From The Guardian:
I have been writing children’s fiction for more than 10 years now, and still I would hesitate to define it; it is a slippery, various, quicksilver thing. But I do know, with more certainty than I usually feel about anything, what it is not: it is not exclusively for children. When I write, I write for two people, myself, age 12, and myself, now, and the book has to satisfy two distinct but connected appetites.
My 12-year-old self wanted autonomy, peril, justice, food and above all a kind of density of atmosphere into which I could step and be engulfed. My adult self wants all those things, and also: acknowledgments of fear, love, failure. So what I try for when I write – failing often, but trying – is to put down in as few words as I can the things that I most urgently and desperately want children to know and adults to remember.
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Those of us who write for children are trying to arm them for the life ahead with everything we can find that is true. And perhaps also, secretly, to arm adults against those necessary compromises and heartbreaks that life involves: to remind them that there are and always will be great, sustaining truths to which we can return.
When you read a children’s book, you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra. But imagination is not and never has been optional: it’s at the heart of everything, the thing that allows us to experience the world from the perspectives of others, the condition precedent of love itself. For that we need books that are specifically written to give the heart and mind a galvanic kick – children’s books. Children’s fiction necessitates distillation; at its best, it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka.
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The Paddington books by Michael Bond
There’s a vivid and obvious lesson in Paddington, about refuge. Paddington turns up at our door, with nothing to commend himself but his existence and his excellent hat, and we must take him in. We must cherish him, because he lives – and Michael Bond is telling us, like William Blake before him, that everything that lives is holy.
But there’s more: for Bond, I think, structure is a form of metaphor, and the stories can be read as parables. So each individual Paddington story usually has some kind of mishap: for instance, Paddington drops a sandwich; a man slips on it. Disaster! But then the man proves to be a burglar, and his stolen goods spill out at the bear’s feet: triumph! The books tell us that if we zoom out we will see that inside each disaster there is a cog, propelling us towards potential goodness. Baked into the structure of the stories, small as they are, is Bond’s colossal central truth: larger than the world’s chaos are its miracles. Paddington asks us to trust, if only for a brief gasp, for the length of the book, in the world’s essential nobility. The books are oxygen for those, like me, who doubt.
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His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
Lyra, Pullman’s ferocious heroine, one of the greatest ever written, a girl with quick wit and tooth-and-claw loyalty and a loose hand with the truth, voyages to the underworld. At first, on meeting the harpies who guard the realm of the dead, she lies – tells them what she thinks they want to hear. The harpies go for her, dive‑bombing her and scraping at her skull with their talons. And so instead, she tells her own story: about pain, loss, hope and grubbiness, love and mistakes. The harpies listen. Lyra’s companion asks why they did not attack, this time: “‘Because it was true,’ said No‑Name. ‘Because she spoke the truth. Because it was nourishing. Because it was feeding us. Because we couldn’t help it. Because it was true.’”
Link to the rest at The Guardian