Writing for children? Seriously?

woman wearing white dress reading book

I started writing for children because I had children. It wasn’t a burning aspiration. It wasn’t planned. I had no training in writing fiction, or poetry, only reading it.  But writing to better understand the world unfolding in my loungeroom felt right.

It wasn’t long before concerned family and friends let me know how they felt about this development.

‘Writing for children, it’s a bit of a cop-out’.

‘I think you could do better. Why not write the next great Australian novel instead?’

Complete silence on the matter, followed by a change of subject was also made available.

Disappointment was interspersed with the quiet resignation of those who concluded I probably couldn’t manage to write a real novel anyway. Presumably, the children’s literature genre was the place real writers went to practice, until they had the skills to write for real readers, readers who could discern between decent technique and sentimental simplistic pap.

Eventually, I learned that telling people what you’re writing, whatever you’re writing, is really just asking for it. Especially friends and family.

DBC Pierre observes this ‘telling friends and family’ phenomena in his book Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out of It.  We tell people about what we are writing in order to lay prickles for ourselves down the track, he says. I get this. The idea that on some level we both, know what we’re doing and know it’s going to end badly, when we share our craft with people in our lives. This we do, intuitively, to improve our writing. To motivate us to keep going, not because of the people in our lives,  rather in spite of them.

 

battle black blur board game

 

Certainly, the commonly held view of children’s literature as an inferior craft has a solid historical foundation. Until relatively recently, it wasn’t considered a genre worth, well.. writing about. But things have changed. We have worked out that kids reading books helps in their development as law abiding, tax paying citizens. Australian education systems are preoccupied with literacy and convinced that reading and writing skills must begin to be developed in early childhood. Before school. Before pre-school. Shortly after birth.

To be literate of course extends beyond reading and writing and includes comprehension of concepts and symbols, which can be delivered and received in a range of mediums outside of text, such as art and music, role play and so on.  But soon enough picture books  and games give way to comprehension cards, handwriting templates, exercise books, and eventually Microsoft Word.

So, when kids do get a chance to steal away from the now heavily regulated National literacy guidelines, for their allocated reading time, what do they read?

More often than not my students pick up the funny stuff. Graphic novels. Andy Griffiths. Jeff Kinney. And I get why. It’s a nice break from the comprehension cards.

And self-deprecating humour is so good. There’s also a strong following in unicorns, foxes and people who look like foxes.  And for the nearly-teens, a shift towards the street-savvy understated protagonist under twelve who somehow manages to infiltrate the seedy underbelly of adult crime worlds and solve adult sized mysteries. Children are maturing much earlier, I get this. But there is something about scanning the words psychopath or serial killer on the back cover of books in the primary school library that I find jarring. The motifs of a triumph of the underdog, caring, ethics and self-belief are all strong.  But I consider all of these genres to be fantasy, of a kind.

 Fantasy worlds and real-life scapes

tree tunnel at daytime

Mention the word ‘history’ to young folk then, and they don’t tend to register it as entertaining. I wonder about the capacity of junior fiction novels to still offer instructional guidance and a bit of mental strain. In the busy lives of children, can useful adult world messages be delivered through literature at a level which is capable of building the critical analysis skills required to be adult in a unicorn-less modern world? A world whose changing climate is threatening most of the species who currently live here, and making unicorns of us all.

Literary theory written on the children’s literature genre charts the trajectory of authors across Australia’s brief post-colonial literary history, and it becomes clear this is a genre that has long concerned itself with issues of national identity, ethical decision making, and the natural environment.

From the first Australian children’s books written in the late 1800’s, right through the 20thcentury, up until the digital age at least, cultural identity and the natural environment have been a primary focus.

Most readers over 35 will have been raised on these stories. Or at least remember them. The Magic Pudding.  Storm Boy. Picnic at Hanging Rock. Quirky 70’s picture books such as The Bunyip of Berkley’s Creek. Lengthy bedtimes tales like The Rainbow Serpent. Patricia Wrightson’s detailed mythological experiment, The Nargun and the Stars.

It is unlikely that these texts could compete for reading-corner attention with the physical and mental ease of a  21stCentury graphic novel, and perhaps the experience of giggling in a bean bag in the corner of the library is just as valid as anything. But what does it say about where we are?

cute cuddly toy cartoon costume

 Children’s literature has been called a barometer to its age. For all its literary and cultural quality and diversity, it also reflects the changes and preoccupations of the time.

Stuart Hannabuss

Tough Love

When I revisit Australian books from my childhood I am struck by their seriousness. These were books that made my mind work at least moderately hard, and in truth, were at times mildly depressing, leading to spontaneous moments of ten-year-old existential angst. Entertaining in ways I suppose, but not exactly laden with irreverent, witty pop-culture references that made one feel like they were part of a fun, ‘grown up’ mindscape.

Even May Gibbs’ worlds seemed laboured to me. Roald Dahl’s worlds of the ‘mother country’, were by far an easier place. The giggling and the irreverence. His satirical worlds were still children’s worlds. The absurdity of the Twits, the heroism of Matilda, the cabbage soup days and nights of Charlie Bucket. I remained in a child’s world when I read these.

Classical Worlds

Classical mythology in contemporary settings still works well. Fortifying. Mind stretching. There is much of this written these days that is wonderful, offering guidance befitting a changing world. Australian writers seem to have permission to access ancient mythological tropes as global citizens in a way that seems acceptable and comfortably non-didactic.

Didacticism in Fiction

‘Can’t a writer just write about a boy’s love of sailing. Why does it have to be issues-based?’

Historical fiction has long been unpopular with kids. I recall reading an abridged version of For the Term of His Natural Life at a young age, and it was pretty gory in parts. The flogging and so on. And yet the weightiness of historical content was such that I didn’t come away feeling like the adult world I was moving into was going to be an easy or glamorous place in which I  would possess magic powers sufficient to bust a drug ring. I felt the seriousness of my cultural inheritance before I really understood what this meant.

Bleeding Hearts

No matter which way you turn it, Australian history is not an easy setting for staging entertaining children’s fiction. For all our attempts to be the sporty, laid-back, logo-wearing, compliant, good-humoured Nation, our past is bleeding and messy. Australian issues are heavy issues.

And like obsolete rituals at a dysfunctional family gathering, our cultural productions frequently collude in their attempts to cheerily disappear our past, ( and thus our future). For all the cynical dismissal of the paltry nature of literature for children, we are a society that relies on cultural productions for this age group. Having our children engaged, or at least entertained, is a primary focus for those caring for children in this day and age.

This, in my view, renders the creation of meaningful entertainment a serious business.

 

 

 

 

Prophetic Loss

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The Gathering

 

When the time came for something to be done,

A dove was sent,

This was not a time for donkeys.

The prophets were beckoned to the town square,

And with that the dove took rest.

 

No problem too big, no fate too heavy,

They would work together,

Like they always had,

And they would come upon answers,

Like they always had.

And so,

They left.

 

Crept from the tower on silent feet

Left shadows in the woods on guard

Sailed from the cove

Single fleet

Packed myrrh in the crook of a cart

 

Embers still from fires willed

Put themselves to sleep

Light fell fortune’s way lest time

Be siphoned in the deep

 

A gentle brow on Prophet One

The skies of intellect

Blue and calm, eternal balm

Logic resurrect

 

Leather footed, feathered, padding

Strong is Prophet next

Beaded, painted, holy, sainted

Gather now the rest

 

In the circle centre stands the leader of the Clan

Ten thousand beads strung onto reeds

The years since time began

 

A pool of blue-black water

In a cradle on a stand

The Prophets wait to see the Fates

Etched out across the land

 

One by one  they take their place

They’ve already accepted

The human race, future’s face

It’s all to be expected

 

There are no shrieks, no beating drums

No fainting and no rising

No striking swords or fervent words

Debating or surmising

 

For when they look into the pool

Each soul is struck with yearning

Their own reflection heralds now

Narcissus Returning

 

 

 

Environmental Caretakers in Children’s Literature

Eco concept. Half-burned planet in form of candle on the space b

As a teacher and mother, I am often called upon by children for big world advice, and sane moral guidance. I take this role to heart and honour it. And yet, as with every older generation, I am a student of the 21st-century child.  Their joys, fears, and insights. The ways in which they dream in a modern world. The thought process and sensory experience of imbibing digital media as though it has always existed.

But what about as a writer? Should writers really be telling kids what to do?

Writing a book in Australia is an act fraught with politics. If you let it be. And perhaps this is true of most places. And it’s not an uncommon dilemma. But if I had a cup of tea with Roald Dahl or E.E Cummings or Kenneth Graeme would they share my view? Empathise?

I want kids to like my book. I want them to find it funny. Turn the page. Feel the hand of their favourite character upon their shoulder. I want the writing to be good. Gentle. And not didactic. And yet, try as I do to relax into storytelling for the pure joy of it, I am drawn even more strongly to the role of the story as instructive. Somewhere in the deeper parts of my being a patient elder has her hand on my shoulder. And her grip is firm.

Children do not need more entertainment. Children need to know the truth.

So. What can I offer? I  know a little about a little but I am no elder. Should I become one? How much should I know before I try to impart? When is it enough?

Everyone knows that to try to cram every vision, ideal, and existential reflection into one piece of work is a mistake. And something writers need to be aware of particularly with the first novel. Writing wants to be an encyclopaedic broadcast of experiential insight closely mirroring personal biography, but It can’t be. It must be patient. It must serve. It must do the work.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that entertaining stories, (regardless of the originality of ideas,) make by far the most commercially successful children books, I am convinced that important contemporary messages can be woven into engaging widely read (and let’s face it, marketable) stories.  But texts which showcase social values can often feel contrived and risk alienating a young reader even further. So how have others managed it?

I take pause and remember. Issues of social and ethical and environmental concern have long made it into the pages of books. The Ents were angry with good reason, one relevant in the material world, both then and now. And yet most would not consider Tolkien an environmentalist at first glance.

Hearing writers like Ursula Le Guin, and Patricia Wrightson speak about environment, philosophical standpoint, the ways in which they have navigated social commentary and taken an elder stance in their writing inspires me. And also makes me wish I was writing in the fantasy genre. For it is in those worlds where things are actually possible. Not the blunt edges and rigid silences of history books. Still, perhaps the genres can meet through the framework of mythology.

Following Tolkien’s lead is as always, a good place to start. As a devoted folklore scholar Tolkien drew from the source when crafting stories. Mythic frameworks are a beautiful means for weaving issues of importance into story, while still being able to locate these stories in the material world. Care for the environment is a basic human concern across all traditional cultures. When we find these stories in myth, they don’t feel didactic. The Druids, Australian Aborigines, Shamans, indeed all nature religions from Asia to Eastern Europe, to the tribal rites of Africa. It’s the first rule of myth. Look after your world and she will look after you.

So how do we entertain like Griffiths, enchant like Rowling, and still tell a story of Australian history with an environmental motif? Others have managed it. I don’t find it easy material. But it is appropriate for kitchen spoon wavers.

 

 

Mythical Creatures in The Waterways of Australia   — Antipodean Odyssey

“Battling with incredulity isn’t easy. It’s not a battle Poseidon had to fight.” Bunyip and Selkie, creatures of the waterways. One from Australian Aboriginal mythology, one from Celtic lore. One made up of scraps and patches of stories, and images. The other a seal or a woman. Mysterious, gentle sometimes, predatory others. Or so […]

via Mythical Creatures in The Waterways of Australia   — Antipodean Odyssey

The Billy Connolly Philosophy

Billy Connolly has been knighted.

Powerful, beautiful murals of him adorn the streets of Glasgow. He is looking more mythic than ever and it is impossible to picture his face and not hear his voice.

Rob Roy Rebellion, Einstein Humanity, Gandalf Resilience.

Billy Murals

Now in the Autumn of his life, knighthood is a tickle. But Sir William seeks neither comparison nor ceremony. Perhaps the real glory came long ago, when Connolly made up his mind to take the left -hand path. When you’re born unto a land that breathes through its mythic bellows like some giant Dragon, donning the hero’s cap and taking the road less travelled seems to be a given. And there’s more. Weaving courage and valour through your life story the natural result, when you are tall, dark and irreverent.  Folk singer, actor, comedian, activist. Like all half-decent knights Connolly has been at this authentic heart caper a lifetime now. So you do get this gig?

Step Away

When I listen to mythologist Joseph Campbell give a lecture on The Left-Hand path, everything shifts. Moving away from the known world and often, the socially accepted codes that form both our safety net and our limitations is at the centre of most all adventures of the heart. Reflecting on Connolly’s views on Knighthood, I am reminded of a radio interview I heard many years ago. In that moment I caught fragments lilting through the waves, and was mesmerised by his folk cadence, the Cànanan Goidhealach all around the edges of his speech like he is my own personal Seanair.

Pegging clothes on the line and watching my baby daughter pull up grass, I turned up the volume and followed his voice. Gentle, innate and reassuring he speaks in a way that seems to make universal law of his view on things. I enjoyed being swept along. Because frankly, the man tells a story with working-class decency. He takes his time, sharing a little of what he has with strangers, like bread on a park bench.

Stories should hold you in their palm for a moment or two, and Billy’s do.

In this instance, he spoke of the abuse he experienced as a child. Sexual abuse from his father, and physical and emotional abuse from his Aunt, with whom he lived. The interviewer is probing and he deflects the questions with grace. Inside, Billy Connolly is a tower and he can let the rope down a little without it hurting. The probing continues. He lets the rope down a bit more.

And here’s the thing. Even here, in the painful recesses of childhood abuse, the irreverence continues. Billy’s unconventional response is to express forgiveness. And love for his father. He explains;

How other people regard me is none of my business. What happened is not my concern. It’s their journey- not mine.

It is an astonishing remark and takes a while to sink in. Even now I still turn it around in my mind.  I’m listening in for artifice, for denial, for imbalance. But what comes through is instinctive espérance, like I’m sitting behind the bike shed talking with my best friend. He really means it. The man makes a nonsense of shame.

The Need to Understand Unconventional Behaviour

So. What is This Thoughtform Based Upon?

I look to circumstance. Is the tolerance, nae acceptance of incest some kind of Clan code to which only a Scotsman is born? Is denial so deep it has become liberation? Has Billy Connolly transcended the physical plane as monks might and entirely disconnected from the need to blame?

Or is he simply telling his truth?

Accepting what others do to us as an act of humanity or religious duty has become counterintuitive in our highly individualised world. These days, we aspire to most certainly not accept what is done to us , and indeed, popular dialect supports us to resist acceptance.  The empowerment afforded by this great leap forward is long overdue and its rightful place in our moral landscape non-negotiable. However, I wonder to what degree it keeps us engaged with and unable to move on from the complex nature of our personal past. Disappointment, sadness, trauma, defeat, we have all been touched by these. Our parents did their best, in the circumstances they had? Do we expect too much?

If re-engaging with events from the past cannot bring about effective healthful change, then perhaps another approach might work.

Don’t Wait for an Invitation

Not all of the people who have hurt us are emotionally available or alive enough to allow a formal healing process to occur. Not all people who hurt us are willing to be accountable. Indeed, many people who hurt us will actively remain unattainable, and in doing so reshape our story without our permission.

Accepting a lack of closure seems problematic at best. How can we accept poor behaviour without feeling like we have submitted to it? Lost a part of our moral integrity, our self respect? Given up the right to heal? At the heart of ‘acceptance’ intersect numerous philosophies central to Western discourse. Questions of morality, transgression, crime, and punishment.

Folklore would raise an eyebrow at the notion of acceptance and light another way for its pilgrims of manhood, womanhood, clanhood.

Spiritual devotees might approach acceptance through the tenets of forgiveness, love, fidelity, and forbearance. The separation of spiritual self from physical self.

But contemporary popular culture frequently finds acceptance inconvenient, old-fashioned even. Something our parents did,  but not for us. We are now encouraged to cut out things in our life that aren’t working and become a better version of ourselves. Clear out the cupboards, cut ties, move on. Block, delete, disconnect, re-invent. It seems sensible. Effective. Healthy.

And it’s pretty popular too.

There are numerous people in my life who embrace this philosophy with both hands, happy, righteous even, in their right to delete. And I am tempted. I like the idea that  I have permission to ditch a fifteen-year friendship because of some shitty behaviour. But It doesn’t work for me. Moving on without a loved one, while keeping an open heart, is one thing. Fleeing the building in the dead of the night is quite another.  Yet, moving towards acceptance without the other party is sometimes the only option. And some detachment can help out here.

What Other People Think of us is None of our Business

If we live as though what others think of us is none of our business, isn’t all behaviour, good or bad, ultimately pointless? To take this to its ultimate conclusion would put us in the company of a vast hall of moral philosophers, and we’re not doing that just now, because we’re hanging with Billy. Whose point is, if we can accept that what a person thinks of us is none of our business, we can see their unkind treatment of us as ultimately not connected to our soul journey. Not our stuff. We remain authentically, us.

Everything from a condescending gesture, careless remark, self-absorbed friendship, from one-way relationships, small minded colleagues, hyper critical parents, lovers who get distracted, partners who just won’t change… when we take it on, and we all take it on, we overload, we struggle to walk on, we become donkeys.

Whether or not Billy Connolly has truly forgiven can only meet confirmation in that marvellous heart of his.  The widespread application and success of this philosophy is in this moment, barely relevant and none of my business.

But dammit, I like his style.

 

Cosmic Dust

 

 

stardust

 

Everbody knows

to try and stop a woman in love

from loving

means devastation in the village

The well is cracked full dry

Crops wither and spit

Cartwheels meet horse heels

Passengers splayed

The Gaslight will not be lit

The wolves are in the henhouse

The ferryman is drunk

Lucky’s dice won’t roll tonight

The last boat home is sunk

 

And when the sun has baked the earth like a bowl

And even the night breeze is wilting

The Evenstar breathes

Relief into stillness

And Lucky sings the walk home

 

 

Love cannot be halted

(A horse cannot live life sitting down)

Love cannot be contained

( a cup is merely a moment’s rest)

Love cannot be dammed

Damming is for things that mean to pool

Love is not a fool

Love cannot be tidied

Set upon a course

Love fears not colliding

(With logic’s counter-force)

Love cannot be detonated

Dashed against the rocks

Turned to stone on castle steps

Stuffed in trunks with locks

Cast to embers, transcended, dismembered

Refuted, negated, subverted, berated

The cosmic dust goes round and round  

We sing our song without a sound”

 

The Death of Over Thinking – A Brief Rumination

 

Overthinking gets a bad rap. And these days more than ever. Overthinking has not been sent to the corner to think about what it’s done, ….overthinking is being shamed, by simply being ignored.

You’re just overthinking things.

Don’t think about it so much.

Stop reading into everything.  

Dude seriously, Recycling, good for the environment, not so good for the mind.

BE HERE NOW ( you haven’t clocked off yet)

Excess. Inefficiency. Histrionics. The Feminine. Overthinking may as well be wearing a big pink blouse with frilly sleeves and a dousing pot pourri under the armpits. Disenfranchised and alone, that awkward bulky gait, chorus of clattering cans, singing out as it lopes past, collecting everything in its wake like a giant unsustainable fishing net.

It’s not ‘smart’ thinking when you over think. No one is going to name an algorithm after you.

It’s not ‘sustainable’ thinking when you overthink. Don’t bother feeding that crap to the worms.

Overthought can’t be on it, across it, all over it   …..because overthoughts are almost always …beside themselves.

In the days before global warming, when pastoral settings were blessed by daffodils at the right time of the year and not before, poets spent entire summers overthinking things. And when the nights grew cool they warmed themselves with laudanum and kept right on thinking., They were never across it, they didn’t want to be across it, they were right where they wanted to be.

Thinking about it now, it seems overthinking might a punishment for taking one too many rides on the karmic wheel.

You had your time, you didn’t work it out, now scram.

But the thing with wheels… they spin. Who knows, maybe thinking things through has thought of a comeback plan of its own.