fifth graders being lumped together into some great unformed ball of clay called the child.

There are a lot of special things about fifth grade. Or, at least, there were a lot of special things about my fifth grade. I didn’t know I didn’t have any clout, you see. I didn’t realize that money was important, and I was never asked to spell rhinoceros. There was a war on — we were all very much aware of that — but I didn’t read the newspapers from front to back to keep up on its progress. And although I was in love with Dwight Neill, it was as innocent a love in fifth grade as in any fairy tale. It became, rather suddenly, less innocent in sixth grade when, for the first time, I agreed to play Post Office at a birthday party, but we moved away before any harm was done.

I don’t want to hear about the child, that mythical monster whom we are all supposed to have in mind when we write. I only have in mind myself and all my fifth-grade colleagues: Selby Smallwood, who was retarded; Marcia Ellison, my airheaded best friend; Larry Jones, who died of leukemia; Donald Crawley, the class jock who threw up in class and destroyed his image; Georgie Bach, who loved me; Ruth Upton, who didn’t. We were not the child; we were people. Separate, distinct, with different dreams and different sorrows. If we were the future then, now we are in large part the past. But all of us at any given moment are the present, and that is what matters. Our childhoods, our adulthoods, and our old age are only a long series of nows, a continuing present where we are always people, first and foremost, separate and distinct, regardless of our age.

From the March/April 1986 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more, click the tag Natalie Babbitt.

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