If you remember your childhood as idyllic, you are remembering it wrong. I say this unequivocally.
If you think it was easy, I don’t believe you.
That doesn’t mean you didn’t have a happy childhood, or a mostly happy childhood. Or that it’s not possible to have a happy childhood—whatever you consider a happy childhood to be. But the idea that childhood is a carefree time of blissful innocence is more a product of nostalgia than the actual experience of being a kid. Being a kid hurts.
Childhood is a time of pure sensation—discovering ideas and experiences for the first time. What many people who idealize their childhoods ignore is that we experience pain in the same unfiltered way that we experience joy. But since childhood is a series of everyday joys and traumas, for the sake of survival, we’re hardwired to be resilient. There are limits to this resilience, events that are so traumatic that they stick with us for the rest of our lives, but the everyday extremes of joy and sorrow—of pain and pleasure without precedent and without filter—is what it is to be a kid.
Kids are powerless. They are at the complete mercy of adults. They are constantly being told not only what they can and can’t do, but the difference between the way they imagine the world, and the way it truly works. Imagination is encouraged of course, up to the point where practical reality must by necessity intervene. The older you get, the more that practical reality takes over, as you learn to become more and more responsible for your own fate. Nothing about this process is easy.
So what does this have to do with writing for children?
The best children’s literature addresses the pain and powerlessness of being a kid and gives that power back to them. Even a seemingly simple book like Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s classic Goodnight Moon is about the importance and acceptance of loss. The bunny says “good night” to each object in the room as he goes to bed. With each “good night,’ the bunny, the child’s proxy, is reassured that the world will be the same when he wakes up, but that yes, for a while, it will cease to be.
Books for children can teach, but I don’t think that’s their purpose. Every children’s book doesn’t have to teach, or be a morality tale. If you write about pain literally and objectively, not only is it going to be pedantic, it’s going to be boring. Kids know when they’re being taught or preached to, rather than entertained. Good children’s lit should be good stories first, but to be a good story, it has to have truth. To resonate, it has to reflect our real experience in some way.
Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are suggests the real pain and powerlessness of childhood, but through the metaphor of a child’s power fantasy. In Max’s world, the Wild Things embody all of his wildness, his sense of freedom. In his ordinary life he’s discouraged and punished for being wild, but in his fantasy, he’s the ruler of the Wild Things, and is himself the wildest of them all. He’s free from everyone who has ever told him “no.” And in the end—and most importantly—he is still protected, still safe. No matter how wild he is, his mother provides him hot soup and a warm bed.
This isn’t a story with a moral, but it does have a moral center.
No one can take your power away from you. No one can take your freedom away from you. Not completely. Even though again and again the world will tell us “no,” there’s still that part of us that belongs to us, the identity through which we can assert our freedom. And in the best of worlds, our parents provide us with a safe place to be ourselves. Our natural wildness will never overtake us, as long as we have that safe place. Our wildness needs to be tamed if we are to survive, but no one will ever take it away.
Good literature—and children’s literature should first and foremost be good literature—must also be honest. And if you are writing for children, you must write with the understanding and acceptance that they are not precious. That childhood is not precious. As soon as you let go of childhood as a special island where pain does not exist and is not relevant, you will be able to write stories that reflect the experience of real children. Or at least, you’ll be one step closer.
Images from Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Harper Collins, and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, Harper Collins.