Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Writing for Children

I've been reading The Lottie Project by Jacqueline Wilson to my daughter, Beauty. I have to confess that I look forward to the evening read specifically because this book is so excellent. My first foray into Wilson, and I'm hooked.

The story moves between Charlie's account of her life at school and with her young mother, Jo, and sections excerpted from Charlie's Victorians school project. She has hit upon the idea of writing her project in the form of a kind of diary, the servant girl Lottie's life. Each chapter about Charlie is headed with themes such as 'Family', 'Sunday, 'Courtship' and so on. As the story unfolds, we realize that each chapter is then mirrored or echoed by Lottie, who discusses a parallel theme in her own life. Charlie and Lottie are two halves of the same person, modern day Charlotte, and her imagined understanding of a Victorian underling.

Jo is a single mum. The way Wilson writes about single parent family life opens up the issue in a way that avoids false pathos and sentimental or sanctimonious pity and schadenfreude. The only quibble is that Jo, the mother, comes originally from a very middle class background. This gives plenty of comic fodder in the form of her snobbish parents, who feel she has 'fallen on hard times', and are chary of supporting her in her fallenness. However, what this characterization avoids is opening the Pandora's box of single motherhood for a young woman without the advantages of education that Jo appears to have had. Wilson is still having to rely on the indices of normality which in fact demonstrate privilege. Although Charlie's family unit is not financially well off, it is educationally and culturally above average. She has not been to or heard of the V & A, but this does not automatically correlate with cultural impoverishment. It's made clear that Charlie is clever, and interested in her history project, although not in the same academic way as her friend James Edwards.

Wilson's intention seems to be more to invert the novelistic family norm: she wants to open the notion of the family, and look at other models than the one so often portrayed in fiction for children (although it is surprising how often the family lacks a father, eg Swallows and Amazons, The Farawar Tree series).

Wilson's device of setting her story in the very researching of Charlie's Victorians project is actually much more compelling than the issue of how she treats single motherhood. This gives a fabulous formal structure that is easy for a young reader to grasp and eminently 'literary'. It gives automatic licence to discuss Victorian literature, through the character of the studious James. And it demystifies history, allowing it to be a version of a story among others -- in this case, the rarely shown perspective of the servant girl, forced to live away from her own home, and look after the children of the rich, while unable to see her own mother.

Marjorie Blackman's prose poem Cloud Busting is another fabulously inventive, teasing, and questioning story for children. It takes the perspective of a boy whose erstwhile credibility has rested on being the class bully. A new boy arrives at his school, who looks like a bit of a wimp. Despite himself, Sam makes friends with the new boy, but refuses to display this friendship. One day the boy saves Sam from an oncoming car. This binds them together. The boy tells him that he is allergic to nuts, and asks him not to tell anyone else, but Sam forgets, and tells his so-called best friend, Alex. Alex, for a joke, feeds the boy a peanut butter sandwich, and the boy nearly dies. Sam realizes that he has been a coward, and is the real cause of the accident. The boy stays at the school for a time, but no longer looks at Sam, and eventually his mother takes him out of the school. Sam writes the poem as a response to a task set by his English teacher, incriminating himself, confessing, and meditating on his friendship with the unusual, highly imaginative boy.

The language in the poem is very simple. It is divided into chapter-like sections, each using a distinct rhythm or rhyme scheme which amplifies the unfolding narrative. There are a series of revelations -- not least that Sam is the bully the poem discusses, and that the boy survives the accident -- the impression that he is dead runs through most of the poem. This is heavy stuff for young readers, but Blackman unpeels her real quarry: loyalty, honesty and the nature of friendship. There is more the a suggestion that the boy represents the possibilities of the imagination and of writing, undone by the real world with its hierarchies, sociopathies and instrumentalism.

I have learnt as much from re-reading children's literature or discovering new authors as I ever have from studying French literature. Thank God for good children's writers, the trailblazers for my children's future private pleasures.

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