Learning from Children’s Literature

Although I have three degrees in English literature, I once spent about six months teaching second grade in an elementary school. That’s when I discovered the joys of books like Danny and the Dinosaur and Little Bear. Story time was always one of the highlights of the daily routine in my classroom.

But since then I haven’t had many encounters with books for children. So it was delightful to read a wonderful New Yorker article about Maurice Sendak (author of Where the Wild Things Are and illustrator of the Little Bear books).

I wasn’t surprised when Sendak – unmarried and childless – said that he tapped into his own early years in order to write his books for children. But what set me reeling was something else Sendak said:

“You see, I don’t believe, in a way, that the kid I was grew up into me. He still exists somewhere, in the most graphic, plastic, physical way. It’s as if he had moved somewhere. I have a tremendous concern for him and interest in him. I communicate with him—or try to—all the time. One of my worst fears is losing contact with him.”

I’d thought that only Jungian psychologists believed in that notion of multiple selves – but here was a children’s author sounding like my favorite psychologist, James Hillman!

I think Hillman (and Sendak) are right, and I know – for example – that I share my soul with a giggling eight-year-old who thinks Danny’s adventures with his dinosaur friend are absolutely hilarious. At other times I become my mother, my favorite high-school English teacher, a testy adolescent – you get the idea. They all jostle with one another for my attention, and things can get pretty crazy. Fascinating! (By the way – you, reading this, have your own cast of characters who enjoy disrupting your life.)

But right now I want to focus  on that giggling eight-year-old. What if you’re someone (like me) who doesn’t write for children? Is there any reason for me to keep in touch with that I-won’t-grow-up part of myself?

Yes – and to explain, I’m going to take a detour into postmodern language theory. People are complicated beings – there’s no such thing as “simplicity” when you’re describing human personalities and behavior. And language is just as complex. No matter how hard you try to stick to one idea when you’re writing, other elements, themes, and issues are going to find their way into your words. More than once I’ve written a piece that horrified me when it was published:  I’d given away some of my secrets without knowing what I was doing!

If you respect your own complex cast of characters, you can channel some of their vitality into your writing. I’m thinking of a book I loved reading three years ago: Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom. It’s a true story: Ken Ilungas longed to go to graduate school, but he’d already struggled to pay off a $32,000 student loan and didn’t want to go down that road again. His solution was to buy a beat-up van, park it on a side street near Duke University, and live there until he finished his graduate program.

I found myself thinking wistfully about Walden on Wheels just the other day. What an adventure he had! By contrast, here’s what my life has been like lately: I keep track of our condo fees and phone bills, get my teeth cleaned every three months, and make sure I return my library books on time. I watch TV on a schedule. I have such a reputation for punctuality that my dance teachers call my cell phone if I’m two minutes late for a lesson. (I am not making that up.)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wear jeans every day, wander into the college library any time I felt like it (even at 2 AM), and be so untethered that nobody knew – or cared -where I was or what I was doing?

Well, not really. To put it another way: The Grown-up Jean who’s in charge of my life most of the time wants marriage, healthy teeth, predictability, and financial stability.

But tucked away somewhere in my soul is a little girl who loved The Boxcar Children (last year I read it again!) and would have adored sharing the freedom and adventures of those four children – for a little while, anyway. (I should explain that The Boxcar Children is a classic book about four orphaned children who find out that they’re going to be placed in separate foster homes. They slip away at nightfall and find an abandoned boxcar where they can stay together.)

Gee whiz. Of course I loved Walden on Wheels! In a way it’s just The Boxcar Children all over again, rewritten for an adult audience.

I don’t care how smart and sophisticated you are. If you go back to reread one of your favorite books, I predict that you’re going to catch a whiff of another you. Maybe it’s a daredevil, a diva, a saint, or a would-be movie star – or someone else who’s both unknown to you and yet amazingly familiar.

Homework assignment: Make a list of the books you’ve loved. (They don’t have to be written for children, and don’t limit yourself to titles that are considered great literature!) Then go back over the list and think about the person within you who loved each book. Think of ways to connect with that person. Dive into that person’s energy, enthusiasms, yearnings, and fears. Then start thinking about ways to bring all that vitality into your writing.

Your readers will love you for it.

The Boxcar Children

            The Boxcar Children


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