In the early 1990s, researchers interested in the construction Of gender dressed a number of small babies in a nursery randomly in blue or pink, so that some little girl babies were in blue and some little boy babies in pink. They then watched adults interacting with the babies. The adults playing with the little blue babies used big movements, lifting them and throwing them into the air, and the babies’ noises or reachings out were interpreted as positive responses, and the action was repeated with laughter and noise. But if the same things were done with the little pink babies, their gestures or noises were seen as fearful and they were held close, hands reaching out were pulled back protectively, and the adults murmured that the babies were all right, that they were safe.
In 2001, a New Zealand publisher published a book about Abigail, a lively little fantail who refuses to stay still and heed her mother’s warnings about having a rest. She gets lost; it becomes dark and cold; and she thinks she hears a morepork: “Now Abigail was starting to get really scared.” But, by the very next page, whatever involvement that statement might have allowed any reader to feel is quickly swept away as normality is restored. It is morning; Abigail has “breakfast”; her mother arrives; and on the final page we learn that now Abigail will “Stop for a rest … to stop getting tired, lost and cold.”
The book bothers me for a number of reasons. First, a potential adventure, an exciting (even if scary) broadening of experience has been strait-jacketed and labelled Look out! Secondly, the flat statements of emotion, and the immediate and safe resolution allow its readers no opportunity either to experience, or come to terms with, fear – an emotion that for developmental reasons, is very much part of their lives. It may be keeping them safe, but is it allowing them the emotional development they need? And not only need but, like any adrenalin-seeking adult, often actively seek. My older brother used to read ghost stories and then tell them to my sister and me, at dusk under the trees beside a lake, well away from adult company. We were avid and willing listeners and we all three had nightmares instead of just him – and were we quite unusual?
The Abigail story also bothers me because, albeit in a slightly more extreme way, it does what a lot of other illustrated books recently published in New Zealand seem to be doing. It’s a conclusion I’ve reached over the past six months, reading all the books in this genre received by the Book Council for notice in Bookmarks. It’s a somewhat random survey, but the Council does receive most New Zealand-published children’s books, particularly in that genre.
Judith Holloway’s Hine’s Rainbow catches us up in an honest treatment of a child’s fatal disability and death, and we move on into a Maori ceremony that creates some resolution of the loss and sorrow. But apart from her book, I had to extend my time-frame back into last year before I found a book in which an emotionally dark situation was explored. That meant including John Walsh’s Nanny Mango, the mean and spiteful and unstoppable old Maori auntie who rampages her way through page after page, first merely ambushing people, then eating them until finally her energies are channelled, at least for the time being, in another direction
I found some eight books where, as in Abigail, potentially scary situations weren’t developed. To look at some: does the stranded whale in Sydney and the Whale Bird find that he can’t breathe, that he’s panicking, that he’s scared he’s going to die? Do the little penguins suddenly find they’ve a desperate, thrashing animal to rescue? No. The whale merely thinks, “If only I was a real whalebird I could fly from my nest any time I liked.” The real possibility of imminent death is totally ignored when it could have been handled within the construction of the story. Suzy, the scuba diver underneath the sea, suddenly sees “a small round body and one big eye. It had a long sharp nose, wings and two little legs. And it was coming right towards [her]”. But any threat is averted in the next sentence. The creature, not Suzy, is making for the surface, and it’s “coughing and spluttering” – clearly nothing to worry about here.
In Timo and the Kingfish, Timo catches Tangaro, but finds he’s out of sight of land and his dog’s overboard. Yet, again, the danger is no sooner signalled than it’s resolved. In Cricket’s Storm, a cricket is swept away, but the optimistic iambic couplets and immediate resolution deny any problem. In Baby Bumble and the Sock Pirates, Baby Bumble battles with the pirates – but there are only four short lines where she faces the prospect of the plank before she’s rescued by the cat. The Terrible Q builds in Suzy’s mind, but the apprehension amuses rather than threatens before it is resolved.
And the many others? My Marine I found rather charming. Dad learns to jitterbug, so that his daughter has someone to dance with, just like her older sister. In other stories, sheep gambol to new pastures, grandpa gets a new jersey, jungle animals learn plain water is better than sweetened. There’s a burst of twee anthropomorphism that last seemed to surface in the 1930s: are we harking back to a safer world? But essentially almost all of the books I looked at were about domestic situations that quietened or soothed or charmed or taught or gently amused, but they did not move at some deeper level, or arouse, or scare.
Apart from meeting the didactic function, that domestic genre has its place. But we need the other sort as well. All stories, however they’re presented, are saying something about living. The best, whether oral or written, allow children as well as adults to experience emotions vicariously and to have their world, their understandings of it, and themselves often unconsciously enlarged. We’re short-changing ourselves and our kids if at least some books, in subtle and non-didactic ways, don’t explore “the less positive aspects of life”. Children need to know about these aspects and they need to know (and the same may well be true for adults) that it’s possible to emerge with at least some sort of triumph at the other end. Books written to be read aloud to small children have a special role here, as Bruno Bettelheim recognised, because they allow the child to experience those emotions in the safety of adult company.
So stories written for children shouldn’t be childish in either subject or treatment. If we look at what has lasted across generations, we have Grimm’s fairy stories that were just that – grim: suitors failed in the quest and were destroyed; children lost in the woods died; the wolf ate Little Red Riding Hood. Hans Christian Andersen’s ice queen danced her way to agony. Beatrix Potter wrote in the same tradition. We know only too well what will happen to Peter if Mr McGregor catches him; quite graphic illustration shows that John Joiner only just rescues Tom Kitten from ending up as a pudding; and Samuel Whiskers is not vanquished, only banished. Arthur Ransome’s later creation of the Russian Baba Yaga sweeps aside forests and lakes in deeply satisfying, terrible and unrelenting pursuit of her victims. And we face, with Christopher Robin, the fact that he will have to leave the forest.
Our children grew up in the 1970s, and we read them all those stories – and I hope they’re still widely read – alongside John Birmingham’s pastoral idylls. However, a quick search through the boxes of books stored away reveals that a lot of writing of the time dealt with what I shall term the darker emotions. Of course, with less New Zealand material available, we read a lot of books published overseas, so my comparisons aren’t quite apples for apples. But for what they’re worth, Edward Ardizzone was still writing the Tim, Charlotte, and Ginger adventures, and we nightly traversed abandonment, shipwreck, mutiny, and brutal ill-treatment.
Max, of course, in a moment of supreme command, subdued all those wild things. The Train on the Track stuck and stuck stock still until the train, which had been coming and coming, came with a deeply satisfying Crash. The tiger may have come to dinner, but there was definitely one in the meadow, too, and getting bigger and bigger by the minute. On page after page, the mole coped with the diggers bringing imminent disaster to his house and extinction for himself. The Bunyip of Berkley’s Creek came up against bewildering and critical existential problems of existence. Raymond Briggs’s Fungus the Bogeyman explored all sorts of subterranean territory. And in one of Graham Greene’s little red fire engine stories, Old Sam the fireman suffered redundancy, humiliation, and impoverishment until Toby the fire horse, in a drama I still find deeply emotional, saved their fortunes.
So, if New Zealand’s children’s stories are qualitatively different today, why? Is it because they are all that publishers will print? Or are publishers publishing what the public demands – and if this is the case, I’ll leave the reader to speculate why.
A couple of final comments. First, a year or so ago, the Guardian published a report of research that showed that children in Britain were safer than they had been a decade before – they were less likely to have broken limbs, get lost, abducted, assaulted etc. But this finding was at a cost. Against the increase in safety, the researchers noted a loss of a sense of adventure among the children and an unwillingness to explore. Secondly, perhaps writing for the little pink babies is the flip side of more demanding writing that is about our own culture and identity.
Helen Beaglehole is a Wellington writer of young adult fiction.