The majority of children’s literature published today is written for children by adults. Since an adult is, by definition, no longer a child, the adult author must rely on their past experiences and imagination to write from a child’s perspective. In this essay I will discuss children’s writers’ portrayal of children’s perceptions of, and perspectives on the world, and evaluate whether this portrayal is “inevitably incomplete”, and whether being incomplete necessarily makes it flawed.
Children’s literature, like the concept of childhood itself, has evolved, and continues to evolve over time. In the eighteenth century, literature for children was predominantly didactic. Before this, childhood was not considered to be separate to adulthood – children were simply small adults. However, attitudes began to change during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) played a pivotal role in this change. Locke suggested that children would be more encouraged to read if books were enjoyable as well as instructive. In response, authors began writing books that, whilst still primarily didactic, were also entertaining. The field of children’s literature today includes books that have been specifically written for a child audience and books that children themselves have selected. In some cases, for example in the case of fairy tales and folktales, the texts were not initially aimed at young readers; on the other hand, numerous books that were written for and enjoyed by children in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are now considered historical children’s literature, and read primarily by adults. Books for children will commonly represent the context and beliefs of the culture in which it was written, frequently making assumptions about the behaviour and reactions of the child-reader and the child-protagonist. As a result, the issues raised in children’s literature are often those that concern adults rather than the children themselves. This can sometimes result in the adult author offering a poor representation of a child’s perspective on a particular issue.
John Locke’s theories are presumably still recognized today, since much of modern children’s literature is still in some ways didactic. This didacticism however, seems to have evolved into a concern for the moral and psychological development of children – the emphasis is on becoming a ‘good’ person. A Bildungsroman, commonly distinguished by several topical and thematic elements (Iversen), is a genre of novel that emphasizes this development. The genre evolved from folklore, and narrates the protagonist’s maturation. There is usually loss or unhappiness early in the story that induces the youngster to leave home, followed by a long and demanding journey, often literally as well as figuratively, before the youngster matures into a self-aware, socially responsible young adult. Structurally, Bildungsroman will usually favour dialogue between characters over extensive plot development, in so doing, centering the reader’s attention firmly on the protagonist. Since the protagonist is undergoing a journey of self-discovery, it therefore follows that the writer would depict the child’s worldview as incomplete. This would allow the writer to demonstrate the protagonist’s development of a complete worldview over the course of his/her maturation.
Whilst Bildungsroman is traditionally a term used for German literature, and featuring a male protagonist, the genre has inspired numerous works that include similar elements. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, published in 1976 and winner of the Newbery Medal in 1977, is set in Mississippi during the Great Depression. Cassie is 9 years old, and beginning to realize that her life is very different to the life of white children. During the course of the novel, she begins to understand the reasons behind this, and whilst she does not necessarily have to accept these reasons, she must find a way to live with it whilst staying true to herself. Taylor demonstrates the restrictions on Cassie’s rights as a black child with the behaviour of those around her.
Early in the novel, Cassie appears to be a mostly happy child, despite her father being away, and despite having to deal with trivial matters like wearing her “Sunday dress” (Taylor 1) on the first day of school. However, over the course of the first chapter, we see Little Man get deliberately covered in “a scarlet haze” (Taylor 12) by the school bus carrying the white children; we meet Jeremy, a white boy, who is bullied for trying to be friends with Cassie and her brothers; and most horrifically, we learn that “some white men took a match to” (Taylor 8) Mr. Berry and his nephews. Each of these incidents is recounted simply, through the eyes of a child who appears to be used to such events. What is clear however, is that the children do not fully understand why these things happen; the children, particularly the younger ones, are quite naÃ¯ve regarding the causes of such events. One of the earliest examples of this naivety is Little Man’s reaction to his new book. Mary and David Logan teach their children to be independent and to respect themselves. This notion of self-respect is abruptly reversed when Little Man realizes that not only is his ‘new’ book not new, but so “very poor” that it is considered only suitable for a “nigra” (Taylor 26). The children’s reactions contrast clearly with that of Miss Crocker, and Cassie is bewildered by her teacher’s lack of reaction – “Miss Crocker did not even know what I was talking about. She had looked at the page and had understood nothing.” (Taylor 28) Taylor’s direct contrast in this incident, between a child’s perspective and an adult’s, illustrates Cassie and Little Man’s inexperience with the reality of the harsh world outside of their safe family world. This inexperience demonstrates an incomplete view of the world in which they live.
The contrast between Cassie’s direct speech, which includes phonetic spelling and colloquial grammar, and her more standard narrator’s voice appears to suggest that it is an older Cassie perhaps looking back on the events of her earlier childhood. The first-person narrative means that the reader feels involved with the characters and in the events, and makes their discoveries step-by-step as Cassie does. This focalization creates an interesting puzzle when looking at adult and child readers, since an adult reader will be more aware of the meanings of some of the words and events, whereas a child reader, like the child protagonist, will be unaware because of their youth and inexperience. In some respects therefore, any story with a child protagonist will have an incomplete perspective of the world, since children lack the experience for a complete perspective on the world around them.
The characters, and the reader, are immersed in a real world created by Taylor through her detailed descriptions of specific places and events; her illustrative use of weather throughout the book, beginning with the appeal to thunder in the title, and ending with the rain that put out the fire; and her precise historical setting. With these techniques, Taylor helps to develop Cassie’s worldview over the course of the book, as she realizes the extent of racism in her world and the effects that it can have. She learns through personal humiliation during the incident with the new school books and the incident in Strawberry, and in seeing the consequences of T.J.’s mistakes, that life for black people is unfair. Cassie admits at the end, “What had happened to T.J. in the night I did not understand” (Taylor 305), which seems to support the theory that Taylor has represented Cassie’s perspectives on the world as incomplete. However, Cassie’s honesty regarding her lack of understanding could suggest that while her perspective is incomplete, it is not necessarily flawed, since although she knows she doesn’t understand what happened to T.J., she understands that unlike the weather, “it would not pass” (Taylor 305).
The world that Taylor constructs for her characters is a harsh and violent one based on the author’s own experiences. Unlike in Tom’s Midnight Garden and Swallows and Amazons, there is no escape into the imagination for Cassie. Tom’s garden allows him to escape from the confines of his aunt and uncle’s flat and gives him a chance at freedom. Pearce’s descriptions of the garden are vivid, and the detail she uses to describe objects such as the grandfather clock make them realistic to the reader. The grandfather clock is an important symbol in the story, providing a visual link between the past and the present, and representing the nature and passing of time, which are such prominent themes in Tom’s Midnight Garden. Tom discusses the concept of time with his uncle in his attempt to understand how is able to visit the garden of the past and why time passes differently when he’s there. The conversation between adult and child illustrates the differences in their attitudes to the realm of the fantastic – Tom is trying to understand time but realizes that in this case it doesn’t follow any mathematical rules, while Uncle Alan is only able to see the definite mathematical explanations. Tom’s theories on the nature of time develop over the course of the story, and it is his perceptions that appear more accurate than those of his uncle, who seems to lack the broad-mindedness of a child.
The lack of understanding between Tom and his uncle is mirrored in the relationship between Hatty and her aunt. As an orphan, Hatty must live with her aunt and cousins, but comforts herself with the fantasy of being a princess; “”I am held here a prisoner. I am a Princess in disguise.” (Pearce 73) Such a fantasy is unmistakeably childlike, and suggests that Hatty is also trying to escape her world – while Tom escapes from his isolation into the garden, Hatty escapes her parentless world into her fantasy world. Such a need to escape could suggest that both Hatty’s and Tom’s worlds seem, at least to the characters themselves, to be incomplete – Tom is missing his brother and his home, and Hatty is missing her parents.
Imagination also plays a prominent role in Swallows and Amazons. The novel has two layers; the realistic setting and events of the novel, and the fantastical elements of the children’s imaginations. Ransome uses this combination of realism and fantasy to develop the characters of his protagonists. “Wild Cat Island” (Ransome 120) is not far from where the children’s mother is staying so she is able to visit them often, but they are mostly left to fend for themselves; pitching their tents, cooking, map-reading and sailing. The children’s freedom enables them to live their fantasy roles as explorers, even going so far as include adults in their fantasy, with adults considered ‘natives’, James Turner becoming Captain Flint, and their mother becoming either Queen Elizabeth or Man Friday; “Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday then kissed each other as if they were pretending to be Titty and mother.” (Ransome 218) Through their adventures as real children and imaginary pirates, the children learn valuable skills to prepare them for adulthood. John and Susan learn to take responsibility for their younger siblings, and Titty and Roger learn the value of friends and family, and the importance of honesty; “the children can play and grow within known limits.” (Hunt 180)
The age difference between the children illustrates the contrasts between their perspectives on the world. John, as the eldest, is clearly the most responsible, and while he is fully involved in the children’s fantasy world, he is the most rational about the real world. This feeling of responsibility is shown in his references to his father, by taking his books to the island, by quoting him when the children are in trouble – “Even daddy used to say, ‘Never be ashamed to reef a small boat in the dark’” (Ransome 255) – and in his realization that one day they will all grow up; “I shall be going to sea some dayâ€¦ and so will Roger.” (Ransome 408) John understands that the fun that they’ve had won’t go on for ever, and that when he and Roger grow up they will follow their father into the Navy. John’s perspective on the world could therefore be described as mature and realistic.
While there are a number of examples in the chosen texts that can either support or oppose the claim that ‘children’s perceptions of, and perspectives on, the world around them are often represented by children’s writers as inevitably incomplete and therefore flawed’, it is not clear why this is the case. The writer could be representing the child’s view this way intentionally, believing that since children do not have the life experience of an adult, that their view is incomplete, or, it could be unintentional, on the writer’s part, and even unavoidable, since it could be argued that an adult writer can never accurately represent a child’s view. Philippa Pearce claimed that “A man can never entirely free himself of the child he once was, and that ghost-figure haunts him during this curious action of writing books for children” (Pearce), but how reliable is this ‘ghost-figure’? Children’s authors write their child characters based on their own perceptions of childhood, and, since they are no longer children, one has to wonder if, rather than the child protagonist’s perceptions of and perceptions on the world being incomplete, it is in fact the adult author’s ability to represent them.
Portraying a child protagonist’s perspectives as limited or incomplete would lend the narrative a certain realism, since children don’t have the range of life experience or knowledge than adults do. A child in a world of adults is very vulnerable, having said that, children do have at least one advantage – they see the world in a more simplistic way. This can often means that a child may see the difference between right and wrong more clearly or is more astute in problem solving, thereby allowing him/her to be more heroic. In fantasy stories, limiting a child’s perspective would be particularly important, since doing so would open up a ‘realm of possibility’ that may not be as available to an adult. In Tom’s Midnight Garden, for example, if Tom had been an adult, he would perhaps not have been able to enter the garden.
Whether it is an author’s intention to portray a child’s perspective as incomplete, or whether it is in fact simply unavoidable for an adult writer to do so, it is my opinion that children’s perceptions of, and perspectives on, the world around them are often represented by children’s writers as inevitably incomplete. An adult can’t read as a child, but they can still enjoy children’s stories; likewise a child can’t see the world as an adult, but they can still see the world, albeit an incomplete perspective of it.
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