CChildren’s Authors disliking children has become a thing. It was about Enid Blyton, AA Milne, Dr. Said Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein… and now we hear that the late dear Raymond Briggs, the sweet grumpy writer and illustrator who became National Grandpa to millions of us who never met him, was another. Interviews with Briggs, who died last week at the age of 88, were heard on the radio in which he was heard for all to say: “I’m not interested in children. Didn’t want any.”
It’s upsetting. How could they?
As a writer and the daughter, partner and mother of writers, I can tell you: no writers like children—if said children want things from the writer, if the writer wants to write. This doesn’t just apply to a certain type of writer, nor even to creative people. It applies to everyone, as we now know after lockdowns where people have to work from home and go to school at the same time. (I avoided that with my child by also making him a writer through the noble tradition of child labor. We wrote five books together that were published in 36 languages and twice chosen by Spielberg. Boom!)
But I don’t believe in this so-called aversion. First, of all the possible reasons for liking or disliking a person, has there ever been one worse than their age? And second, no interest in children per seor not wanting children yourself is not a dislike.
In 2015, in a Guardian In an interview with Sarah Hughes, Briggs points to a photo of his late wife’s offspring. “This one used to want to sit on my head,” he told her. “‘I want to sit on his head,’ he said, and climbed onto it. It was lovely.” Then, she wrote, “he stared into space for a moment.” Is this someone who doesn’t like children?
When Briggs was proposed as Children’s Laureate, the response was, “No thanks… all that going on across the country, all the bookings and bed and breakfasts and railroads. I don’t want to go to schools and give lectures on children’s books. I don’t actually know much about children. I try to avoid them whenever possible.”
I suspect single or familiar children may be fine, but a mass of tiny freaks and excitement is alarming for people who work quietly. So is it really children that these authors are not keen on? Perhaps AA Milne was simply displeased that the success of his children’s books eclipsed the reputation he desired as a playwright. His son was not happy being Christopher Robin, writing of “toe-twisting, fist-balling, lip-biting embarrassment” and how “it almost seemed to me that my father … had stolen my good name and left me with empty glory, his son.” to be”. But there is no indication that Milne senior did so on purpose.
On the day of Sendak’s barmitzvah in New York in 1942, his father learned of the destruction of the family in Europe. This was just part of the trauma that drove his parents, in Maurice’s words, “insane.” His dark themes were sometimes seen as aggression towards a young readership, an indication that he didn’t care about them. He said himself that if he had come from a happy family, he would not have become an artist. “I refuse to lie to children,” he said, fitting “the great 19th-century fantasy that paints childhood as an eternally innocent paradise,” and describing his job as “the idiot role of a children’s book man.” He and his partner Eugene didn’t start a family because his family history made him sure he was going to screw it up. Again, I’m not convinced it was kids he didn’t like.
Shel Silverstein, author and illustrator of The giving treeShe didn’t like boring children’s books and initially had no desire to write for children. He was also a sixties satirical guy with a highly misleading sense of humor and a very sad story involving his own daughter who died young after the death of her mother in the care of relatives. Heaven forbid a children’s book 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 to stem from childlessness, which in the 1950s was pretty much proof that she didn’t like them—even though his wife, Helen Palmer, also a children’s author, couldn’t conceive. During their lifetime, they had an imaginary daughter, Chrysanthemum-Pearl, who appeared on Seuss’ Christmas cards.
Enid Blyton, we are told of her own daughter, was “without a trace of maternal instinct”. But we also learned – from her other daughter – that she was a wonderful companion who “could communicate with children in a remarkable way, and not just on the side.”
But it doesn’t matter whether writers can handle the more riotous aspects of children or not. They just have to handle a child’s point of view – as they do with every character.
Humbug and sentimentality are greater enemies; Books written to appeal to adults. I don’t mean books that inherently appeal to people of all ages: that’s magic.
Briggs said, “People always say, ‘Well, who did you point that at?’ and I keep saying, ‘Books aren’t rockets, they’re not aimed at anyone’.”
With words of wisdom from the novel by US author Edward Eager half magic: “The four children have all adults divided into classes. Last but not least and rarest were those who felt that children were children and adults were adults and that was it, and yet there was no reason why they could not get along perfectly and naturally, and even communicate occasionally.”