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Wonder and the Young Eye

Wonder and the Young Eye: the secret world of children’s literature - a presentation given by Kate De Goldi at Featherston Booktown 2018 - Fish 'n' Chip Supper.

Kia Ora Koutou, Talofa Lava, Warm Pacific greetings to all of you gathered here.

I’ll begin with a favourite Jenny Bornholdt poem, ‘In the garden’ :

In the garden

the bulbs run riot

root systems go

all over the place

we crack open huge dry

clods of earth and uncover

white bulbs of onion flowers

embedded like fossils

their roots like thin streamers

partying down through the soil.

So we have a white flower

propped on the top of a green stem

a plain enough thing

while underneath

the feelers are out

hooking into other systems

forming the network

the flower an undercover agent

posted on the watch

a decoy of simplicity.

This is a poem about the glorious fecundity beneath the soil of a garden – the everyday miracle of planting and growth, of the complex interaction between soil nutrients and bulbs.... but, it is also a persuasive metaphor for the writing and reading process....That undercover agent, that decoy of simplicity – the flower posted on the watch – is an analogue for language … for the power of words: story and verse … The poem suggests that yes, the written word gives us straightforward, organised hieroglyphs on a page, plainly denoting certain thoughts or events … but, words are also complex, resonating symbols; they throb with associations, memories, and sensory experiences. Words have ‘root systems’ as it were, roots with thin, persistent streamers partying down through the soil of our unconscious, making far-reaching connections. These are the connections that form our intellectual networking, that deepen our experience as human beings.

I think of this poem as a kind of epigraph for this talk. I’ll be thinking aloud about the riotous bulbs of the story and language experience for children, and all those who have maintained a child’s capacity for curiosity and wonder. The Young Eye – as I’ll suggest later – is something of an undercover agent, too, feelers out, prospecting, gathering and decoding news of the adult world. I’ll be reading some brief extracts from children’s books as I go, and finishing with a story – call it a bedtime tale.

I’ve spent a good deal of my working life over the last twenty-five years visiting schools of all kinds, talking with students about reading, and working with them on their imaginative writing. It’s a privilege to have regular experience of the New Zealand classroom, to witness over and over the transforming possibilities of reading and writing. There is considerable data available now that substantiates the links between reading & writing, social capital, and economic success – for both individuals and communities. Literacy and reading for pleasure, we now know, are foundation stones in the construction of social capital and the capacity to move out of poverty. I’m acutely aware of my own cultural and economic privilege in this regard – the consequence of a fortunate life immersed in literature. It’s painful indeed to acknowledge the thousands of people in our national whanau who are shut out of economic and cultural prosperity because of their inability to read. It’s painful to think about the hundreds of children who have rarely been read aloud to. Three cheers to the Featherston Booktown Trust for their role in bringing books and people together. And a long and grateful salute to Joy Cowley, Booktown’s patron, who has done God’s work over half a century, bringing the good news of language and story to children throughout New Zealand – and the world.

One winter’s day when our son Jack was four years old, he stood with me in the bathroom as I cleaned; he was watching …

Jack was a typical four-year-old boy in many ways. He was active and very playful – he loved rough and tumble and pretend sword fighting with his Dad, thrashing about with his small cricket bat, taking slavish secondary roles in his sister’s operatic games. Like many four year olds he lived a sustained imaginative life – some mornings he would announce solemnly from his bed that he was not Jack today - he was Peter Pan or Robin Hook or once, wonderfully, Attila the Honey.

He was also – perhaps not quite so commonly – a rather contemplative four-year-old. He could sit very still for long periods, sucking his fingers, dreaming and – I always supposed – musing. He could spend a good deal of time just biding in adult company, watching and listening.

And that winter’s day while I busied about in the bathroom Jack stood very still, fingers in mouth, watching, not me, but the tap over the bath. He was staring at the cold tap which steadily dripped, a slow beat, drip, drip, drip…The water pooled briefly at the bottom of the bath then disappeared down the plug hole. After a while I stopped and watched Jack watching the dripping tap, wondering what he was thinking. Eventually, it seemed he’d come to a decision, a conclusion; he took his fingers from his mouth, turned to me and said, ‘Water has a short life.’

It took me a while to realise what he meant, how he had interpreted what he’d been watching: that water – this water at any rate – lived only as long as it took for it to come from the tap and disappear down the hungry mouth of the plug hole – a dark eternity in the imagination of many small children.

It was a charming perception, one that briefly readjusted my own staid perceptions – hidebound, as they were, like most adults’, by age and impatience and mad activity. I glimpsed a different way of seeing a dripping tap and water’s life cycle – and for a moment water was personified and its short life seemed strangely poignant. But, further, I was connected fleetingly to the cycle of all living things, even the arc of human life – revealed by the birth and death of a drip of water, translated beautifully, by our four-year-old son.

I’m sure many of you will have experienced such moments with children – your own or the children of friends’ and family, or children overheard in the street, in supermarkets and malls, on buses. We collect these moments and relate them to each other, because they’re endearing, yes, but also because they’re often genuinely startling, literally refreshing – windows of new meaning open up, our jaded palates are rejuvenated, we are reminded again how to look attentively and wonderingly at the world and all ordinary marvels.

The great American editor and publisher, Ursula Nordstrum – the woman who discovered and nurtured talents like EB White, Maurice Sendak, and Russell Hoban – put it like this: children are new though we are not. This was the advice she routinely gave her writers and illustrators, reminding them that nothing about the world was yet exhausted for children; quite the reverse. Everything seen, smelt, touched, heard by the young, constituted an act of astonishing discovery and revelation. They wandered through the first years of their lives like Adam and Eve in Eden, touching and naming and learning, astounded by every new thing.

The English poet Craig Raine understood this when he wrote his poem, A Martian sends a postcard home. Raine’s conceit is that a Martian has come to earth and dwelt amongst us. He has, Raine suggests, observed the seasons and natural forces, he has studied human behaviour and relationships, looked with fascination at machinery, domestic implements and technology; he has learnt about history and literature and the noble achievements of our civilisation. And then, excited by all he’s learnt, he’s sent a postcard to the folks back on Mars, describing this new world…These descriptions are not instantly recognisable to us; there is a wonderful misalliance of language and perception so that the poem becomes a series of riddlesome metaphors, rich with allusion and misdirection…and because of that the reader is asked by the poet to appreciate ordinary things, daily experiences, in a new light.

Here, for instance, is how the Martian describes books:

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings

and some are treasured for their markings -

They cause the eyes to melt

or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but

sometimes they perch on the hand.

Our Martian has heard something about the history of printing (hence the naming word Caxton), he understands the book is man-made so rightly calls it mechanical, yet it flaps and perches, like a winged creature, and surely it has the powers of something sentient because it can make you laugh and cry…

This artful mash up of slightly misapplied observations means that the commonplace book is startlingly transformed for us – brought alive briefly and figuratively, so that we understand it – just for a while - as a mysterious kind of bird.

Mist – on the other hand – is when the sky is tired of flight

and rests its soft machine on the ground:

Then the world is dim and bookish

like engravings under tissue paper.

Here, the sky is personified – it grows weary, having to hold itself aloft like some big bird ceaselessly beating? But its big tired body is a ‘soft machine,’ too, and when it comes to ground, enveloping all, everything around us becomes hazy and indistinct, we must imagine what is there and how it looks, much as we do when reading…

And what about this?

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,

that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it

to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet, they wake it up

deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

An adult’s thoughts drift inevitably towards a baby (as the poet means them to)…soothing to sleep; waking deliberately by tickling…But, no, this is an apparatus - once again, the poet has invested an inanimate, man-made object with human characteristics…this apparatus sleeps and snores and cries…

It is, of course, a telephone (they carry it to their lips…the tickling is dialing)…this uncanny metaphor does beautifully what metaphor must: misdirect us, say one thing in terms of another, make a ‘true lie’…transfigure, if you like – so that the telephone is made vividly anew…we look at it for a while as a troubled, slightly persecuted slave to human caprice – and of course that in turn prompts us to consider the general human tendency to whimsy and thoughtlessness…This is a crafty, playful poem enjoying language and its games, but at heart it is a reminder of all that it is to be human…

And not least in the final lines:

At night, when all the colours die,

they hide in pairs

and read about themselves -

in colour, with their eyelids shut.

We are fugitive creatures, the Martian suggests as he signs off…needing the comfort of another through the long night; and though together, we’re somehow always separate, finding ultimate reassurance in stories about ourselves…

A terrific poem. I use it often in workshops, with children and adults alike, and I’ve noticed over time that the younger the student the more likely they are to accurately guess those riddlesome metaphors. Such is the relative proximity of 8 and 9 and 10 year olds to the Martian-like wonder and openness of early childhood that they have little difficulty divining telephones, books, toilets, cars, watches and rain in those singular descriptions.

It is just the same with ears. Over the last ten years one of the creative writing exercises I use has given me a long list of similes for the ear, dreamt up by students between the ages of 8 and 12.

Let’s think about the ear, I suggest…Feel it, check out the ear beside you…What a peculiar and ingenious thing it is. They stroke and poke their own ears, reacquainting themselves with the gristly labyrinths, the crevices, the vanishing hole, the soft lobe…Then I ask them to think about what else in the world the ear might be like – because – to quote the American children’s writer, Jane Yolen, who in turn is quoting Aristotle: ‘to make metaphors implies an eye for resemblances. To make a good metaphor a writer (of any age) has to be a good observer first – which in some senses is the measure of an educated person.’

And why, you might ask, all this emphasis on metaphor (and its sister, simile)? Because, as Yolen explains, a metaphor is when we are saying one thing, one important, and perhaps even deep, thing in terms of something else…It is, in the philosopher Philip Wheelwright’s words, ‘a medium of fuller, riper knowing…’ So, helping children hone and maintain their capacity for simile and metaphor is not so much for use in their writing, but a way of keeping them in close touch with the world, with human experience…it is, literally, increasing their understanding...

Here are a few of the rich observations they’ve made over the years, then shaped into small intense sentences. I like to think of this litany as a conversation between all these students from all those schools, a joyous batting back and forth as they vie for the truest truth in their ‘wisely felt errors’

The ear is a question mark within a question.

A cuddly baby sleeps amongst roughly folded blankets.

It is a coil of pale pink plasticine.

Two together make a pink-and-white butterfly.

No, the ear is a deformed mushroom, half stamped-on.

It is a wan, shrivelled kidney bean.

Listen, ears are fireworks, they are Catherine Wheels which blind your vision.

From behind they are flat car tyres.

An ear is a quarter moon, a man perched, in his bed.

Or, the letter C, like a pre-schooler learning to write.

This ear is an artist’s palette. This ear is a sculpture, coming into being.

It is a baby in a mother’s womb.

No, it is a piece of hard plastic, melted on the side of the kettle.

Children – our Martians - fresh and untainted in the material world, their heads unclouded by tired knowledge - offer us the priceless opportunity to see fully again, to have our hearts and minds rinsed and refreshed. My own children are grown but I remember their insights so clearly, and now I have grandchildren, though they’re older too and moving slowly away from those nifty angular perceptions.

Luckily, there are always new children – my great-niece, Eva, for instance, who aged three and a half, and contemplating the death of our mother, Frances – her first death, in a sense – said to us one day as she bounced higher and higher on the trampoline – and later I could see that the climbing onto the trampoline and the glorious bouncing and thoughts about someone here and then mysteriously not here had all swirled in her head and prompted a question: ‘Has Frances,’ – bounce, bounce – ‘has Frances just got off her life?’ Yes, we said, realising the truth of it, that was exactly what she’d done.

Or, a friend’s daughter, Jean, smart as paint and hilariously sardonic, who aged six, after visiting the Catholic Church at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River, became fascinated by images and statues of the Virgin Mary and questioned her parents about this curious personage. Her father said he didn’t have much time for Jesus and Mary and all that stuff. They didn’t really go in for religion. Jean, though, needed to explore this business and drew a series of pictures of the Virgin in her various incarnations (Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady Star of the Sea, etc)… all blue and white, with hands prayerfully clasped, rosary beads hanging from their wrists. She sent me one in the post. MARY, she had written in careful capitals. And underneath in brackets: (Who I don’t believe in.) That girl knows how to have a dollar each way.

I’m lucky enough to experience these linguistic sleights of hand, those small moments of illumination, often, thanks to the great gift of the New Zealand Book Council’s Writers in schools scheme. But sometimes there are no flesh and blood children at hand, and the world turns predictably and it’s hard to retrieve wonder.

Then, I do one of two things. I begin to write. Or, I reach for some of the titles on my bookcase by the great children’s writers of the twentieth and twenty-first century. I might take down The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars, which begins like this:

Chapter One: Bad News

Sometimes at night when the rain is beating against the windows of my room, I think about that summer on the farm. It has been five years, but when I close my eyes I am once again by the creek watching the black fox come leaping over the green, green grass. She is as light and free as the wind, exactly as she was the first time I saw her.

Or sometimes it is that last terrible night, and I am standing beneath the oak tree with the rain beating against me. The lightning flashes, the world is turned white for a moment, and I see everything as it was – the broken lock, the empty cage, the small tracks disappearing into the rain. Then it seems to me that I can hear, as plainly as I heard it that August night, above the rain, beyond the years, the high, clear, bark of the midnight fox.

Or, I might take The diamond in the window by Jane Langton, which begins with a chapter entitled ‘Edward misbehaves’.

Edward Hall sat under the front porch of the big house on Walden Street in Concord, Massachusetts, and thought about his two ambitions in life. The first was to be the President of the United States. That was not very likely, but it was at least possible. The second was unlikely and impossible altogether, because he had been born into the wrong family. Why, oh, why wasn’t his name ‘Robert Robinson’ instead of ‘Edward Hall’?

Eddy took out of his pocket a collection of bottle tops, matchboxes, and pennies and arranged them on the ground in a decorative pattern. If only fathers and mothers would be more careful when they chose names! If only they would pick names that sounded well in Backwards English! ‘Edward Hall’, for example, was all right in ordinary English, but it was terrible the other way around – ‘Drawde Llah’ didn’t sound like anything. But ‘Robert Robinson’ – there was a name! If you turned it backwards and softened the ‘s’ it was transformed into a name as strange and fantastic as that of an ambassador from some foreign land – ‘Trebor Nosnibor!’ Edward put his two ambitions in life together and whispered under his breath, ‘Introducing the President of the United States, Mr Trebor Nosnibor! How glorious.

Or, this one: Stop the Train by Geraldine McCaughrean…Chapter One ‘The Red Rock Runner’ opens thus:

Like a bad-tempered queue-jumper, the train rolled up against its buffers and gave a vicious jolt. Then it gave another in the opposite direction – a jerk which travelled from one coach to the next, tipping passengers back into their seats or forward out of them. Skillets and coffee pots clattered to the floor. Above Cissy’s head, a pair of spurs scraped on the carriage roof, and a saddle slithered past the window, flailing its stirrups. But still the train did not move off.

From end to end came the noise of men and children imitating the guard’s whistle, but another ten minutes crawled by without the train making a move, and every second the carriage became hotter and hotter.

Cissy glanced sideways at the couple alongside her: a pasty pair, both shaped like cottage loaves whose dough was still rising as they cooked in the sweltering heat…

Or, Antonio S and the mystery of Theodore Guzman by Odo Hirsch.

Antonio S was a boy who knew all sorts of things. His father was a magician and his mother was a doctor. So even though Antonio was only ten, he already knew things that some people never learn in a whole lifetime. He could hop backwards in a perfectly straight line with his eyes closed and his arms folded in front of him, and he could tell whether a person had measles just by looking inside his or her mouth. He could juggle three oranges and make a fourth one appear out of his sleeve. He knew how to listen to the sounds of a person’s heartbeat. And these were only some of the things Antonio knew…

These stories have quite different settings and subject matter; each has quite a distinct narrative voice and tone. Stop the Train is a cracking adventure with a large cast, set in the American West of the 1890s. The Midnight Fox, a deft mix of the comical and the elegiac, centres around a young boy’s attempts to protect a fox from the gun of his hunter uncle. The diamond in the window is a singular piece of magic realism, an intellectual adventure and homage to Concord’s great literary luminaries, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau and Louise May Alcott. Antonio S. is a story of friendship and mystery, set in a big old house with secret passages. Two of the writers are American, one English and another Australian. All have the crucial faculty that lies at the heart of great writing for children: a young eye.

The American children’s writer, Katherine Paterson explains the young eye by quoting British children’s writer, Leon Garfield, who in turn quotes another:

‘Edward Blishen has a good phrase for books that are right for children. What they have in common, he says, is a young eye at their centre. No matter how beautifully observed an incident may be, if it is solely an adult’s view of young behaviour, it passes over a child’s head and heart. Gulliver’s Travels may be read by the young, while 1984 is not suitable. Both are satires; both are fantasies; yet Swift has a sense of wonder (a property of Mr Blishen’s ‘young eye’), and Orwell has not. Swift has anger (again a property of youth), while Orwell has only bitterness.’

I would argue further that any story by a good writer with a searching young eye at its centre is always a good book for adults as well – precisely because it reminds the adult again of a forgotten world view: one arising from the child’s distinctive, wide-eyed perspective; it reminds the adult of that property Blishen particularly notes: wonder – a property that can slowly leak from our lives and diminish them, can fatally disconnect us from children and their concerns.

Margaret Mahy was acutely aware of the fragility of wonder. Years ago, she wrote:

‘a perpetual state of wonder and desire (which seem to me the truest state to be in, confronted with the universe) is certainly not the most practical state to try and live in. We are biologically engineered to have the wonder filtered out of our lives, to learn to take astonishing things for granted so that we don’t waste too much energy on being surprised but get on with the eating and mating, gardening, feeding cats, complaining about taxes, and so on.’

Alison Lurie, who has written widely and provocatively on children’s literature, notes that the most gifted children’s writers have all somehow resisted the slow leakage of wonder. They ‘are not like other writers’, she says ‘instead, in some essential way, they are children themselves. There may be outward signs of this ‘condition’ [she comes close to suggesting it’s a pathology]: these people may prefer the company of boys and girls to that of adults…they are impulsive, dreamy, imaginative and unpredictable…’ She cites the childlike preoccupations of E. Nesbit (author of The Railway Children); James Barrie’s elaborate games with the Davies boys – which were the seeds for Peter Pan; Lewis Carroll’s complete relaxation around children. She speculates about the cultural and social reasons for this and argues that the works of these writers are truly subversive precisely because of their insistence on the maintenance of a young eye.

The ‘wonder’ that is part of the young eye can, of course, be interpreted in more than one way. There is astonishment, on the one hand – the astonishment that is implicit in the way all those children have beheld the ear, the way the Martian interprets our world – the way Odo Hirsh presents Antonio S’s many talents, the way Eddy Hall marvels at the magnificence of a name like Trebor Nosnibor, the way the narrator of The midnight fox considers the beauties and terrors of the natural world. But wonder also suggests curiosity and puzzlement…why and how and please explain are there too.

I think there are three crucial things underpinning the young eye that is at the heart of the outstanding books. Firstly, that young eye has a kind of merciless clarity – a little like the boy in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. While the adults fawn and cheer the naked Emperor, the small boy speaks aloud the startling truth that the adults are wilfully denying: ‘but he isn’t wearing anything at all!’ And think of the frank, unvarnished way Cissy observes the effect of the heat on the ‘pasty pair’ beside her in the train who are ‘shaped like cottage loaves’. Later she sees the woman’s cheeks, ‘glistening with sweat, crimped like apple turnovers.’ Later still, and more ominously, she sees out the window, ‘a huge black pyramid – like a haystack, but for its colour – moving across the landscape, slow and steady, keeping pace with the train. Cissy saw plainly now the dismal warning behind this gloomy sight. Coffins, stacked twelve high and twenty deep swayed with the motion of the car, listed towards the passengers of the Red Rock Runner, as if beckoning them all on towards an early grave.’ Stop the train is a very funny book and rich with the excitement of settling the West, but because it is told through Cissy’s unflinching eye, we are constantly aware of the behaviour of the adults – odd and inconsistent, sometimes downright duplicitous. Cissy finds it impossible to get a straight answer from her parents about the family’s prospects in the new west; they insist it’s a great new beginning, but the coffins suggest another possibility no adult will admit to.

In Father’s Arcane Daughter by EL Konigsburg, the narrator Winston, a poor little rich boy, cloistered in his family’s Pittsburgh mansion along with his disabled sister, Heidi, and his anxious parents, is acutely aware that it is not in fact a fear of kidnapping that motivates his mother’s over-protectiveness, it is shame at her daughter’s disabilities and physical appearance. ‘I watched Heidi smile that warm, wet creature smile of hers and she larruped away. I liked the word larrup, it suited her; water buffaloes larrup and so do hyenas. I had accumulated a secret vocabulary of words that applied to Heidi’s queer bumpy ways.’ Winston is unafraid – actually compelled – to call it like it is. At one point he describes Heidi as a troglodyte. At the party to welcome home their long-lost sister he sees Heidi in the distance, ‘lost in the crowd, like a beribboned, beruffled mushroom. I walked towards her and she welcomed me with that sad flaying of her arms, her elbows close at her waist. I sat down next to her and she looked at me, head tilted, eyes squinting and mouth open: her creature look, I thought. Then she smiled, a wet bubble, making a convex lens, magnifying her gums…’ No pulling punches for Winston, though he loves his sister and acknowledges their connection. ‘We were syncopated, Heidi and I.’ His mother on the other hand – as Winston sees only too clearly – dresses Heidi like a doll, pets and patronises her, calls her special, and skilfully avoids accompanying her out into the world.

So, the young eye sees plainly what is before it, but – and this is the second property of the young eye – paradoxically, young people – new as they are – often misinterpret what they see. That misunderstanding can be entertaining and even unexpectedly instructive – particularly when the misunderstandings are linguistic (Our father who art in heaven, Harold be thy name). In Crash by Jerry Spinelli, the most sympathetic bully in all literature, John ‘Crash’ Coogan, works hard to make miserable the life of his neighbour Penn Webb, an only child dweeb with older, Quaker parents and an irrepressible sense of joy. Penn persistently misunderstands Crash’s inventive acts of meanness and in so doing helps Crash come to understand his own demons.

But misunderstanding can be disturbing, too, and disorienting, at times terrifying. In The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky, dreamy Cubby, from whose point of view the story is told, who sees so much but only half-understands, is troubled by her friend Icara’s father, the Judge – partly because he doesn’t conform to her as-yet limited view of family life (it is Sydney, 1967)…but there are other things, too …

’Cubby was taken aback. The judge! This was not what she had imagined – a man in shorts and a striped shirt, with reading glasses on his nose. Whenever she’d pictured Icara’s father, she’d seen someone noble in a white wig, dressed in a red silken robe, like a kimono.

‘This is Cubby,’ said Icara, gesturing.

‘Hello Cubby,’ said the judge.

‘Hello,’ said Cubby.

Why was Icara’s father at home at four o’clock in the afternoon anyway? Surely fathers only came home as the sun was setting, with their black hats and tired faces, taking off their coats, removing their cufflinks. It reminded Cuffy of the fairy tale of the wild swans that Miss Renshaw had read them, although she had not been listening very closely. Wasn’t there something about how the brothers had to get back by twilight or they would change into swans? Something like that, thought Cubby, confused. In any case, it was hard to imagine the judge turning into a swan.

‘How are you, Icara,’ asked the judge.

‘Oh all right,’ said Icara, looking away.

And there it is, in that last line…Icara looks away. Cubby sees this, as she sees everything else, but she cannot sort the jumble of data in her head; she can’t interpret what she sees and hears. Which brings me to the third aspect that is present in so much of the best literature for children. Watching the adult world so carefully as they do and being so much at its mercy, and sometimes only half apprehending, children often become the unwitting or unwilling keepers – and reporters – of secrets.

Like fiction, like life. A great novel is of course a mirror held up to life – and this is no less true of a great children’s novel. Katherine Paterson is quite explicit about why she writes for and about children…it is because, she says – despite their prescience, their unclouded view of the world, (and of course their venality) – they are often invisible, and being fundamentally unnoticed, are then so vulnerable to misunderstanding and being misunderstood. So children’s writers must, she says, ‘become once more in our heart of hearts invisible children reaching out to the rest of the invisible children in our world.’ Invisible people of all ages and stripes, I would say.

The honing of a young eye – a child’s eye view of the world – both prompts and assists that reaching out. I don’t have enough time to thoroughly canvass the great reachers-out. I’d love to talk at length about Milkweed, the story of a Jewish-Polish street child, watching and misunderstanding the strange business of the German invasion, a great party he thinks, made up of parades and soldiers, whom he walks behind, imitating their precise goose-steps. Or, Maphead, the story of a half-alien, half-human teenager who comes to live in English suburbia and enjoys the eccentricity and unexpected sweetness of the ordinary man and woman. But why do they leave babies to sleep alone? Maphead asks himself, and decides that he must bear witness to the baby’s lonely night-time sleep. He sits beside the cot, watching and pondering the puzzle of human life. Or The Cartoonist,

*------- where Alfie survives his feckless family’s lifestyle by holing up in his attic room and drawing cartoons that report the unvarnished truth about his home and community. Or, The One and Only Ivan – read that if you read no other! A story of captivity and the solace of art and friendship, as narrated by a silverback gorilla, who patiently waits out his days inside a bleak circus mall in the middle of the Nevada desert.

I’m fairly sure that, any librarians and teachers aside, most of you won’t have heard of, much less read, most of the books I’ve mentioned. It’s possible, too, that most of you won’t have read many of the finest and lasting works of New Zealand children’s literature – I’ll throw a handful at you –The Keeper by Barry Faville; The Other Side of Silence by Margaret Mahy; Peri by Penelope Todd; The Fat Man by Maurice Gee Calling the Gods by Jack Lasenby; A visit to the orchards of heaven by Anthony Holcroft, Thor’s Tale by Janice Marriott, The Loblolly Boy by Jim Norcliffe Eating Plums in Bed, Ticket to the Sky Dance, Star Bright and the Dream Eater, and Hunter, all by Joy Cowley. This isn’t a rebuke, it’s just a recognition of the strange bifurcation that exists in the literature of any Anglophone country: though questing children stray often into putative ‘grownup’ literary territory, adults, other than those in the business, as it were, seldom breach the uplands of children’s literature.

There are many reasons for this, not least a persistently low expectation of children, what they’re capable of reading and understanding, and a concomitant assumption that their literature must therefore be simplistic in its subject, lexicon, philosophical reach and psychological underpinnings. Not so! – as I hope some of the foregoing extracts suggest. But the truth is, the bulk of the last century’s extraordinary outpouring of children’s literature – that world of wonder where the young eye tirelessly prospects – remains a secret from most adult readers.

News from that world filters through from time to time – though the substantive examples of the literature are occluded by noisier, commercial, or series offerings, which are the books that most adults know and that to them represent writing for children. I have no argument with those books; they have their place. I was devoted to every one of the 40 Bobbsey Twin series when I was seven & eight. But I long to move beyond the great wall of surface sound that dogs the children’s book world – and make no mistake, as a consequence of the Harry Potter phenomenon, books for children are now decidedly a commodity, with all the attendant trials of commodification. I would rather barrack for the quietly brilliant and often little known books, the ones that explore the world through a child’s forensic eye and offer the full literary arsenal: the wisdom, challenge, breadth, linguistic stretch, character nuance, and moral complexity found in all enduring literature.

I’ll finish with a beaut homegrown story, one with wonder and the young eye front and centre. I wish I’d written it – but it’s by Renata Hopkins, one of 46 New Zealand contributors in Annual 2, a miscellany of stories, poems, non-fiction, art, comics, how tos, and sly fictions masquerading as malarky.

Susan Paris and I have edited two of these Annuals. We commissioned all the content, feeling this was the best way to create a miscellany with a variety of forms, settings, moods, experiences, and that offered something for as many reading and looking tastes as possible. Above all, we wanted the Annuals to suggest that writing for children can be limber, surprising, sophisticated, subtle, and can invite many, many readings.

We gave Renata the sparest of briefs – West Coast, 1870s, 12-year-old girl. Perhaps a travellers’ inn – but we were very confident she’d return something uniquely her own, and so she did. I’m sure you’ll see great work from Renata Hopkins in the future.

The story opens with a painting by Star Gossage and is called Mud Prayer.

(This story can be found on p96 of Annual 2, edited by Susan Paris & Kate De Goldi; published by Annual Ink. Annual 2 can be bought online at or from your nearest good bookseller.)

Books mentioned, or quoted from, in this talk

Selected Poems by Jenny Bornholdt; Victoria University Press, 2016

Dear Genius; the letters of Ursula Nordstrum edited by Leonard Marcus; HarperCollins, 2000

A Martian Sends a Postcard Home by Craig Raine; Oxford University Press, 1985 (first published 1980)

‘The Alphabetics of Story’ by Jane Yolen, from a speech given at the SCBWI first National New York conference, January 2000; published at:

The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars; Faber Children, 2014 (first published 1968)

The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton; HarperTrophy, 2002 (first published 1962)

Stop the Train by Geraldine McCaughrean; Oxford University Press, 2001

Antonio S & the Mystery of Theodore Guzman by Odo Hirsch; Allen & Unwin, 1997

‘In search of Wonder’ from The Invisible Child; on reading and writing books for children by Katherine Paterson; Dutton, 2001

Don’t Tell the Grownups; the subversive power of children’s literature by Alison Lurie; Little, Brown and Company, 1990

Boys and Girls Forever; Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter by Alison Lurie; Penguin Books, 2003

Father’s Arcane Daughter by EL Konigsburg; Alladin Paperbacks, 1999 (first published 1976)

Crash by Jerry Spinelli; Laurel Leaf, 2004 (first published 1996)

The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky; Allen & Unwin, 2011

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli; HarperTrophy, 2003

Maphead by Lesley Howarth; Catnip Publishing, 2011 (first published 1994)

Maphead 2 by Lesley Howarth; Walker Books, 1998

The Cartoonist by Betsy Byars; Puffin, 1987 (first published 1978)

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate; HarperCollins, 2012

The Keeper by Barry Faville; Oxford University Press, 1986

The Other Side of Silence by Margaret Mahy; Viking, 1995

Peri by Penelope Todd; Longacre, 2001

The Fat Man by Maurice Gee; Penguin Books, 1994

Calling the Gods by Jack Lasenby; HarperCollins, 2011

A visit to the Orchards of Heaven by Anthony Holcroft; Hazard Press, 1998

Thor’s Tale by Janice Marriott; HarperCollins, 2006

The Loblolly Boy by James Norcliffe; Longacre Press, 2009

Eating Plums in Bed by Joy Cowley; illustrated by Jenna Packer; Scholastic, 2001

Ticket to the Skydance by Joy Cowley; Viking, 1997

Starbright and the Dream Eater by Joy Cowley; Penguin, 1998

Hunter by Joy Cowley; Puffin Books, 2004

The Bobbsey Twins by ‘Laura Lee Hope’; Stratemeyer Syndicate, 1903-1979

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