A Writer Reflects
Ann Thwaite on the claim that her latest picture book is
Worrying the Adults
‘I have asked my library and my children’s school to take your book off their shelves,’ a worried mother wrote – words to bring a chill to any author’s heart. Censorship. In all my years of writing I have never before come up against it personally – though I’ve often joined in talk about such controversial books as Mary Rayner’s Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out (won’t the wolf put children off babysitters?) and Phillida Gili’s Demon Daisy’s Dreadful Week (won’t it give children all sorts of dreadful ideas?). ‘May I encourage you to find some different themes for your stories?’ wrote an infant school headteacher. She sympathised entirely, she said, with my intentions in writing Amy and the Night-time Visit but it was a worrying theme. A theme, it seems, that some teachers (I have no way of knowing how many) felt best left untouched – not because of the children, who clearly (as I had seen for myself in a number of different schools) loved the book, but because of what parents might say.
So what is the theme and subject matter of Amy and the Night-time Visit? 1 explained how I came to write it in a letter to the worried mother. ‘Amy is based on a real incident. A child I know was left alone quite often for about 40 minutes while her mother went to meet her father at the station – as many children are left alone, even by loving parents. The child (aged four) was a sound sleeper and the mother was not worried. Then one night she came home to an empty house and was frantic with worry and guilt. The child had woken up and gone to visit her friend next door, putting her coat and boots on, ,( just as Amy does in the story, and was very pleased with herself for being so competent. I thought the possibilities and implications of this ‘night-time visit’ were so alarming that I wanted to alert parents to the dangers – while at the same time writing an exciting story for small children … To my mind there is no question at all that this is a cautionary tale, telling parents NEVER to leave their children alone, not even for a short time, and with a caring adult next door. Please ask your library and school to replace Amy and the Night-time Visit on their shelves and encourage parents to take it out. I think we all need constant reminders about the hazards of the world – but reminders that don’t destroy children’s natural ,self-confidence.’
I am at heart a didactic writer. Most of my stories (and there are nearly 30 books now, written over nearly 30 years) have an underlying message. I think a great deal before I write a story. Most of all I want the listening child to be delighted, to want it again and again, to go through the experience and come out at the end satisfied and enriched.
Where, it seems, I have worried the adults (though not, I stress, the children) is in showing that adults can be guilty and, to use the childish word, ‘naughty’. Amy is a story for our time in the sense that whereas the Victorians blamed the naughty child for bringing about its own doom by doing what it had been told not to do (Harriet and Matilda both burned to death for playing with matches and telling such dreadful lies, though Harriet’s ‘Mamma and Nurse went out one day/And left her all alone to play’), we in the 1980s tend, in life if not in picture books, to blame the parent for its neglect, its lack of care. On the very day I received the letter from the worried parent, I read in the paper of three young children asphyxiated in their beds after being left in the care of a 12-year-old. There are grim stories like that in the papers every week. Children know that adults are often guilty. Should we keep up a fiction in children’s books that they are not?
The reason that children like Amy and the Night-time Visit is, first of all, the pictures (the lovely snowy landscapes and the cluttered domestic scenes). On all my picture books I work closely with the artist (in this case a talented newcomer called Charlie Skinner) to produce the effect we want – with each opening not only advancing the story but full of things to look at and think about. Second, they like the fact that Amy is competent, brave and able to cope. It is the mother (quite rightly) who gets the terrible fright and vows never to do it again: ‘Next time I go down to the village I’ll ask David’s Mum to sit in the house.’ The children’s satisfaction at the reunion of Amy and her mum is immense. Amy doesn’t get a thump (though in real life she might well have done). She gets a ‘great big hug’. ‘We call it a cuddle,’ one Deptford five-year-old said. The book made them talk just as I hoped it would. ‘When my mum goes down the launderette,’ one very small child said, ‘she leaves me with my brother.’ I hoped the brother might he 16 but, no, he was two. ‘When my mum and dad, go down the pub, they leave me with a knife,’ a six-year-old contributed. He was probably just trying to shock me, but he wanted to talk. For a moment, a book had something to do with him.
In one class of seven and eight-year-olds where, amazingly a third of the children claimed to be left on their own while parents went to the video shop, to work before school, to neighbours, to the local market, their teacher reported: ‘They all liked it. They shouldn’t have been left and shouldn’t have gone out ‘she should have stayed in and watched TV. They worried about her on the stool near the saucepan, laughed as she looked in her mother’s mirror and loved the detail in the illustrations.’ In that school in fact the book had been into every class from reception to second-year juniors. ‘All of us found it a gripping story to read with plenty to talk about afterwards. What more could any teacher want?’
A reassuring comment for a writer who believes this is a subject that needs talking about.
Ann Thwaite is a well-known children’s writer, anthologist and biographer of Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Other picture books by her include Gilbert and the Birthday Cake, illustrated by Jack Harvey (Hutchinson and Hippo), Pennies for the Dog, illustrated by Margery Gill, and The Chatterbox, illustrated by Glenys Ambrus (both Deutsch).
Amy and the Night-time Visit, illustrated by J C Skinner, Deutsch, 0 233 98055 5, £5.25