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The Rhinoceros and the Pony

by Natalie Babbitt

One doesn’t want to say anything too shocking in a breakfast speech. It’s okay to be shocking in a dinner speech because everyone will be going home soon and can recover in the privacy of bed. But at this hour there’s still a whole day ahead, so morning is probably not the time for white knuckles and a rapid pulse. Perhaps that’s why so many people have opted, in recent years, for the breakfast session that features children’s writers. There may be a notion afoot that it’s not in children’s writers to be shocking — that we’re a restful breed just right for speaking at the first meal of the day. For when you come right down to it, who would choose to have breakfast with a rhinoceros if there was a pony available? Greens would be on the menu in either case — very little cholesterol in greens — but the ambiance would be completely different.

Actually, like writers for children and writers for adults, ponies and rhinoceroses are related — did you know that? They both belong to the odd-toed ungulates, order Perissodactyla. But rhinoceroses, according to those in the know, don’t see very well out of their little red eyes, and they sometimes have ugly tempers. They also love to wallow in mud. Ponies, on the other hand, have large, mild eyes and a docile temperament, and they like to be well groomed.

Normally, one shouldn’t stretch similes too far, but I want to stretch these until they break. Maybe that’s just what’s needed to demonstrate that you may be making a mistake when you choose to eat breakfast with a children’s writer. It’s true that we tend, as a breed, to be rather more hopeful about life in general than our relatives in the next cage. And, since the stakes are usually so much smaller for us, we also tend to be a little more generous, a little more relaxed, a little less competitive. We visit schools from time to time, and there’s no better remedy for a swollen ego than a sharp question from a fifth grader. Then, too, since we don’t expect everybody at a cocktail party to have read our latest book, and since we are, in general, grouped with the powerless — children, librarians, and teachers — we don’t threaten anyone.

My husband and I — he has a Ph.D. in American Literature so he’s plenty threatening — were once invited as guests to an annual gathering of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. We sat way up in the back and goggled at the stage and said to each other, “There’s John Barth” and “Can that be Tom Wolfe?” and “Look — Susan Sontag,” just like dazzled fans at a 1940s Hollywood première. But there aren’t very many children’s writers who will bring on that kind of goggling from the general public. When a rhinoceros comes down the street, everybody pays attention. But scarcely a head will turn for a pony.

Given all this, why might it be a mistake to have breakfast with a children’s writer? Because, even though children’s writers may seem to be more relaxed and gentle and generous, you run the risk with us, at breakfast or any other time of day, of being forcibly reminded that you were once a child. I have discovered that this can be quite unsettling to a lot of people. If they really get to talking honestly about their childhoods, all kinds of things tend to slouch to the surface. I have seen strong men weep and kindhearted women gnash their teeth when their memories of those early days are jogged. A librarian once turned to me at a luncheon and said, quite out of the blue, “l’ve always hated my sister.” A revered professor at a recent academic gathering said to me, “I had an absolutely terrible childhood.” I suppose as children’s writers we get told this kind of thing because we are presumed to know a lot about childhood, rather like psychologists — and maybe we do. Certainly many of us believe with psychologists that people cannot hope to understand themselves if they turn their backs on their earliest years. The person who yawns and looks bored when anything to do with childhood is mentioned is likely to be draped with more invisible chains and baggage than Marley’ s ghost but is so afraid to find it out that he looks bored as a defense.

I don’t know why it is that some people try to forget they were ever children. A lot of people seem to think there is something humiliating about having to admit they were ever three feet tall and had to have somebody else cut up their chicken. It probably has something to do with that powerless condition; we don’t admire the powerless in America. Well, I’m no reformer. I don’t expect everyone to go around kissing babies and volunteering to help out in elementary schools in order to keep in touch with children in general. Children in general are not to the point; it’s the individual child you once were that matters. You might not even be fond of children in general. But you were certainly fond of yourself when you were a child. At least, I hope so, because that self is the same self you are now, whether you like it or not.

When most of us look back, we can remember things that happened to us that were upsetting at the time but seem silly compared to what we have to face today. Well, everything is relative, and today’s neurosis or compulsion or facial tic is nearly always the result of yesterday’s upsets. Do you avoid seeing your relatives whenever possible? Do unfamiliar places make you nervous? Do large women with commanding gazes strip you of self-confidence? Listening to your answers to these questions, the analyst says, “Hmm,” and makes a note on his pad.

I recall an incident that occurred when I was four which I am sure is responsible for my rigid sense of justice. It involved the theft from my sister of some doll underwear by the little girl next door. We saw her make off with the goods, and we complained to our mother. But our mother was reluctant to do anything about it, because the thief was a minister’s daughter. “Leave her to Heaven” is what, in effect, our mother said. But Heaven never showed the slightest interest in this particular crime, though I waited and watched and hoped. I have grown up with the conviction that Heaven may be all very well, but a policeman on every corner in the land is the only way to insure a just and theft-free life. Once again the analyst says, “Hmm,” and writes on his pad.

We laugh at or ignore our child selves to our peril. We patronize today’s children to our peril. We ignore those children’s toys and their teachers and their questions and their books to our peril. Someday we’re going to be old, and those children will take over. Some of them, on the last edges of childhood, are already taking over in some places, and our peril in those places is nothing to sneeze at.

Books are not the only solution, of course. But they can help. They can help a lot — especially if they’re books that don’t snicker at childhood’s genuine dilemmas or use fiction as a tube for the force-feeding of morality or try to protect children from hard truths which most of the time the children already know or suspect. We’re not quite as prone to these kinds of books now as we were when I was a child, but there are always more than there should be. I don’t think we’d get any if everyone could just admit to him or herself, “Listen, I hated being patronized or gushed over or pushed aside or treated like a doll or ignored when I was little, because I was just as real a person then as I am now. I resented having to go to bed while it was still light, and it was wonderful not to have to do anything in the summer but pull on a pair of shorts and go outside, and it was awful when I wasn’t allowed to flatten that teasing snitch of a little brother, and it was magical to roller-skate in the street in front of my house at twilight and pretend I was flying, and I will never get over wetting my pants on the first day of school, and it was all unfair and lovely and confusing and satisfying, just as it is now; nothing has really changed, and that was me back then, the same me I am now, so where is that line we’re supposed to have crossed over in order to be all at once serene, wise, confident, and worth bothering about? There isn’t any line. Everything matters, every time of life, and I am just as dumb and happy and silly and miserable and full of hope now as I was in the second grade.” These are the things I wish everybody would admit when they think about writing books for children or buying books for children or reading books to children — or, for that matter, publishing and selling books for children.

The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies said it better than anyone else, in his novel The Rebel Angels (Viking), when he put this speech into the mouth of a character named Parlabane:

What really shapes and conditions and makes us is somebody only a few of us ever have the courage to face: and that is the child you once were, long before formal education ever got its claws into you — that impatient, all-demanding child who wants love and power and can’t get enough of either and who goes on raging and weeping in your spirit till at last your eyes are closed and all the fools say, “Doesn’t he look peaceful?” It is those pent-up, craving children who make all the wars and all the horrors and all the art and all the beauty and discovery in life, because they are trying to achieve what lay beyond their grasp before they were five years old.

If that doesn’t give you a rapid pulse, I don’t know what will. It was good to see you here at the pony ring. If you didn’t know it before, I hope you know it now: the pony ring is not as tame a place as you may have supposed.

From the November/December 1989 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Adapted from a speech delivered at the Children’s Book and Author Breakfast at the American Booksellers Association convention on June 3, 1989. For more, click the tag Natalie Babbitt.

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