Now we are sick

Victorian children's stories (Alice apart) instilled a sense of moral values. Now books tell our children that we live in a troubled society with no answers. As a series of talks begins on the subject, Michael Glover discusses how literature constructs the experience of being very young
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The Independent Culture
Growing up is a fearful experience at the best of times. Children have to suffer the attentions of overbearing adults, so noisy and bullying in their flimsy certitudes; they have to come to terms with the maturation of their own bodies, which is often a bewildering, if not a frightening, experience; and they are forever in conflict within their own peer groups, fighting each other tooth and claw for domination.

According to adults, one route to maturity and self-knowledge is through the development of the reading habit. But books written for children are by no means a simple business because they are often written with a calculated design upon young readers.

In Victorian times, the moralising habits of children's writers were crude in the extreme. Books were didactic tools, inculcators of moral precepts. Literature consisted of a series of simple tales of right and wrong, the meting out of rewards and punishments. Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, though among the best of these entertainments, is not essentially any different from the rest: life is a vale of tribulations which, if successfully endured, will enable the soul to come out on the other side washed clean. That was the norm.

But there was one great exception to that norm in the person of Lewis Carroll. The Alice books do not resort to the use of story as a shamelessly crude vehicle for conveying morality. In fact, there is no morality whatsoever in the Alice books. The redoubtable heroine pits her wits against all the other characters in an unpredictable and essentially godless universe. There are no rewards - and a bewildering variety of punishments on offer.

Regrettably, Carroll didn't keep it up. Much later in his life he wrote a book called Sylvie and Bruno. Based on a sequence of fairy stories told to the children of the Marquess of Salisbury, it is by comparison with its two great predecessors disappointingly hide-bound and sentimental. Perhaps the Salisbury children had been uninspiring and uninquisitive listeners - quite the opposite, in fact, of the young Liddells who had inspired Alice. And, as an old man, Carroll was even guilty of betraying the anarchic spirit of Alice, too - he spoke of it in moral terms entirely unsuited to the kind of creature that it was.

The children who are represented in what are generally regarded as the classics of Victorian children's literature were also completely de-sexualised. According to Julia Briggs, Professor of English and Women's Studies at De Montfort University, this too was quite calculated. "It was in order to dissociate the middle-class child from what was happening to the working- class children in the street, the sexual abuse that they were obliged to suffer, the degradation, the prostitution."

By the early years of the 20th century, and the beginnings of the so- called Golden Age of children's literature - the dawning of the era of AA Milne and, a little later, Arthur Ransome - childhood was being depicted in a rather different way: as a whimsically dreamy state, an almost ideal existence in which the child, wandering freely down the meadow towards that purling, pooh-sticky stream, was positively encouraged to indulge in what the critic and Professor of Psychology at the University of Sussex, Nicholas Tucker has described as "endearing mischief" (Huck Finn was endearingly mischievous too, though some years earlier).

These books, which still resonate tremendously within the private-school sector, were the products of a stable, middle-class society in which daddy, though always a shadowy figure, could be expected to have a solid job and a meerschaum pipe in his fist. All that has now vanished. Children's writers now have no room for the loveable, mischievous child, and the idea of that dreamy, socially static childhood simply doesn't fit in with a world of technological change that is, generally speaking, uncertain of its future.

As Nicholas Tucker explains: "Nowadays, children's writers can't separate the idea of childhood from the economy. Children are seen in the light of what they are likely to become in later life, in terms of what they are going to cost their parents." Children are no longer allowed to indulge in simple, old-fashioned meadow-play.

This is the era of the problem novel without any trite solution. There is a double unease here: about the nature of childhood itself, and about how particular children are likely to develop. Once upon a time it was the children who had all the adventures - now it's just as likely to be the adults, fancy free all over again after that hobbling divorce settlement.

And so, sad though it may seem, it is becoming quite difficult to find books about happy children these days. In the era of Milne, on the other hand, it almost seemed that to have a happy, carefree time was any child's birthright. (And it was of course, a dream that was shared by all those less fortunate child readers, too).

For a sharp, if somewhat bitter, taste of what is happening in children's books these days, consider the plot of the book that has just won the children's books category of the Whitbread Award. Anne Fine's The Tulip Touch is about a child with a best friend - but, my god, what a best friend! This friend happens to be a murderer and an arsonist, and the story is the disturbing account of one child's domination by another. Does this mean that anything goes in children's books now? Not quite.

Taboos still exist, and this is most evident when the subject of drugs is broached. As Nicholas Tucker explains: "In spite of the fact that there is a drugs culture among young people in certain sectors of society, for any children's writer to represent that as a norm would be enormously problematical because they would be accused of corrupting children." And yet, in spite of that, there is at least one first-rate author for children who has tackled the subject without flinching: Melvin Burgess in a novel called Junk, which is about three children who become junkies.

But to talk exclusively in terms of the children's writer's designs upon the child is to simplify just a little too much. Consider the case of Alan Garner, for example. In the 1960s, Garner published several works of fantasy that were immediately recognised as classics of their own peculiar kind: The Owl Service, Elidor and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. All these titles were published as books for children, though Garner himself has always refused, usually quite belligerently, to be pigeon-holed as a "children's books writer". What he says about the matter, in his own characteristically meticulous way, is this: "The fact is that children under 18 respond to these books with a greater understanding and an intensity far beyond that of adults..." What is more, Garner would deny absolutely that he has any designs upon his readers - whoever they happen to be. "I have no conscious message to put across," he says. "I didn't know the reader."

What he would argue is that the difficult circumstances of his earlier life are not unusual for a writer of children's books. For much of his childhood he was seriously ill - with diphtheria and meningitis among other things. An only child in war time, he felt enormously isolated. At the age of six he was pronounced dead - or as good as dead - by two doctors within his own hearing. He went berserk. "I think it was adrenaline which carried me through that crisis."

These were years of terrible suffering. "I was forced into myself to stay sane. I had experiences in childhood which I thought entirely normal at the time, but which were, of course not normal. As I lay in that white- washed room with cheese-cloth over the windows, my brain strove to react against sensory deprivation. I had out-of-body experiences. My sense of paralysis became the genesis of the dead land of Elidor..."

Garner was therefore not so much consciously and deliberately constructing a vision of childhood as transmogrifying his own tortured experiences of being a child through literaturen

Writers and critics - Julia Briggs, Alan Garner, Nicholas Tucker, Anthony Clare, Michael Rosen, Hermione Lee, Helen Dunmore, Blake Morrison, Seamus Deane, Dermot Healy, Diane Samuels and Michael Bakewell, the biographer of Lewis Carroll - will be talking about the construction and deconstruction of childhood in literature in `After Alice', a series of talks at the Royal Festival Hall, SBC, London, from Feb 1 (booking: 0171-960 4242)