Childhood as a Construction
By Stephanie Sandler
“Childhood,” as many believe, should be protected and revered. That it is a universal thing. That it is an age of innocence and a time full of life before the cold, harsh world of reality beats all of the happiness out. There’s a general pastoralization of childhood that often occurs when one thinks of an “ideal” childhood. That children should be running about in a field of daisies giggling the day away… or something. Stay away adult influences! Stay away!
Well… I don’t know about you, but that wasn’t my childhood nor any one of my friends’ childhoods. I remember my parents fighting about money, a lot. I remember my siblings and I fighting, a lot. And I remember feeling out of place, a lot. Does that sound more familiar?
That’s because as much as we can hope for an “ideal” childhood for our children, due to, I don’t know, LIFE, it is nearly impossible.
What does this have to do with children’s literature? (For the sake of brevity I’ll limit this discussion to children’s literature in the American canon).
Well, a lot. The thing is that as authors, YOU are the constructors of childhood. You CREATE ideal childhoods. You SHAPE and MOLD the way society looks at, thinks about, and acts with children. Holy moly, you are powerful! YOU are the people who make my academic life rich, full, and thought provoking.
BUT (yeah, you knew this was coming) even if you have the guts to take on childhood in your fiction from a realistic POV you have to be careful. The adult “gatekeepers” (publishers, librarians, school officials, teachers, parents) are really the deciders of not only what children read, but how THEY want children to perceive childhood.
Take, for instance, the book cover controversy over Anne of Green Gables. Due to the boom of self-publishing this tried and true tale of pastoral childhood innocence was besmirched by ::gasp:: a SEXY cover. Outrage swept over parents as they cried “How dare they!?” and “We will boycott the publisher!” (Who, by the way, is Amazon’s CreateSpace and they’ve since taken the cover image down).
Well… “they” were trying to sell an antiquated book to a modern audience. “They” were simply trying to keep up with the times. And “they,” might I add, chose a girl who yes, is on the more attractive side, but still fully covered. Their true tragedy in my opinion was choosing a model who didn’t have red hair – but seriously… since when does Hollywood ever care about the descriptions of characters in a book before casting?
The point is… there’s a lot going on with this whole construction of childhood thing, and it’s good to keep all of it in mind as a writer for children’s literature. The genre exists within a mix of nostalgia and fear. While sex may sell in most industries as well as reflect a more accurate reality for modern children and issues of contemporary childhood… ultimately it’s a tight rope walk. A book cannot be catered solely for children to children – whether that’s reflected in the content of the book or the cover. In order to be successful the book HAS to be appealing to adult sensibilities for and about children. While you may want to write for children, they’re not always the ones buying your books (particularly the youngest crowd).
And, to be fair, as adult writers as much as you may want to try to tap into your inner child while writing… you can’t. Your childhood is gone and you probably weren’t taking copious notes while it was happening. Even if you did, the concerns of your childhood may no longer be consistent with the issues of modern children.
The best you can do is acknowledge what Maurice Sendak suggests, “You cannot write for children. They’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.” And keep their parents in mind.