The Broad Spectrum of Children’s Point of View in Literature: The Child That’s In Us
Not every book for adults is also a book for children, but the opposite is, luckily for us, true: children’s books are a rewarding and enriching experience for everyone, adults included.
The good author of literature for children is gifted with the precious and rare quality of thinking like a child in an adult body. In what we could define as a sort of emphatic relationship, he has the capacity to identify with the young protagonist of the story – and this is why we feel the writer particularly close to his character’s inner and outer journeys throughout the book.
Books for children speak to – and affect – us on many levels in a way that few books of other genres are able to. But the greatest ones are those where the writer’s and the child’s point of view intersect, melting together. It is a clever, interesting device, which defines the author’s mastery in writing good literature and leaves the reader with a subtle yet engaging confusion: was it the young character who started taking control over the writing process or did the writer allow himself to write from the privileged perspective of his own younger self?
For each of the four points of this list there is a book that is only indicative of the many other children books that are worth listing, but more than others it is successful in that it is not dedicated to children only, allowing adults the chance to see the world just as a child would see it. What these books have in common is that – no matter through which technique the author succeeded in conveying it – there is a strong feeling that the writer is deeply linked to his young character – often to the point of not being able to identify who’s who. To communicate through the powerful imagination of the child is an uncommon but very special gift, as if a breach on that far world would always remain open for that hidden side of every author who writes authentically, wholeheartedly for children and for everyone else.
Call it Sleep by Henry Roth
Standing before the kitchen sink and regarding the bright brass faucets that gleamed so far away, each with a bead of water at its nose, slowly swelling, falling, David again became aware that this world had been created without thought of him. (…) Where did the water come from that lurked so secretly in the curve of the brass? Where did it go, gurgling in the drain? What a strange world must be hidden behind the wall of a house!
This novel does not come exactly under the books-for-children category. It is primarily one for adults, but David’s point of view enriches it of a child-like perspective on the world. This illuminating novel of the years of the Great American Depression was written by the genial though misunderstood mind of Henry Roth. Unlucky, because born under the bad star of those hard years, the book was to be welcomed in a controversy way and was soon forgotten by its contemporaries just to be later republished in 1964, when a deserved and actual success began exactly thirty years after the first publication.
David Schearl is the young protagonist of this Bildungsroman, which covers three years of his childhood. He is a very sensitive, curious, but also scared, six-years-old son of Jewish immigrants who has to find his own way in the Lower East Side. As we read on, we accompany him through the difficulties of being a kid growing up during years of recession and crisis, when poor people such as his father – a mostly angry, violent and resentful man – had hard times finding a job. His relationship with Genya, his mother, is completely different and is enlivened by a strong corresponded affection, which allows to glimpse, through a quite unhealthy attachment, the sign of the Oedipal complex suffered by him.
Among several adventures, discoveries and new meetings, what determines most the journey towards his personal growth is David’s approach to religion. As he starts his education at the synagogue, he begins to see the world in a different way: everything seems to have a hidden meaning out there; under the shadows, everything seems to retain a secret light – something that David starts to associate with God’s presence in the human experience. It is at this level that the novel reaches its highest tone and most sublime meaning. Light is the metaphor for God, and David’s mission seems to become that of looking for it in as many places as he can, and to flush it out. This intense and spiritual experience almost lead him close to death, when in a dangerous experiment with a piece of zinc inserted in a streetcar track the electricity was released in a powerful discharge; in that moment, David feels as closest as he can to God.
The novel is rich in streams of consciousness, one of whose culminates at the end of the story, where language is rarefied and meanings difficult to decipher. There are many challenging aspects to this reading. The choice of a highly poetical language in some passages, alternated with a mixture of Yiddish and vernacular English, is one of them. But most of all, Roth’s novel is appealing because visually strong: the book is full of images conveying a symbolical message and issues of good and bad, in particular, are rendered with a complex apparatus of images of light versus darkness. Call It Sleep is undoubtedly sustained by a realistic view of the world, but what stands out is David’s own reality: at the core of the book there are his impressions, his perceptions often reported to extremes to allow us to seize even the most elusive and transient of his thoughts. Even in the most harsh and unpleasant moments the reader is guided across David’s world with his gentleness in a perfect, though hard, balance between what stands outside and the naïve filter with which the author protects us and through which David sees – but never misinterprets – the world.
All one had to do was to imagine that it wasn’t there, just as the cellar in one’s house could be conjured away if there were a bright yard between the hallway and the cellar-stairs. One needed only a bright yard.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
You must be very patient – answered the fox. You’ll sit first a little away from me, like that, in the grass. I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye and you will say nothing. Language is source of misunderstanding. But every day, you can sit a little closer…
The Little Prince is one of the books everyone possesses an indirect knowledge of, whether it has been read or not: the image of a young, blond, lonely boy has accompanied our imagery and occupied our unconscious since forever. First published in English in 1943 and soon after in French, the book is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s absolute chef d’oeuvre and one of the most renowned and meaningful books in world’s literature.
The title anticipates the main character, but as for all the greatest artistic creations, we do not really need to be introduced to him. All readers probably have their own mysterious reason why the young boy, who speaks with such immediacy to our sensitivity, is someone to be fond of. It is part of his charming nature the fact that he does not have a real name or age, because he is a powerful emblem, a collector of meanings, an empowered human being. The young prince is probably Saint-Exupery’s alter ego, a character he created as a self-reminder, and a promise, not to forget how it is to be a child. The book is, therefore, the proof that he held his personal promise: always remember that childhood is the most precious time in life, and do not forget it as you grow up. Saint-Exupery is a master in the arduous attempt to write both as an adult and as a child, and the sweetness as well as the melancholy tone of the book both come from his ability to preserve an exquisitely childlike taste all over it.
What we know of the prince, what he allows us to know through the writer who is a character himself, is that he lives in a small asteroid, B-612, alone except for the presence of a rose, which he loves dearly, though prematurely. The prince still has to learn what love really means, so he flies away from home in search of a friend. In each of the planets he visits, he meets someone – the king, the tippler, the lamplighter… – discovering adults’ eccentricity and weaknesses, learning from their faults, until he lands in the earth. There he meets the most important character of the book, the fox, which teaches him the true meaning of affection in relationships and what it means to “create bonds” by creating one with him. At this point of his voyage the prince can finally see the precious value and uniqueness of what he is and of the things he loves, the difficulty to keep affections alive, the sadness that they entail, but also the happiness that springs from them. He leaves the fox enriched with the awareness of her secret, “that it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Only by means of his heart and of the memories it disclosed could he see clearly the rarity of his rose and the responsibility that came from having tamed it, that is for loving it. This fable points the way to happiness as a consequence of looking deep onto the feelings and memories that hide behind all that we love, in order to see how special it is. Affections change the way we see the world, they transform it under the power of our memories, because “nothing in the universe can be the same if somewhere, we do not know where, a sheep that we never saw has – yes or no? – eaten a rose…”.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.
Earnest Hemingway’s precious and frank statement is undoubtedly a clue of the importance of this book and of all the meanings it carries within. Written in an 1885 vernacular English and born with as simple an intention as being a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it ended up being a masterpiece and a model to American, and world, literature. This adventurous piece of narrative tells the story of a friendship between an escaped slave, Jim, and an orphan, the young rascal known as Huck Finn. In the voyage undertaken through South America, Mississippi and Ohio, this eccentric couple of friends shares a personal and common purpose: freedom, both from the restraints of daily life – the impositions and expectations of education and adults’ duplicity – and from social inequality and men’s reciprocal narrow-mindedness.
This novel shows how every child can teach adults how to live; it is a moral book but with no intent to be so. No matter how Twain mockingly warns us that “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot” – we cannot help but see how satire, concepts of right and wrong are made lighter in Huck’s eyes, who as a child is surrounded by society’s rules but eventually ends up by making up his own moral discernment about life, human beings and their rights. The travel with Jim is a metaphor for a life free of bitter preconceptions, which is objectified into the choice to live outdoors, in the nature and in the sun and therefore be allowed to see things clearly, as they really are. We may initially be amused and smile gently at what we perceive as Huck’s ingénue innocence before the issues of the world, believing in what we have found – that things are more complicated – and be pleased with it. But, sometimes – Huck seems to tell us – things are really simpler than we convince ourselves they are:
It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened – Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judge it would have took too long to make so many.
The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan
The trouble with being a daydreamer who doesn’t say much is that the teachers at school, especially those who don’t know you very well, are likely to think you’re rather stupid. Or, if not stupid, then dull. No one can see the amazing things that are going on in your head.
Assuming that, as adults, our love for children’s books is mostly linked to our need not to let our childish side go but also suggesting that we should abandon the fruitless habit of presuming that literature for children has the exclusive, limited range of children’s taste and favour, McEwan states: “I began to think it might be better to forget about our mighty tradition of children’s literature and to write a book for adults about a child in a language that children could understand.” The Daydreamer is, in fact, a gift to all adults – a gift by means of which its author redefines the boundaries of what is considered children’s literature, refreshing its well-grounded definition, empowering its meaning and showing that it extends on a much larger ground than we think.
McEwan relies on Ovid’s Metamorphoses in order to evoke the aim of his book, “to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind”, something that is paired in Peter’s freedom of mutate things and people up to, eventually, himself. This ability of transition and of change is equally found in the adaptability of the novel’s genre: in the preface, the author declares that his book is both for children and for adults: fascinatingly, both categories are privileged addressees of his stories; “Alone in my study, I read aloud passages to an imaginary child (…) on behalf of this imaginary adult. Ear and tongue, I wanted to please them both.”
Peter Fortune is the young daydreamer of the 7 stories of the novel, a kid who “liked to be alone and think his thoughts.” His continuous stream of fantasies puts him into trouble in relation to an intolerant, misunderstanding reality, but his mind is the place where everything is clear, possible and convincing, where inventiveness and sensitive understanding meet. The outstanding trait of The Daydreamer lies in its leading, inspiring double nature: it not only reconciles grown-ups with their forgotten yet invaluable primeval identities, it also brings children near to the discovery of early adulthood, always in an engaging, humorous tone. From chapter one to seven, the authorial voice harmonizes with Peter’s view so that all we are told and all we know depends on how the child sees the world.
What Peter feels and fears, for example, in The Dolls story is “The Bad Doll”, his sister’s Kate defective doll – a frightening toy with a hostile stare and a frowning smile, a leg and an arm left only – that, he imagines, plans to kill him by leading a revolution that involves the support of all the other dolls of the bedroom. In no time, we see The Bad Doll climbing the bed and seizing Peter’s arms and legs to the dolls’ cries of “What is fair is fair!” so it is bewildering when, the moment after, we are called to experience another facet of the story – its realistic side – which implies that we realize that Peter’s thoughts are a screen to reality, but also that this filter made of solitude, imagination and dreams can be as convincing and powerful a dimension of reality as people’s ordinary view of the world:
Now, you have to try and imagine the scene from where she stood. She had come home from playing with her friend, she had walked into her bedroom, and there was her brother, lying on the spare bed, playing with her dolls, all her dolls, and he was moving them around, and doing their voices. The only one not on the bed was the Bad Doll, which was lying on the carpet nearby.
It is in the wittingly clear artifice of switch between Peter’s and Kate’s perceptions we understand the concreteness of our own daydreaming with Peter, we discover to what extent mind-wandering with him can be nothing less concrete than adults’ solid-shaped, three-dimensional reality. McEwan means to legitimate Peter’s state of rêverie: if we are captured in his bewitching thoughts, if we feel exactly what he feels, we will not deny the authenticity of what has happened. As readers, we are not allowed to skip the dimension of the dream until the author decides that the time spent into Peter’s mind is enough for us to feel disoriented with the reality we have, at some point, recovered, and to acknowledge that at any moment we can be persuaded that the reality we are brought to believe in is an impeccable mental image, the outcome of our immense imaginative power.
In real life, Peter is a silent, observing child staring at things; in his mind, he is the greatest of adventurers. In chapter 4 – “The Bully” – Peter’s conviction that daydreaming is the very substance of reality is completed into a more mature belief. There are times when life really is not only a fleeting projection of our thoughts , but on the contrary is made up of our presumptions, it materializes into the dreams we have had. This implies a certain amount of responsibility for the life we live, and it is exactly what Peter learns by facing Barry Tamerlane, a bully who only behaved like a bully because the school kids, and he himself, had always been fostering this fantasized image of him. By seeing life as a dream, Peter ultimately proves, and learns, that dreams are something powerful, but also that by each owning our personal dream we are free to decide when to wake up from it, what is illusionary, temporary or inconsistent, and what needs to be changed.
The red metal was cool beneath his fingers. It was solid, real. How could it not be there? But then, that was how it was in dreams – everything seemed to be real. It was only when you woke that you knew you had been dreaming. How was he to know he was not dreaming the fire extinguisher, dreaming the red, dreaming the feel of it?
“…to the child whom this grown-up once was”
Every piece of literature for children that really means to be so is readable by everyone, because its sphere of interest is an ever-changing, progressive range of colourful subjects and themes which touches the lightest as well as the most complicated of them. It is not casual that successful narrative among children does not avoid difficult subjects, meaning that it is what children appreciate – to be introduced to reality and to learn, by reading, how to enhance their intelligence by also recognizing their own ability to cope with the unpleasant in life. It is impossible to limit the extension and width of literature for children in terms of what it is able to convey to all of us – a veritable lesson that only the most prosperous writers in children’s books have been able to assimilate. E. B. White was aware of what the etiquette “literature for children” implied for an author with a young audience: to many writers like him it was – and still is – anything but a simplification of the human journey, of our existence. “Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children” he wrote “is likely to wind up stripping his gears.” Adding value and prestige to children’s literature therefore means positively problematizing it, as there is nothing that a child cannot understand when related to even complex matters through sensitivity and a gentle voice.
The world we enter every time that, as grown-ups, we pick up a children’s book empowers us of the privilege of being part of it – a child-centred but non-exclusive, wide and rich reality. Because ultimately, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry teaches us, the line between children and adults is more elusive and inconsistent than it seems and to dedicate a book to an adult – as the French writer did with his beloved friend Leon Werth – is nothing but an act of reawakening, through memory, of the little child that is still somewhere inside him:
I ask children to forgive me for dedicating this book to a grown-up. I have a serious excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up can understand everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs to be comforted. If all these excuses are not enough then I want to dedicate this book to the child whom this grown-up once was. All grown-ups were children first. (But few of them remember it.) So I correct my dedication:
To Leon Werth,
When he was a little boy
- Roth, Henry. Call it Sleep. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Print.
- Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. The Little Prince. London: MacMillan, 2010. Print.
- Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.
- McEwan, Ian. The Daydreamer. London: Vintage, 1995. Print.
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