Sunday, September 09, 2007

Why is Childhood Like a Third World Country?

A lot of people contact me wanting to learn how to write for children. (Must be the big bucks, you say?) The problem is that they have sentimental views of childhood, as a sort of warm-fuzzy place filled with magic and imagination. Add small fluffy animals who learn important life lessons and you get the picture. As a result, from time to time, I start questioning myself and my ability to get across exactly what I mean when I say I'm against those things. Against warm-fuzziness and magic? That makes me sound downright mean. So here's what I think.

Childhood in fact is a bit like a third world country, in the sense that it's mostly well-meaning people who don't live there who:
  1. give it that label
  2. find it charming and filled with innocence
  3. feel a great need to educate its denizens
  4. consider it a developmental stage, only theirs is better
  5. secretly long for a time when its inhabitants knew their place (or were seen and not heard, or both).
Perry Nodelman wrote an article on this subject some years ago that says something about this in a scholarly way. "The other: Orientalism, colonialism, and children's literature." Children's Literature Association Quarterly. 117:1, 29-35.

But my take is that we're not going to learn how to decolonize childhood until we're well and truly over colonizing countries. Which (look around you) isn't going to happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, consider discarding the warm-fluffy cloak and getting in touch with your inner child. Add a mean streak, or fangs, or a dollop of despair, a little longing. Does it feel like a punch in the gut? Much more like it.


  1. And here I always thought childhood trauma was par for the course...

  2. It is, it is. But when people romanticize (exoticize?) childhood, they forget that children are people with all the flaws and traumas that go with the condition of being human.

  3. What you write is so true.

    Childhood is like that old nursery rhyme: full of snakes and snails, sugar and spice, puppy-dogs' tails -- and not all 'everything nice,' either. I have, of course, deliberately mixed up the boys' and girls' bits. Anyone who thinks that girls are sugar and spice and everything nice either cannot remember their own childhood or does not have daughters.

    Children are definitely people, mine included. They are precious, they are infinitely loveable and dear, but they are human, just like us.