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.