What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book, Anyway? The Zena Sutherland Lecture - SOME THINGS I BELIEVE - The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (2016)

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (2016)



What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book, Anyway? The Zena Sutherland Lecture

I hope none of you are here for answers. Authors are notoriously bad at answers. No, that’s not right. We’re not bad at them. We come up with answers all the time, but our answers tend to be unreliable, personal, anecdotal and highly imaginative.

These things can be drawbacks, as far as answers go, if you’re hoping to use our answers in your lives. But they are all good things, not drawbacks, when it comes to questions. Authors are good at posing questions, and our questions are often pretty solid.

I don’t write with answers in mind. I write to find out what I think about something. I wrote American Gods because I had lived in America for almost a decade and felt it was time that I learned what I thought about it.

I wrote Coraline because, when I was a child, I used to wonder what would happen if I went home and my parents had moved away without telling me.

(It could happen. Things sometimes slipped their minds. They were busy people. One night they forgot to pick me up from school, and it was only a wistful phone call from the school, at ten o’clock at night, asking if they were expected to keep me, that finally got me picked up. One morning my parents dropped me off at school without noticing that the half-term break had begun, and I wandered, confused, around a locked and empty school until I was eventually rescued by a gardener. So it was unlikely, but it was possible.)

And if my parents had moved away, what if other people moved in who looked just like them? How would I know? What would I do? And for that matter, what was behind the mysterious door at the far end of the oak-paneled drawing room, the one that opened to reveal only bricks?

I write stories to find out what I think about things.

I am writing this speech to find out what I think about something.

What I want to know is this: what is a children’s book? Or more emphatically: what the [very bad swearword] is a children’s book?

IT WAS A tiny private school in the town in which I lived, and I only attended it for a year. I was eight. One day, one of the boys came in with a copy of a magazine with naked ladies in it, stolen from his father, and we looked at it, to discover what naked ladies looked like. I do not remember what these particular naked ladies looked like, although I remember the little biographies by the pictures: one of the ladies was a magician’s assistant, which I thought very grand. We were, like all children, curious.

In the spring of that same year some kids that I used to encounter on my daily walk home from school told me a dirty joke. It had a swear word in it. In fact, I do not think it would be overstating matters to suggest that it had the swear word in it. It was not a particularly funny joke, but it was definitely sweary, and I told it to a couple of my school friends the following morning, thinking that they might find it funny, or failing that, think of me as sophisticated.

One of them repeated it to his mother that night. I never saw him again. His parents were to pull him out of that school, because of my joke, and he never even came back to say goodbye.

I was interrogated the next morning by the headmistress and the principal, who had just bought the school and was intent on maximizing every drop of profit from it before she sold it to property developers the following year.

I had forgotten about the joke. They kept asking me if I knew any “four-letter words” and, while I had not run across that term before, I had an enormous vocabulary, and it was the kind of thing that teachers asked eight-year-olds, so I ran through every word made of four letters I could think of, until they told me to shut up, and asked me about rude jokes and where I had heard them, and to whom exactly I had repeated them.

That night, after school, my mother was summoned to a meeting with the headmistress and the principal. She came home and informed me that she had been told that I had said something so terrible, so awful, that the headmistress and the principal would not actually repeat it. What was it?

I was scared to answer, so I whispered it to her.

I had said fuck.

“You must never ever say that again,” said my mother. “That is the worst thing that you can say.”

She informed me that she had been told that I would have been expelled—the ultimate punishment—from the little school that night, but, because the other boy had already been removed from that seething den of scatological iniquity by his parents, the principal had announced, with regret, that she was not prepared to lose two sets of school fees. And so I was spared.

I learned two very important lessons from this.

The first was that you must be extremely selective when it comes to your audience.

And the second is that words have power.

CHILDREN ARE A relatively powerless minority, and, like all oppressed people, they know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them. Information is currency, and information that will allow you to decode the language, motivations and behavior of the occupying forces, on whom you are uniquely dependent for food, for warmth, for happiness, is the most valuable information of all.

Children are extremely interested in adult behavior. They want to know about us.

Their interest in the precise mechanics of peculiarly adult behavior is limited. All too often it seems repellent, or dull. A drunk on the pavement is something you do not need to see, and part of a world you do not wish to be part of, so you look away.

Children are very good at looking away.

I DO NOT think I liked being a child very much. It seemed like something one was intended to endure, not enjoy: a fifteen-year-long sentence to a world less interesting than the one that the other race inhabited.

I spent it learning what I could about adults. I was extremely interested in how they saw children and childhood. There was an acting copy of a play on my parents’ bookshelf. The play was called The Happiest Days of Your Life. It was about a girls’ school evacuated to a boys’ school during the War, and hilarity ensued.

My father had played the school porter, in an amateur production. He told me that the phrase “the happiest days of your life” referred to your school days.

This seemed nonsensical to me then, and I suspected it of being either adult propaganda or, more likely, confirmation of my creeping suspicion that the majority of adults actually had no memories of being children.

For the record, I don’t think I ever disliked anything as long or as well as I disliked school: the arbitrary violence, the lack of power, the pointlessness of so much of it. It did not help that I tended to exist in a world of my own, half-in-the-world, half-out-of-it, forever missing the information that somehow everyone else in the school managed to have obtained.

On the first day of term I felt sick and miserable, on the last day, elated. To my mind, “the happiest days of your life” was just one of those things that adults said that not even they could have believed; things like “this isn’t going to hurt” which were simply never true.

MY DEFENSE AGAINST the adult world was to read everything I could. I read whatever was in front of me, whether I understood it or not.

I was escaping. Of course I was—C. S. Lewis wisely pointed out that the only people who inveigh against escape tend to be jailers. But I was learning, I was looking out through other eyes, I was experiencing points of view I did not have. I was developing empathy, realizing and understanding that all the different incarnations of “I” in stories, who were not me, were real, and passing on their wisdom and experience, allowing me to learn from their mistakes. And I knew then, as I know now, that things need not have happened to be true.

I read everything I could find. If the cover looked interesting, if the first few pages held my interest, I would read it, whatever it was, whatever the intended audience.

This meant that sometimes I would read things I was not ready for, things that bothered me, or that I wished I had not read.

Children tend to be really good at self-censorship. They have a pretty good sense of what they are ready for and what they are not, and they walk the line wisely. But walking the line still means you will go past it on occasion.

I still remember the stories that troubled me: a horror story by Charles Birkin about a couple who had lost a daughter visiting a carnival freak show a few years later and encountering a golden-eyed creature that was probably their daughter, stolen and deformed by an evil doctor; a short story called “The Pace That Kills” about evil traffic wardens, in which I learned that women could be made to pee into bottles to have their alcohol levels checked; and a short story called “Made in USA” by J. T. McIntosh, in which an android girl was forced at knifepoint to undress in front of a gang of boys, to show them that she had no belly button.

There was also a newspaper I read, aged nine or ten, while waiting for my parents, with nothing else to read, that turned out to be a factual sixteen-page description, with photographs, of Nazi concentration camp atrocities and horrors. I read it, and I wished that I had not, because my view of the world was so much darker afterwards. I had known about the millions of people who had been killed—I had lost almost all my European extended family, after all. I had not known about the medical tortures, the cold-blooded, efficient monstrousness that humans had inflicted on other, helpless, humans.

Helplessness upset me. The idea that I could be stolen from my family and turned into a monster and they would not know me. That people could be forced against their will to pee into bottles or forced at knifepoint to take their clothes off—both of which, for me, were about helplessness and embarrassment, that most crippling of English conditions. The stories upset me, and I did not have the engines to deal with them.

I don’t remember ever being bothered by running into references to sex, which, for the most part, I did not actually understand. Adult authors tended to write in something that seemed like code, comprehensible only if you already knew what they were saying.

(Years later, writing a long fairy tale called Stardust, I tried to write a sex scene in the same coded way, and succeeded perhaps too well, as kids seemed barely to notice it, while adults often complained that it was embarrassingly explicit.)

There were things I read as a boy that troubled me, but nothing that ever made me want to stop reading. I understood that we discovered what our limits were by going beyond them, and then nervously retreating to our places of comfort once more, and growing, and changing, and becoming someone else. Becoming, eventually, adult.

I READ EVERYTHING but Young Adult fiction. This was not because I did not like it, merely that I do not remember coming across any as a child or even as a young adult. There was always more adult fiction around than there were children’s books, and at school from the age of about eleven the books that we read in the quiet period after lunch, the books that we passed around, that went from boy to boy as each of us was done with it, were tales of James Bond and Modesty Blaise, Pan Books of Horror Stories, the occult thrillers of Dennis Wheatley, books by authors like Edgar Wallace and Chesterton and Conan Doyle, J. R. R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock, Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury.

There were children’s authors I still read and loved, but the majority of them wrote books I never saw in bookshops, or on any shelves other than my local library’s: Margaret Storey, for example, who wrote magical fantasies that fed my inner landscape in a way that only matched the magic of C. S. Lewis and Alan Garner, or J. P. Martin and his very peculiar books about an enormously rich elephant called Uncle, and Uncle’s battles with Beaver Hateman and the Badfort gang. These were library books, to be read there, or to be borrowed and, reluctantly, returned.

My book-buying habits were driven by thrift. In England, the years immediately following decimalization were years of spiraling prices. I discovered that books priced in shillings would often be half the price of later printings, and so I would rummage my way through the shelves of bookshops checking the prices of books, looking for books priced in shillings, trying to get the most fiction for my limited pocket money. I read so many bad books just because they were cheap, and I discovered Tom Disch, who made up for all of them.

As a child, and as a young adult, I was reading adult fiction and children’s fiction with the same eyes and the same head, and I was reading anything in the space I happened to be in, indiscriminately, which is, I am certain, the best way to read.

I worry when people ask me how to stop their children reading bad fiction. What a child takes from a book is never what an adult takes from it. Ideas that are hackneyed and dull for adults are fresh and new and world-changing for children. And besides, you bring yourself to a book, and children are capable of imbuing words with magic that not even the author knew was there.

I had one book confiscated, when I was twelve, a cold war political farce by David Forrest called And to My Nephew Albert I Leave the Island What I Won off Fatty Hagan in a Poker Game, taken away because, if I remember it correctly, the cover showed two naked female breasts with American and Russian flags painted on them. I tried to get the book back from the teachers by explaining that the cover was misleading and, apart from a sunbathing young lady, there was pretty much no sex or nakedness in the book. This did not work. I eventually got it back from the teachers at the end of term by claiming, falsely, that it was my father’s and I had taken it without his knowledge, and it was, reluctantly, returned.

I had learned not to read books in school with breasts on the cover, or, at least, to cover the covers with something else, if I did.

I was pleased that the Michael Moorcock Jerry Cornelius books I loved when I was twelve, with their surrealistic and extreme sex scenes, had such innocent, mostly breastless, covers.

And, of course, I learned the wrong lessons from this. Because I loved adult fiction as a child, when my daughter Holly developed a fondness for R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps books at the age of eleven or twelve, I dashed down to my library and returned with a paperback copy of Stephen King’s Carrie. “If you like those, you’ll love this,” I told her.

Holly spent the rest of her early teen years reading books in which cheerful young heroines traveled in covered wagons across the plains, and in which nothing conceivably nasty ever happened to anyone. And, even fifteen years later, sometimes, when Stephen King comes up in conversation, she glares at me.

AMERICAN GODS CONTAINS scenes that I would not want a child to read, mostly because I would not want to explain those scenes to a child who had read them and demanded an explanation.

I do not worry about a ten-year-old picking it up and reading it, though. I think any young reader not ready for it would be bored by it. Kids censor their own reading, and dullness is the ultimate deterrent.

I’VE BEEN A professional writer, earning my living through my words, for thirty years now. I have written books for adults and I have written books for children.

I have written several books for adults that were awarded the Alex Award by YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association, for being books for adults that younger readers enjoyed.

I have written books for children that were later republished in respectable editions which adults could buy and read in public without fear of being thought childish.

I have won awards for writing for adults, and awards for writing for children. I published my first book for children, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, almost fifteen years ago now.

So it is embarrassing to admit that, as I write this, as I read it, and for most of the last five months, I have been trying to work out what a children’s book is, and what an adult book is, and which one I was writing, and why.

I think that in general the key question of what is children’s fiction is answered in the same way as pornography, on the “I know it when I see it” principle. And that is true, up to a point.

But Coraline was only published as a children’s book because Morgan DeFiore lied.

Her mother, Merrilee Heifetz, has been my literary agent for the last twenty-five years, and is the person whose opinion in all matters of books and publishing I trust the most. I sent her Coraline, and her opinion was that it wasn’t a children’s book. It was too scary for children.

“I will tell you what,” I told her. “Why don’t you read it to your girls? If they’re scared by it, we’ll send it to my adult editor.” Her girls were Emily, aged eight, and Morgan, aged six.

She read it to them, and they loved it, and they wanted to know what happened next. When she got to the end she called me and said, “They weren’t scared. I’m sending it to Harper Children’s.”

Some years later I was sitting next to Morgan DeFiore, who was then about fifteen, at the off-Broadway opening night of a Coraline musical. I told my now-wife, Amanda, the story, and explained that it was because Morgan was not scared that Coraline was a children’s book. And Morgan said, “I was terrified. But I wasn’t going to let on that I was scared, because then I wouldn’t have found out how it ended.”

IN THE LAST year I’ve written three books.

I wrote a picture book called Chu’s Day about a baby panda who sneezes. It may be the simplest book I’ve ever written. It’s the only time I’ve ever imagined myself writing a book that I intended to be read to children who could not yet read.

It exists because none of my children’s picture books have ever been published in mainland China. They have been published in Hong Kong and in Taiwan, but there has never been a Neil Gaiman-written picture book in China because, I was told, in my books the children do not respect their parents enough, and they do bad things without getting properly punished, and there is anarchy and destruction and insufficient respect for authority. So it became a goal of mine to create a picture book that would contain all of these things and also be published in mainland China.

I wrote it, and I drew pictures for it, to show an artist what happened, and I gave it to my publisher, who gave it to Adam Rex, who painted much better pictures for it, and I am still waiting to find out if it will be published in China.

Still, a baby panda who sneezes.

It’s a children’s book which I wrote, peculiarly, with an adult audience in mind. I wrote it because I wanted a picture book of mine to be read in China. I wrote it to make children imagine and dream and exult and pretend to be pandas and pretend to sneeze, so I wrote a book that I hoped adults would enjoy reading to children, and, more importantly, enjoy reading the tenth time that week or the third time that night.

It contains a simple world, in which a small child is not listened to, but should have been, with disastrous consequences for everyone except the child. The pictures are beautiful and filled with detail.

And as I made it, I looked at it with two sets of eyes: was I making a book I would have liked as a very small boy? Was I making a book that I would enjoy reading as a parent—soon, perhaps, as a grandparent, for life goes so quickly?

That was the first book.

I wrote another book, almost definitely for children. It was called Fortunately, the Milk. It was intended, when I began it, to be as short as The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, to which it was a thematic sequel. That was a book that contained a father physically present but so absent that children were able to swap him for other things, like a gorilla mask, or an electric guitar, or a white rabbit, or a goldfish, while he simply read the newspaper. I thought I should redress the balance. I would write about a father who would have incredibly exciting adventures, or at least, claim to have had them, while going to get milk for his children’s breakfast cereal.

The book grew until it was entirely too long to be a children’s picture book, then ran out of words before it was long enough to be a novel.

My editor’s first, perfectly sensible question to me was, since this was a children’s book, why was a father the hero? Shouldn’t it, couldn’t it, have been his son, our narrator, who had the amazing adventures? Which meant that I had to ponder whether an adult protagonist was right for this kind of children’s book.

I had no rational response, mostly because the book had not been written or composed or even conceived rationally. It was a book about a father who went out for milk and came back late and related his unbelievably exciting adventures to his disbelieving and unimpressed children. It was called Fortunately, the Milk. It was not created, rationally or otherwise: I had simply described it, as if I had stumbled across it and needed to record it for the world. I could not have changed it because that was what it was.

So the father remains the hero, and is the one who returns with the milk.

The third book I wrote is the one that inspired the title of this talk, and is the reason why I puzzle and I wonder.

It has a working title of Lettie Hempstock’s Ocean.* It is written, almost entirely, from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy. It has magic in it—three strange, science-fictional witches who live in an ancient farmhouse at the bottom of the protagonist’s lane. It has some unusually black and white characters, including the most absolutely evil creature I’ve made since Coraline’s Other Mother. It has Sense of Wonder in it, and strangeness. It’s only fifty-four thousand words long, short for an adult book, but for years considered the perfect length of a juvenile. It has everything in it I would have loved as a boy …

And I don’t think it’s for kids. But I’m not sure.

It’s a book about child helplessness. It’s a book about the incomprehensibility of the adult world. It’s a book in which bad things happen—a suicide sets the story in motion, after all. And I wrote it for me: I wrote it to try and conjure my childhood for my wife, to evoke a world that’s been dead for over forty years. I set it in the house I grew up in and I made the protagonist almost me, the parents similar to my parents, the sister an analogue of my sister, and I even apologized to my baby sister because she could not exist in this fictional version of events.

I would make notes for myself as I wrote it, on scraps of paper and in margins, to try to work out whether I was writing a book for children or for adults—which would not change the nature of the book, but would change what I did with it once it was done, who would initially publish it and how. They were notes that would say things like “In adult fiction you can leave the boring bits in,” and “I don’t think I can have the scene where his father nearly drowns him in the bath if it’s a kids’ book, can I?”

I reached the end of the book and realized that I was as clueless as when I began. Was it a children’s book? An adult book? A young adult book? A crossover book? A … book?

I once wrote the English-language script for a beautiful and prestigious foreign animated film, and was asked by the film company, before I began, to try and include some swearwords in there somewhere, as they needed to be sure that the film had at least a PG-13 certificate. But I don’t think it’s swearing that makes fiction adult.

What makes a book an adult book is, sometimes, that it depicts a world that’s only comprehensible if you are an adult yourself.

Often the adult book is not for you, not yet, or will only be for you when you’re ready. But sometimes you will read it anyway, and you will take from it whatever you can. Then, perhaps, you will come back to it when you’re older, and you will find the book has changed because you have changed as well, and the book is wiser, or more foolish, because you are wiser or more foolish than you were as a child.

I have told you all this in the hopes that the action of writing it all down and of talking to you would clarify things for me, that it would shine a perfect and illuminating light on that most vexing of questions, what the fuck is a children’s book anyway?

And I have talked a lot tonight, but I suspect I have not answered the question. Not really.

But then, you do not come to authors for answers. You come to us for questions. We’re really good at questions.

And I hope that, in the days, and weeks, and years to come, the question of where the dividing lines between adult and children’s fiction really are, and why they blur so, and whether we truly need them—and who, ultimately, books are for—will rise up in your mind when you least expect it to, and vex you, as you also are unable, in an entirely satisfactory manner, to answer it.

And if that is the case, then our time together has been worthwhile. I thank you.

I gave this as the 2012 Zena Sutherland Lecture. It’s given in Chicago every year in honor of the late Zena Sutherland, an internationally recognized scholar of young people’s literature.