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Drawing on the Child Within

by Natalie Babbitt

Over the years I have noticed that an awful lot of people don’t seem to remember what it felt like to be a child. This is hard for me to understand. My childhood is very vivid to me, and I don’t feel very different now from the way I felt then. It would appear I am the very same person, only with wrinkles. We keep getting told by psychologists that our characters are pretty much formed by the time we’re four years old. I would place the time even earlier, myself, after observing my own children. Based on their personalities as infants, I think it would have been possible to predict with amazing accuracy what they’d be like as adults. You can go back and read what 1 wrote in their baby books and recognize the people they are today.

So maybe those adults who say they don’t remember what it was like to be a child are only saying it because they imagine it must have been somehow different from the way it is now. I don’t know. I do know that it’s helpful to remember, if you want to write children’s books. That’s why, whenever I’ve had writing students, I’ve always tried ta get them to look back, to think about what they were really like. It’s the best way to figure out what kind of book you could be writing.

All of us are different, of course. Different kinds of people, I mean. We were different kinds of people when we were children, too. That’s a very important thing to keep in mind because once you recognize the fact that there’s no such singular, amalgamated thing as “the child,” it frees you to write the kind of story that is special to you. Otherwise, you’re asking yourself questions like “But would a child like this?” or “Would a child understand this?” You can answer those kinds of questions with another question — “What child?” And the answer to that question is, simply, “Me, as I was then and still am, to a very large extent, today.”

As for myself, I was a fairly average child. Very skinny, but fond of toasted-cheese sandwiches and anything chocolate. By turn confident and scared to death. A loner who spent a lot of time drawing and reading, but who liked birthday parties and going to a friend’s house after school. A good child who did plenty of bad things. In other words, like everyone else, a person full of contradictions. I did some weird things sometimes, like stringing up a noose from the catalpa tree in our back yard and hanging my dolls. Or only putting five of my weekly allotment of ten pennies into the collection plate at Sunday school because Sunday school, in my opinion, wasn’t worth ten pennies. I never got away with anything, though. No matter how clandestine I tried to be, my mother always found me out. Always. She’s been dead for thirty-five years, but l have this feeling that even now she’s watching.

Everyone has memories like these, and they are indispensable for people who write children’s books. Some of us write about the actual experiences we had, and that’s fine as long as we remember that though they may seem funny now, they weren’t all that funny at the time. I tend, myself, to write not about specific incidents but rather about the feelings I had. Not that I think my feelings were unique. In no way were they unique. I know that now. But I didn’t at the time, and that’s important to remember, too. None of us is unique in the way we used to think we were. The moment when you realize you’re not unique is one of the most important moments in life. At first there’s terrible disappointment. But close on the heels of that comes a sense of profound relief: “I’m not unique; I’m just like everyone else, and don’t have to feel like an odd person out any more.”

But when we’re children, we are the odd man out. Some of the reason for this is that we don’t know how to communicate our feelings very well, except through actions, but our actions are very often misinterpreted, and we are not very often treated like people. We are treated mostly like lumps of clay to be molded, blank pages to be written on, unformed and in continual need of being taught.

Ah, there’s the rub. In continual need of being taught. If there is one thing wrong with books written for children — most from the nineteenth century and too many written since — it is exactly that: too many adults saying to themselves that a children’s book is a tool for teaching.

When I was a child, I hated stories that tried to teach me things. Mostly those things were moral things: “You’d better be good or else.” This is one reason why I loved Alice in Wonderland so much. It didn’t — and doesn’t — have anything to teach except, maybe, that adults are extremely silly. There is one particular passage that is worth remembering for writers of children’s books. It comes in the beginning when Alice finds a little bottle with a label that says “DRINK ME”:

It was all very well to say “Drink me,” but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. “No, I’ll look first,” she said, “and see whether it’s marked ‘poison’ or not;” for she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them.

Ah, yes, those nice little stories. We remember them well. Let us hope we will never write any.

But the sad thing is that even if you aren’t writing teaching books, the children, poor things, accustomed as they are to being taught, will very often assume that you are trying to teach them. I get letters from readers explaining to me, in a tired way, what they have learned from my books, especially Tuck Everlasting (Farrar). This is one of the downsides to this business of using stories instead of textbooks to teach reading. The stories are turning, themselves, into textbooks. I worry about that. Reading stories ought to be for pleasure, not schoolwork. So I say, when I answer letters like those I’ve just described, that I wasn’t trying to teach anything.

Stories that don’t try to teach, stories that share remembered feelings — those are the stories that strike to the hearts of children and are never forgotten. A few years ago, Maurice Sendak came up to Providence, where I’m living now, and gave a talk at Brown University. The hall was jammed with Brown students. There wasn’t an inch of unfilled space. Sendak talked about Where the Wild Things Are (Harper), about where it came from, and the letters he’s had from children about it. Some of those letters may well have been written by some of the students listening. When he was finished, the applause was thunderous, and the waves of love that flowed from the audience up and over him as he stood there were enough to bring tears to your eyes. For Where the Wild Things Are was one of the very first books that was really for children. It came out of Sendak’s vivid memories of his own feelings as a child trying to make a place for himself in a world of adults. Its honesty is instantly recognized by children everywhere. It tells the truth, and tells it in a symbolic language that is wholly accessible. It was, when it was first published, a phenomenon. We have learned from it since, we who needed to learn from it. The children haven’t needed to learn from it — they already knew.

So I say to writing students, “Try to remember.” Because we all knew things when we were children. Those things we knew are still there inside our heads, layered over, maybe, but ready to show themselves if we’re willing to dig for them. Some of those things are painful and not necessarily fun to remember, but bringing them out and using them, in however veiled or symbolic a way, will bring to a story the honesty it needs to make it worth the reading.

Those things will also give our young characters three dimensions; keep them from being mere paper dolls. I’ve been reading a biography of Anthony Trollope by the British novelist and critic C. P. Snow. Because he was a novelist himself, Snow saw and admired things in Trollope’s work that the average biographer might not see. Here is what he says about Trollope’s uncanny ability to create three-dimensional characters:

He could see each human being he was attending to from the outside as well as the inside, which is an essential part of the total gift. That is, he could see a person as others saw him: he could also see him as he saw himself.

I like that. It’s a nice description of what we all ought to try to do: see our child characters not only from the outside, but also from the inside as they see themselves. And the only way to do that is to try as hard as we can to remember what it was like, what we were like, inside a ten-year-old skin. Or whatever skin we’re trying to re-create.

Another thing I’ve brought out of my childhood into this strange little island called Children’s Book Land is an impatience with a story that presents an all-pink world. My life, and the lives of all the children I knew, was never all pink. Mine was free of genuine grief in that no one I loved died until I was well into my teens. But I knew about grief from observing it in less lucky friends, and I knew about poverty and disabilities, too, in the same way. I had, if not grief, certainly sorrows of my own, and plenty of unsolvable problems. And more than anything else, I had all the frustrations of being powerless. So did we all. And then, since World War II began for the United States when I was in the fourth grade, I also knew about nationally sanctioned hatred of other countries and fear of enemy bombers. Our grammar school was a testing place for air-raid sirens, and so we all knew about that particular fear. We dealt with it, one way or another, but we knew the world wasn’t all pink. I resented books that tried to tell me it was, and if I came across one, I wouldn’t finish it.

But as adults we seem to be afraid, some of us, of telling the truth. We seem to feel we need to protect children from anything that will show that their all-pink world has a lumpy underbelly with discolored spots on it. We’d rather tell them that everything’s perfect and keep the truth for later, when they’re teenagers, maybe, at which point we seem to think it’s time to throw despair at them as a kind of rite of passage. I like to call it the “last chance for gas before the thruway” syndrome.

And yet, if we can look back at our child selves, honestly and openly, we find every time that we knew the hard stuff, the bad stuff, was there. There wasn’t any way to protect us from it. So perky little stories with cute little pictures were very often anathema. At least they were to me. I insisted on happy endings, but they had to be happy endings that followed logically from the action of the story. Anything else was irritating.

One final thing that I brought along out of childhood is a distaste for earnestness. It is perfectly true that the children we write for are the future of the world, and it is perfectly true that the world is a mess. In addition to the usual messes, which the world has always had, now we’ve got a lacerated ozone layer and nuclear waste to worry about. But we won’t solve these problems, assuming they can be solved, by writing earnest stories for children. I don’t mean serious stories; I mean earnest stories. Earnestness to me means solemn, humorless sincerity; whereas seriousness means honesty — and honesty, in this case, means showing as many sides of life as you can. There is always a humorous side, even if the humor is rueful.

My father thought almost everything was funny except the Republican Party. He was passionately fond of the Republican Party and never laughed at it, ruefully or otherwise. But for everything else he had a clear and sympathetic eye that always seemed to see things in all three dimensions. One of the most valuable things I learned from him was that humor does not trivialize problems. What it does do is relax us and make it easier for us to solve those problems. It puts things in their proper perspective.

My sister had a very tough time in seventh grade. Adolescence, while you’re going through it, can be dreadful. But my father told stories at the dinner table — wonderful, made-up, funny stories that always began, “When I was in the seventh grade.” They made my sister laugh. They made things a little easier. And when I was having trouble with arithmetic — which was all the time — my father, with mock earnestness, would make up what we used to call thought problems. You know, those terrible things that begin, “If it takes three men two hours to dig a ditch.” Here is one my father made up that I’ve always remembered: “If cross-eyed potatoes are ten cents a jugful, how long will it take a bowlegged cinch bug to crawl through a bag of moldy flour?”

Earnestness doesn’t get us very far. At its worst it only increases a feeling of being pressed, stressed, and driven. But humor can take us a long way. It doesn’t have to be a pie-in-the-face kind of humor, though there’s certainly a place for that. What it does have to be, for me, anyway, is an acknowledgment, rueful or otherwise, of the craziness of humanity. Lewis Carroll understood it perfectly, and expressed it in ways that made me laugh out loud when I was nine years old. Nine-year-olds don’t have a lot of rue in their natures. That comes later. I wouldn’t have been especially moved and amused by a quote from Mark Twain which I now keep nearby at all times: “When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”

If that is a kind of philosophy for me now, it was certainly implied in the books I loved when I was in the fifth grade, whether there was up-front ruefulness in my sense of humor or not. So when I write stories for myself and my fifth-grade classmates, I keep at the front of my mind at all times the importance of not being earnest.

Here are three things, then, that my own inner child keeps reminding me to be careful about: don’t preach, don’t be dishonest, and don’t be earnest. Maybe that sounds as if there isn’t a lot that you can do in a story for children. But yes, there is one thing that is the single most important thing of all: you can tell an entertaining story. I don’t seem to have any more ideas for entertaining stories, I’m sorry to say. Not stories, anyway, for those very special people who are in what is clearly the last, best, greatest year of childhood — the fifth grade. After the age of ten or eleven, if you ask me, things don’t get really good again until you’re thirty. So I’m concentrating on picture books now. I always liked picture-making better than story-making, anyway. When I was picture-book age, I never thought about growing up to be a book illustrator, the way I did in fifth grade. No, as I recall, when I was four years old I wanted to be a pirate. But I was just as demanding then, where books were concerned, as I was six or seven years later. I disliked The Little Engine That Could and loved Millions of Cats (both Putnam). Which is to say that I loved books that didn’t preach, weren’t dishonest, and never sounded earnest.

As I said before, I know now that I was not unique. So when I remember myself as the kind of child I really was, I know I am describing, to a very large extent, all children. I will conclude with a quote about the child within, from The Rebel Angels by Canadian writer Robertson Davies, which says it better than anyone else ever said it.

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 we can just remember that, how can we go wrong?

This article is based on a talk delivered at the Society of Children’s Book Writers’ conference on March 7th, 1992. From the May/June 1993 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more, click the tag Natalie Babbitt.

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