Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Child's Play

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In the course of one week this month I delivered the third draft of a play about wrongful convictions and the first draft of a handful of poems for children. The play, Conviction, is for Studio 180, a company that has gained a reputation for staging dynamic works that probe political and social issues. The poems — all about ocean-faring vessels — are for Chirp, the “See and Do, Laugh and Learn” magazine recommended for children ages 3 – 6. And so it is that, on any given morning, I might find myself in the company of a beleaguered man accused of sexually assaulting his 4-year old niece and with a droopy-eyed tugboat by the afternoon.

I wouldn’t want to have in any other way. With a foot in both camps, creating works for adults and children, I am given a perspective that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Therein lies a problem that I think believe besets not only the world of the arts – either you write for adults or children but not both – but society at large. We tend to ghettoize childhood, a place to be boxed and abandoned as we step into adulthood. By and large, works for children are taken less seriously than works for adults, in much the same way children, by and large, are taken less seriously than adults.

To be sure, there are exceptions. Some authors work and flourish in both worlds, and many a grown-up has been seen reading Harry Potter (perhaps with the cover designed for the adult version). Many adult authors have a children’s book or two up their sleeve (think Margaret Atwood’s Bashful Bob and Doeful Dorinda or Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories). But, for the most part, authors and playwrights devote their energies toward one constituency or the other, and rarely do the twain meet.

It’s a pity, really. We would all be better off, whether we spend our days as authors, architects, accountants (proceed down the alphabet: “b” is for boilermaker, “c” is for …) if we were reminded of what’s at stake when children factor into the endless equations we formulate each day, as we weigh countless decisions. No matter where you stand on the nature-nurture debate, few would dispute that what we absorb as children has a profound affect on our lives as adults. To give thought to children is to think differently about ourselves, and each other.

Not only do we marginalize children (not for nothing has it been said that children should be seen but not heard), we underestimate them. Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby is subtitled What Children’s Minds Tell us about Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life. Gopnik writes:

"The last decade has witnessed a revolution in our understanding of infants and young children. Scientists used to believe that babies were irrational, and that their thinking and experience were limited. Recently, they have discovered that babies learn more, create more, care more, and experience more than we could ever have imagined. And there is good reason to believe that babies are actually smarter, more thoughtful, and even more conscious than adults."

There is a constant push-and-pull (picture Dr. Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu) in our attitudes toward children. We love them yet treat them as if they were less than complete, as if life itself wasn’t a work-in-progress. We know children’s books are an essential building block of childhood but rarely look upon works for children with the same admiration we afford authors who write for adults. Imagine the Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to an author who has devoted a life to crafting works for children. It is unimaginable. And if it ever were to happen, critics would be quick to attack the choice, dragging out the tired line that writing for children is easier than writing for adults. As if.

While it can easily be argued that it’s no less difficult to write quality work for children as it is for adults, it’s equally fair to say that it’s far easier to write bad, utterly uninspiring work for children than it is for adults. That’s because too many people buy into the falsehood that works for children do not demand the same rigour, or can be rattled off in an hour. Worse, books and plays are slapped together for children that patronize them. When works for children are bad, they can be very bad.

When works for children are good, they are sublime, as meaningful as anything written for adults. In 2008, a survey on best-loved authors was commissioned to mark Britain’s Costa Book Awards. In a nationwide poll, adult readers voted on the nation’s ‘best-loved author.’ Leading the pack was Enid Blyton, followed by Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling. These top three were ahead of Jane Austen , William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens (Nos. 4 – 6 respectively). Beatrix Potter was tenth and followed J.R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie and Stephen King. The lone Canadian to make the list was Margaret Atwood (No. 24).

Leave it to the statisticians and sociologists to dissect the survey results but as an article on the survey concluded, “The stories we read as children retain a special place in our affections.” I would have used more forceful language (“Special place in our affections” sounds like it was lifted from a greeting card). I would have driven the simple truth home: adults vastly underestimate the impact and value of children’s stories. It shouldn’t take a survey to reveal the self-evident.

We owe it ourselves, to our children, to make works for children a part of our adult lives, if only to remind us that the possibilities offered on the platter of childhood don’t have an expiry date. Which is not to romanticize a stage in our lives that, for some, can damage us in ways that are life-long. That aspect of childhood, too, has been transformed into art by authors and playwrights. Childhood isn’t all sugar and spice and can be unremittingly dark. Childhood, like children, is complex. That is why the full spectrum of children’s voices must be heeded, in their own words and in the hands of those who, once upon a time…

1 comment

How true, Emil-- when works for children are good, they are as meaningful as anything written for adults-- as memorable too. I still love the books I loved as a child: the Narnia series, The Little Prince, The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. The last line of that classic always choked me up, and it still does: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” It might have been that ending that kindled in me the spark to write. The first line of the book is a knock-out too— “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page