I have found a manifesto for children’s literature, and I am nailing my colours to it. It is called “Books, Children & Men“, and was written by Paul Hazard.
Paul Hazard was a French intellectual (and a member of the French Academy) who lived from 1878 to 1944. He is best known for his surprisingly readable book about the Enlightenment, The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715, which is available in Kindle. I bought my paperback copy of Books, Children & Men on eBay as it is now long out of print. I have to say that it is so well written, even in translation, that it is almost like poetry. It has me totally charmed, and it is already starting to influence my own writing and outlook on life.
The book is a review of classic children’s literature – European and American – but it is so much more than that: It is a polemic against pushy parents, pedantic teachers, and over-zealous nannies who oppress the magic of childhood. It is also about the nature of art, and has plenty to say about the way we see the world – or perhaps about how we don’t see the world – as adults. It is definitely about the way children see the world, and as such, is invaluable to any writer for children.
In the introduction to the English edition, published in 1944, Horatio Smith describes Hazard as a scholar of books (of course) and also as ” a student of humanity” and that is what comes across so strongly in his writing, and makes it so attractive.
The first chapter is entitled:
Men Have Always Oppressed Children
Give us Wings !
So let’s start by quoting his opening paragraphs at some length, for they give us a taste of the riches that he is in store for us:
“Children and grownups belong to different world. Time, which deals so ruthlessly with the body, is only too often just as pitiless with the soul. Adults are rarely free; they are prisoners of themselves. Even when they play it is self-consciously for that reason. They play in order to relax, to forget, to keep from thinking of the brief time they have left to them. They seldom play for the sheer joy of playing.
“How far removed is the world of childhood! its inhabitants seem of another species. Tireless, full of the exuberance of life, from morning to night they run, shout, quarrel, make up and fall asleep only to being next day at sunrise. Their awkward young bodies are already imperious. Children are rich with all they do not own, rich with the potential wonders of the universe.”
“Children are rich with the potential wonders of the universe” and the best children’s stories are also rich with those wonders. One of the great joys of having children is seeing the world again through their eyes – fresh, vivid and thrilling. I believe only travel can approach childhood for the feeling of being truly alive. I remember how, as a young adult of 28, I first arrived in the Soviet Union, and saw the signs in Cyrillic, the empty shops with symbols of bread on the window, and the Soviet Workers on the Metro, those alien people who lived behind the Iron Curtain, and I could hardly believe my eyes; I was not quite sure if it was real or not, and I thought “Everything is Amazing !” and then I recalled “This is how I saw the world when I was a child !”
So now, having given you the beginning of Hazard’s book, let’s skip towards the end. As Hazard conducts his literary tour of Europe, he finds the Northern countries superior to the Southern ones in their writings for children (though he prefers the South in everything else ! ) I have no views on the North / South question but I do recognize the two versions of adulthood that he is describing.
“For the Latins, children have never been anything but future men. The Nordics have understood better this is the truer truth, that men are only grown-up children.”
I know that I am a proud member of the second category of man. I know that Natasha, who tells our stories, belongs there too (as a woman of course, but people wrote slightly differently about “man / humankind” in Hazard’s day). Anyone who has heard Natasha read the Snow Queen knows that she sees that the universe is full of wonder. I know from working with Richard that he is there too – when he relates the stories, he perfectly understands the exuberance of childhood.
I will say it now – I can’t stand comfy, folksy, fireside readings of children’s stories – All they are good for is going to sleep by. They represent the sort of childhood that overprotective grown-ups value, not children.
I would go further and say that people who have lost touch with childhood are pompous and self-delusional. But I suppose our complex society needs those sorts of people too – perhaps we need senior partners in accountancy, management consultancy, and law firms? Or then again, perhaps we don’t.
If you are going to write or narrate or act for children, you have to be in touch with the magic of childhood. You have to remember the thrill of it. And also the injustice of it. In the words of George Eliot in the Mill on the Floss:
“These bitter sorrows of childhood! when sorrow is all new and strange, when hope has not yet got wings to fly beyond the days and weeks, and the space from summer to summer seems measureless.”
You also have to remember what children laugh at. Okay, it is a bit tiresome that they find the word “poo” funny 1000 times over, but they also have a wonderful sense of the absurd. They love silly things. My kids even think prehistoric scenes of Monty Python on YouTube are funny.
As Hazard mentions, they identify strongly with animals and all nature – even fish, flowers and stars in the sky. After all, children are more rightfully part of nature than we “sophisticated” grown-ups are.
Justice is important for children.
Adventure and a brush with danger thrill children.
Kids need heroes. I remember when my son, who attends a Church of England School, came home and told me that Jesus is a bit like Spiderman and can beat up all his enemies. Naturally he thought a goody and a hero could dispense justice at will.
Something Hazard doesn’t mention – because he didn’t live to see it – is that children love popular music. Why? because the antics of pop/rock singers are nothing more than those of big kids. I took my seven year old to see the Rolling Stones – and he was perfectly at one with the 70 year old Stones letting rip and having a ball on the stage. Rock and Roll has nothing more to it than the sheer abandonment and joy of the beat and the music – and kids totally relate to that.
And of course, as we shall hear again below, they love anything that is marvelous, extraordinary or enchanting.
Part of Hazard’s charm is that he writes the book almost like a political manifesto, complete with slogans
“Men have always oppressed children”
“Give us Wings”
“Children have defended themselves.”
“We wish to dominate, but they wish to be free”
“The World Republic of Children”
His bêtes noires are the “pedagogues” and “tyrants” who have sought to deprive children of
imagination, and have forced upon them school lessons dressed up as stories. The chief anti-hero of his tract is Madame de Genlis, a governess who transformed the whole house into a classroom. Her book, Adele et Theaodore, or Lettres sur l’education, was an 18th century manual for pushy parents.
“I will give my children neither fairy tales nor The Arabian Nights,” she declares.
She disapproves of fairy tales because of their lack of morality, and she decries the falsehood of fantastic imaginings. She depicts a scene in which a servant gives a fairy tale book to a young girl. The right-thinking mother is indignant that Mademoiselle Justine is directing her child’s reading, and demands to know what the young lady finds worthwhile about fairy tales. The girl replies:
“I like anything that is marvelous, extraordinary… metamorphoses, crystal palaces, gold and silver… all that enchants me.”
Madame de Genlis’s antidote for a regrettable love of mystery is to teach children about natural phenomena that are explicable by science. In short, she strives to bring imagination back down to earth. She is the enemy.
But Hazard says that children rebel. If they are not given the stories that they desire, they take them by force. Even when books were not written specially for them in the past, they seized hold of books that fired their imaginations. Neither Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe nor Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels were written for children, but children claimed them as their own. In our own time we have a kind of reverse phenomenon, where grown-ups lay hold of children’s books, such as Harry Potter or the Hunger Games.
Hazard boldly discusses National Traits. I don’t think an academic would dare take such a course these days, for fear of being called all sorts of playground names by his PC peers. Hazard is a little harsh on his native France, which he describes as not the best, but not the worst, in terms of children’s literature.
But of course France can boast of the divine Perrault, whose oeuvre includes Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and the sublime Beauty and the Beast. All Perrault’s stories seem to have deep undercurrents of psychology and truth about human nature.
Hazard is a Frenchman who is an Anglophile – at least when it comes to children’s literature. I have to admit, his chapters on England and John Bull’s love of freedom give me a certain patriotic pride.
Hans Christian Andersen
Hazard crowns Andersen the “prince of story writers for children” and surely he is right in this judgment:
“He is unexcelled because, within the slender framework of his tales, he brings in all the pageantry of the universe.”
The Snow Queen, the Steadfast Tin Soldier, the Shepherdess, and the Little Mermaid are among my all time favourites and I believe that Natasha’s reading of those tales is peerless because you can hear in her voice that she too feels the amazement of the universe.
It does not matter if Andersen is describing the icy vastness of his native Denmark, or the reddish roofs and copper domes of Copenhagen, or the strange beauty of the ocean depths, his writing is full of wonder.
“Thanks to him, we have seen through our own eyes the Snow Queen, all in ice, her eyes shining like bright stars. With Little Kay, we fastened our sledge to her white one. She let us sit beside her. We glided over the soft surface and we lifted into the air. We passed over forests and lakes, land and seas. Below us blew a glacial win, wolves howled, snow sparkled. Above black crows were flying and cawing. And away above shone the moon, large and bright.”
And he has the wonderful quality of breathing life into everything.
“Andersen is unique in his capacity for entering the very soul of beings and things.”
Not just animals, but objects have souls – such as the porcelain dancer on the mantelpiece, or the Chinese figure who shakes his head. This is something that children indistinctly know to be true, but most of us lose touch with this 6th sense as we grow older. The feeling lived on in Andersen.
What Hazard gives us is not just a survey of children’s literature, but a way of looking at the world. He shows us what we can learn from Children. He delights in a heightened mindfulness of the universe’s glory and its mysteries. There is also a view of art – that it does not require a “lesson” or any “worthiness”, but art is for its own sake. It is not a slave to some higher purpose. Art is the purpose.
And we have a truth about human nature – that we grownups are “only grown-up children.” There is also plenty for us to think about when bringing up children. So many parents these days strive to cram their offspring full of facts, accomplishments and knowledge – but in doing so, are they depriving them of childhood? Childhood should be the most precious and joyful time of our lives. We should aim to cherish our children’s heightened awareness of the world, its mysteries and possibilities, and strive to keep these qualities fully awake in them – otherwise we are suffocating their souls. We should not be tyrannical about the nourishment that feeds their imaginations. Is it a comic book, or a TV show, or a computer game? So long as they live it, dream it, and are enthusiastic about it, that is all to the good. Don’t fall into the trap of being Madame de Genlis and banning modern fairy tales as “not worthy.” Nature gave children their greatest gift – their imaginations – it is not something we need to give them, but we must be aware of not taking it away. In the end, what is the point of being alive if you are not aware of it?