…and what is a children’s book?
Ralph Steadman takes a personal view.
child, n. (pl. children). Young human being, boy or girl, (this c., sl., I, me; from a c., from childhood on); unborn c. (with c., pregnant); childish person: son or daughter of (or with my & c.); descendant or follower or product of (c. of the devil, nature, love; fancy’s c.; cc. of iniquity, the wicked; c.-bed, -birth, parturition; c.’s-play, easy task; c.-wife (very young).
Child /chield/ n, pl children /’children/ 1 an unborn or recently born person 2a a young person, esp between infancy and youth b a childlike or childish person c(1) a person not yet of (a legally specified) age (2) sby under the age of 14 – used in English law 3a a son or daughter <left the estate to her ~ ren> b a descendant <the Children of David> 4 one strongly influenced by another or by a place or state of affairs <a ~ of the depression> 5 a product, result <dreams; which are the ~ ren of an idle brain – Shak>
The above descriptions are just about everything a child is not. They’re the lack lustre, unimaginative, authoritarian views of someone who either never was a child or has forgotten what it was like to be one.
Each child has a unique view of our world. Our world that is, for now.
In the meantime we have a duty, a clear duty to help sustain the openness of a child’s pure vision and its wholesome acceptance of what it sees and feels in the world around it and within its own private world. Children can’t choose the set of circumstances that decide their immediate situation but their immediate situation is of vital importance to us all. To ignore it is to ignore all the futures to come.
A child will listen to anything you have to tell it if you tell it with a sense of suspense and impending surprise and humour. That’s the danger. You’re pouring your own ideas onto blotting paper, and those ideas may dominate a child’s experiences.
Children’s books are one of the first experiences for a child if they are lucky enough to have parents who think it important to bring books into the home (presuming that the child has a home). In whatever context you find, the child, its need for visual and verbal stimulation is paramount and `parental guidance’ is in some ways a dreadful misnomer and sometime curse on those children unlucky enough to have parents who neither love it nor consider imaginative stimulation a necessity and a right.
Equally, to cosset a child in a soft, puerile cocoon of safety, far from the realities of our world, is certain to dull the vital senses common to all. All faculties left unused and inert wither and sink beneath a blizzard of other influences.
In a child, we’re presented with the raw material, the clean slate, the possessor of potent senses, the ready absorber of the slightest whim. We must realise that every confrontation, every spark of human intention and every touch, is registered by this miracle, and the life force within it will use whatever it can grasp to further the motives of a tender captive mind.
I am proud to be among the `disreputable few’ who believe a child has the ability to sense something genuinely unpleasant and insidious, and reject it under normal circumstances, i.e. amongst adults who are still children themselves and perceive and appreciate the make-believe world of a child. We should never forget that all mischief is a natural attempt to soften disciplines which are often too harsh and insensitive to be coped with in a conventional way. Frequently imagination is invoked to help bear the unbearable – including coming to terms with the inescapable reality that there are some things we must not do.
Every child from nought to ninety knows hippopotamuses can dream in mud, leaves can sprout wings and fly to the moon, elephants can do somersaults on an egg and somewhere in your bedroom there is a secret door which you can only enter if you believe what is on the other side.
The best of children’s books are secret doors and it can be easy to find them. They are readily available with a child to help you and yet inaccessible if you spurn the child’s natural delight in the possibility of everything impossible.
I would never insist that such a door exists but I would invite everyone to look for it. It can become a journey inside yourself, an examination of how you really feel and the awakening of the hero or heroine in you who has been asleep for a hundred years. Before the clock strikes twelve we can have the time of our lives. And most important of all, although we may not be able to live happily ever after, we can help to make the ever after a wonderful possibility.