VSchildren’s writers who don’t like children have become a thing. It has been said of Enid Blyton, AA Milne, Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein…and now we hear that the late, dear Raymond Briggs, the sweet, grumpy writer and illustrator who became the National Grandfather to millions of us who have never met him, was another. Interviews with Briggs, who died last week aged 88, could be heard on the radio, saying for everyone to hear: “I have no interest in children. I didn’t want to have any.
It’s appalling. How could they?
As a writer, and the daughter, partner and mother of writers, I can tell you: no writer likes children – if said children expect things from the writer when the writer wants to write. It’s not exclusive to any particular type of writer, or even creative ones. This is true for everyone, as we know now after the shutdowns forcing people to work and study simultaneously at home. (I avoided that with my child by making her a writer too, via the noble tradition of child labor. We wrote five books together, which were published in 36 languages and optioned by Spielberg, twice. Boom !)
But I don’t believe in this so-called aversion. First, among all the possible reasons for liking or disliking an individual, has there ever been one after his age? And secondly, not being interested in children in itselfor not wanting children yourself, is not unpleasant.
In 2015, in a Guardian interview with Sarah Hughes, Briggs shows a photo of his late wife’s offspring. “That one wanted to sit on my head,” he told her. “’I want to sit on his head,’ he would say and he would climb. It was lovely.” Then, she wrote, “he stared into space for a while.” Is he someone who doesn’t like children?
When Briggs was nominated as the winner for children, the response was “no, thank you…everything running nationwide, all reservations, bed and breakfasts and railroads.” I don’t want to go to schools and lecture on children’s books. In fact, I don’t know much about children. I try to avoid them as much as possible.
I suspect that individual or known children may be fine, but a mass of small maniacs and restlessness is alarming to quiet working people. So is it really children that these writers don’t like? Perhaps AA Milne simply didn’t like the success of his children’s books to surpass the reputation he truly desired as a playwright. His son was not happy to be Christopher Robin, writing about “the embarrassment of curling his toes, clenching his fist, biting his lips” and how “it almost felt like my dad had me… stole my name and left me with the vainglory of being his son.” But there is no suggestion that Milne senior did it on purpose.
On the day of the Sendak barmitzva in 1942 in New York, his father learned of the destruction of the family in Europe. It was only part of the trauma that drove his parents, in Maurice’s words, “crazy.” His dark subject matter was sometimes seen as an assault on a young readership, an indication that he didn’t care. He said himself that if he had come from a happy home, he would not have become an artist. “I refuse to lie to children,” he said, of “the great 19th-century fantasy that portrays childhood as an eternally innocent paradise,” and described his work as “the silly role of to be a children’s book. He and his partner Eugene didn’t build a family because he was certain from his family history that he would mess it up. Again, I’m not convinced it was the kids he disliked.
Shel Silverstein, author and illustrator of The tree that gives, disliked boring children’s books and was not initially enthusiastic about writing for children. Plus, he was a satirical ’60s guy with an eminently incomprehensible sense of humor and a very sad history with his own daughter, who died young in the care of relatives after her mother’s death. God forbid that a children’s author is complex! (For some people he will always be the guy who wrote Sylvia’s mother.)
The myth that Dr. Seuss (Theodor Guisel) disliked children seems grounded in childlessness, which in the 1950s was pretty much taken as evidence of their dislike – when in fact his wife, Helen Palmer, also a children’s writer, could not conceive. During their lifetime, they had an imaginary daughter, Chrysanthemum-Pearl, who was featured on Seuss’ Christmas cards.
Enid Blyton, we are told – through her own daughter – was “without a trace of maternal instinct”. But we’re also told – by her other daughter – that she was a wonderful companion who could “communicate with the children in quite a remarkable way, and not just on the page”.
But it doesn’t matter whether or not the writers can handle the more rambunctious aspects of the kids. They just need to master a child’s point of view – like they do for any character.
Humbug and sentimentality are greater enemies; books written to appeal to adults. I’m not talking about books that naturally appeal to people of all ages: those are magic.
Briggs said: “People always say, ‘Well, who did you aim that at? and I keep saying, “Books aren’t missiles, you’re not pointing them at anyone.”
In the wise words of American writer Edward Eager’s novel Half-Magic“The four children divided all the adults into classes. The last and the best and the rarest of all were those who seemed to think children were children and adults were adults and that was it, and yet there was no reason why they couldn’t not get along perfectly well and naturally together, and even communicate occasionally.