OK, who's up for some more controversy? Just kidding. This time, what I've got in mind shouldn't earn me so many death threats and marriage proposals; I want to talk about child-reading 'scopophilia', a term slightly nicer than voyeurism: the pleasure adults derive from looking at children reading.
Visual art, in particular painting, is full of children reading, presumably in part because posing for hours is an incredibly boring thing to do for an eight-year-old so it's a good way of keeping them still. Look at the amazing number of paintings on this Pinterest
devoted to that theme.
But it's not just convenience, it's also a fascination of sorts
. There is, apparently, something profoundly romantic, profoundly moving, and also rather erotic, about the image of a child reading. This is by children's literature scholar Peter Hollindale:
One January afternoon many years ago I was window-gazing in the shopping streets of Cheltenham... In the window of an art shop I sawa picture of a boy, lying on his bed, reading. He was dressed in pyjama bottoms, spreadeagled over the bed in an attitude of rapt and intense involvement in his book.... "That", I thought, "is what I want to produce. If being an English teacher is about anything worthwhile, it's about that." (The Hidden Teacher, 2011 p.12)
I don't need to stress the transgressiveness of this description: the adult's delight in this very intimate scene (a child on a bed, lost in his fantasies, in "rapt" and "intense involvement" - onanistic to say the least...) and his desire to elicit such jouissance
in the future, too... Of course, Hollindale is aware of all these innuendos. There is something in visions of children reading that creates longing and a kind of pleasurable loss in the adult viewer.
And art and literature frequently attempt to capture that something.
It's all the more interesting when it happens in a children's book. Matilda
is the perfect example.
Over the next few afternoons Mrs Phelps could hardly take her eyes from the small girl sitting for hour after hour in the big armchair at the far end of the room with a book on her lap. … And a strange sight it was, this tiny dark-haired person sitting there with her feet nowhere near touching the floor, totally absorbed in the wonderful adventures of Pip and old Miss Havisham. (Matilda, 1988 p.19)There's a form of religious adoration in the way adults look at Matilda while she's reading.
Mrs Phelps and Miss Honey are described as 'stunned', 'astounded', 'quivery', 'filled with wonder and excitement.'
What's the position of the child reader when they read this passage? Well, it's quite weird. They're aligned with an adult viewpoint on another child reading, and enticed to take pleasure in it too. But by virtue of being themselves child readers, they're also enticed to see themselves as a pleasurable sight to adults, an object of quasi-religious desire and fervour.
Why are visions of children reading so inspiring for visual artists and authors? It's not just that they like children who are 'absorbed' in a story: the vision of a child 'absorbed' in a film or video game does not have the same effect.
There's something about reading that makes adults particularly nostalgic, and particularly emotional.
Part of it is simply nostalgic remembrance of our own days of reading as a child, if we were also big readers. Part of it is also linked to the ideologically problematic celebration of reading over other activities (
cf previous controversy ok I'll shut up
).But part of it may be also that we can't have access to what exactly the child has in mind when s/he reads
- we may know the book, but what we picture of it in our minds cannot be the same as what s/he is currently picturing. There is mystery there, something secret, and like all secrets of childhood, we are quite fascinated by it.
Maybe we like to see children reading books because there's just enough mystery
are they seeing
there?) and just enough control
(it's a book; s/he's safe). This Goldilocks zone is perfectly titillating.
|is that child reading |
or thinking of something else?
In Claudine's House, French writer Colette writes about how disturbing she finds it when her daughter, Bel-Gazou, is sewing. It is more dangerous, scarier than when she reads, Colette says. When Bel-Gazou reads, "she comes back, looking lost, flushed, from the island with the jewellery-filled chest... She is full of a tried and tested, traditional poison, the effects of which are well-known."But when Bel-Gazou sews, "Let's write the word that scares me: she thinks…" "What are you thinking about, Bel-Gazou?" "Nothing, Mummy."..."Mummy?""Darling?""Is it only when you're married that a man can put his arm around a lady?""Yes... No... It depends... Why are you asking me this?""No reason, Mummy."
With no trace in her daughter's hands of a book that could have triggered these questions, the mother is faced with Bel-Gazou's thoughts in freefall, and a terrifying question - where
are they coming from?
Clementine Beauvais writes children's books in both French and English. The former are of all kinds and shapes for all ages, and the latter a humour/adventure detective series, the Sesame Seade
mysteries, with Hodder. She blogs here
about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine
As writers spruce themselves up in preparation for entering schools on World Book Day in order to bear witness that there are - honest! - real people behind books, I've been thinking about what books I read when I was at primary-school age that really turned me on - and why.
There was a great public library down the road, and, like some kind of ravenous termite, I burrowed through titles as fast as I could: first, E. Nesbitt, Biggles, the Jennings books, Just William, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Swallows and Amazons, Robert Louis Stevenson and Peter Pan.
|Adults hated this.|
But reading these cost me nothing of my prized pocket money. If I cared about reading something enough to part with my precious cash, then I must have really wanted to read it, right? So what were these items?
Firstly, I'm almost ashamed to admit it now, but I bought the whole set of Enid Blyton's Mystery Of
... paperbacks, featuring the Five Find-Outers. These were 2/6d each (12.5p nowadays - nothing. But given that I had 6d a week pocket money that was quite a big deal!).
These books epitomise everything that is completely wrong, from an adult's point of view, about Enid Blyton, being badly written, with sterotyped characters, and containing a character called Fatty. None of that mattered to me of course.
Apart from being page-turning whodunnits, there were three important other elements that made them attractive to this 8 or 9-year old: the children knew best, they solved mysteries without adult help, and the authority figure - usually a policeman - was completely stupid. I suspect the latter reason is particularly why adults frowned upon Blyton. But you can't knock the fact that she published a staggering 752 books in her life. That must be some kind of record. Even if they did have names like Noddy Loses His Clothes
|Matilda - probably the best model reader in the world.|
There's something in the British psyche: Britons are well known for their sense of fair play combined with a healthy disrespect for authority. And I think I know why. Most children's books liked by children perpetrate the idea that children know best - and what is fair - and adults don't. Roald Dahl is the obvious example, just look at Matilda
Then, I'd buy the Beano
. Like thousands of other kids. You won't be surprised if I tell you that Leo Baxendale, whom I've had the pleasure to meet a few times, and who came up with the Bash Street Kids
and Minnie the Minx
, is an out and out anarchist and has been all his life. That's anarchist in the traditional British sense, going all the way back to the Levellers and Robin Hood.
|Leo Baxendale's Bash Street Kids: anarcho-punks in the making.|
He believed that property is theft to the extent that he eventually sued his publishers, DC Thompson, for not paying him any royalties despite the millions they were making from his work - and then settled out of court for an undisclosed sum to pay his mother's medical costs.
And I bought Marvel comics, whether imported or reprinted in the pages of comics Wham!, Smash!, Pow!, Fantastic!
- hundreds of them, because they blew my mind with their sheer imagination. But in retrospect, I reflect that there was something else, something very special that made superheroes attractive to me - and to all kids who love them:
They have secret identities.
|Pure magic. My name is Thorpe. I WAS Thor!|
When bullied, persecuted Peter Parker became Spiderman, he left behind all of his troubles. When puny Bruce Banner transformed into the incredible Hulk, he could smash anybody. When the selfless and lame Don Blake hit his walking stick on the ground, it became Mjolnir, and he was the mighty God of Thunder, a noble Asgardian.
But all of these were secrets known only to themselves - and to me, the reader.
Stan Lee wrote all of these. He is a genius. Like Dahl, Blyton and Baxendale he knew how to create the equivalent of crystal meth on paper. Addictive or what?
These writers are not equal by the way. Today, I can't recall a single Blyton plotline. (And was she the first kids' writer to trademark her name as an instantly-recognisable signature? Is that part of her success - and should we all do this?) By contrast, very many of Stan the Man's stories and characters are burned into my brain. I'd say he was the most prolific of all these writers, and his inventions are the most successful (whether in terms of readership, sales or influence.)
Back to the subject of secret identities. It's not just that every kid longs to have special powers that could help them defeat their enemies (flying, super-strength, invisibility), it's that children have secret lives as well. For many grown-ups these secret lives are forgotten as they get older.
As a child I remember wondering why it was that adults seemed no longer to remember what it was like to be a child themselves, and vowed that I would do my best not to let the memory fade. I don't know whether I do - very well - but I certainly recall that feeling with great intensity.
The powerful idea that you have a secret self, with a special life known only to you, in which you accomplish remarkable deeds, heroic feats - and nobody else (adult) understands, nobody
must even know about this - is surely experienced by all children!
They are all, almost perpetually, engaged in one quest or another, one struggle, one battle, or one tumultuous adventure, whether it is emotional, adventurous, imaginative or intellectual. This is what's going on inside children's minds. All the time.
And this is what the best games, books, TV, films and so on both feed on, and feed into, in the fertile forming minds of children.
Always have. Always will.
I learned via and email from Random House this morning that today is Roald Dahl day, a day to celebrate mischief and mayhem (image to the left is from Random House). How appropriate for a Friday the 13th. The email urges us to "Visit
the official Roald Dahl site for ways to celebrate in your classroom or library
and learn about the man behind the stories: www.roalddahlday.info."
But personally, I just want to talk about my two favorite Dahl stories:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the first Roald Dahl book that I ever read, and I love it to this day. It both captures the childhood imagination and contains biting satire. Such a perfect blend! When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I learned to type. I practiced by copying Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, sitting at the desk in my basement bedroom. I don't remember being bored for even a moment. Who wouldn't love (in regards to TV):
Before this monster was invented?'
Have you forgotten? Don't you know?
We'll say it very loud and slow:
THEY...USED...TO...READ! They'd READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
(You can read the full poem at the RoaldDahlFans.com site.)
Although it is somewhat different from the book (particularly the songs), I also love the movie. The original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder, of course, not the travesty of an unnecessary remake. What child of the 70's doesn't occasionally find herself humming: "Oompa loompa doompety-doo". (Full song lyrics here, if you want them.) And who hasn't dreamed of the chocolate waterfall?
My other favorite Dahl story is Matilda. I'll even go so far in Matilda's case as to say that the movie may be better than the book. But the book is lovely, too. My favorite part of the movie is when young Matilda visits the library, and sits there and reads and reads. The image of this tiny person waiting for the walk light so that she can be with the books that are as necessary as breathing, well, of course it resonates.
My husband and I have already introduced the movie to our three year old daughter. We were a bit worried that she would find it scary, but I think (and this is the beauty of Dahl) that it is so over-the-top that she finds it hilarious. She loves the part where the indifferent parents throw the baby seat loose into the back of the station wagon, so that it careens all over place. I think that witnessing the terrible parents that DeVito and Perlman bring to life so well makes her feel more satisfied with her own life. Or something.
But for me, Matilda is special because we share the eternal love of books, and the knowledge that books can take you anywhere. Happy Roald Dahl Day! (And than you Random House for the idea for this post.)
What are your favorite Dahl books? What will you do to celebrate Roald Dahl Day?
© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate.
#30 Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)
I loved that Dahl wrote completely for children. A kid reading Dahl knows he can make something or be someone or do something, no matter what anyone else around him says or does. – Heather Christensen
It just wouldn’t be right to make a list like this without Dahl. Last time, I included The Witches, my personal favorite as a child, but having just read Matilda to my daughter, I have to admit that this one is probably his best written book. – Mark Flowers
Matilda has the customary humor and bits of vileness that all of Dahl’s children’s books have that make them so fun and so true to life. It has loveliness and celebrates knowledge and reading. It has enthralling writing that you just want to devour and wonderful illustration. But most of all it has somebody to cheer for. Yes she has supernatural power, but in the end it’s Matilda’s sensibility and thoughtfulness, it’s just doing the right thing that leads to the take down of a horrible villain and encourages all the kids around her. She’s someone to root for. And it’s like eating candy, reading this book. One of the best storytellers of all time. You must read him, so why not start here? – Nicole Johnston
Those parents! The Trunchbull! What’s not to love? – Tracy Flynn
Watch out for the quiet ones.
It may surprise some to see Matilda standing higher on this list than poor modest Charlie Bucket. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that while most (not all) Dahl books starred boys of one stripe or another (George, James, Charlie, etc.) Matilda was the only gal to get her name front and center in the title. This is the closest Dahl ever got to a feminist vision, and little girls everywhere love them their Matilda. She was a kind of proto-Harry Potter complete with a nasty family and secret magical abilities. For a certain generation, Matilda was our Harry.
The plot description from the book reads, ” ‘The Trunchbull’ is no match for Matilda! Who put superglue in Dad’s hat? Was it really a ghost that made Mom tear out of the house? Matilda is a genius with idiot parents – and she’s having a great time driving them crazy. But at school things are different. At school there’s Miss Trunchbull, two hundred menacing pounds of kid-hating headmistress. Get rid of the Trunchbull and Matilda would be a hero. But that would take a superhuman genius, wouldn’t it?”
This could be all heresay and conjecture, but at a past ALA event I spoke with an editor who told me that Dahl’s original vision for Matilda was quite the opposite of the final product. By all accounts, Dahl wanted Matilda to be a nasty little girl, somewhat in the same vein of Belloc’s Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death. Revision after revision turned her instead into the sweet little thing we all know and love today. He retained her tendency towards revenge, however, and I think that’s another reason the book works as well as it does. In the end Matilda bore some similarities to James and the Giant Peach, though Dahl had the guts to go and make the actual parents in this book the bores, and not just mere aunties.
- In the book Revolting Recipes, there is a recipe for the chocolate cake The Trunchbull makes poor little Bogtrotter devour. That also happens to be my favorite scene, you know.
- True fan dedication.
Publishers Weekly said of it, “Adults may cringe at Dahl’s excesses in
Durn. This is what I get for not doing a Fusenews in a while. A whole plethora of good stuff! Let’s see what we can use up in a single day, eh?
For the record, if you haven’t read these Hunger Games comics (in the style of Kate Beaton, no?) then now’s the time. They’re surprisingly good.
Good old poetry month. From spine poems to 30 Poets / 30 Days the celebrations are magnificent. Go ye, seek out and find.
- I won’t normally link to podcasts but this recent Scriptnotes that covers how a screenwriter options a novel he wants to adapt includes a discussion of older children’s books that were considered for screen adaptation. FYI!
- On the one hand they’re 9 Barbies Based on Books. On the other hand, if that Edward doesn’t sparkle and glow in the dark then I hope the people who purchased him got their money back. Thanks to bookshelves of doom for the link.
- When I worked the reference desk I got a lot of Stumpers. Folks would ask me to come up with a beloved book from their childhood and I would try to figure it out. If I couldn’t find it I’d take down all their information and ask PUBYAC on their behalf. If that didn’t work I’d suggest Loganberry Books, even though they charge money. Would that I had known about Whatsthatbook.com. A free site where folks post their stumpers and other folks answer them, it’s pretty cool. Sometimes I just like hearing the wacky descriptions. Current favorite: “Young girl reading to an older lady, girl almost gets caught in quicksand”. I hate it when that happens.
- Hello, under-a-rock denizens. J.K. Rowling’s newest book is going to be released. Hope you like community politics!!!
- Do Childish People Write Better Children’s Books? Dude, if you want to walk up to Maurice Sendak and inform him that he is childish, be my guest. I’m just gonna go hide behind this sturdy concrete pillar over here until the spatter of your remains stops with the spattering.