Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Secret Life of Children

I've been thinking about what I read that really turned me on at primary-school age - and why. It was work by authors who understood the secret life that children lead.

There was a great public library down the road, and, like some kind of ravenous termite, I burrowed through titles as fast as I could: first, E. Nesbitt, Biggles, the Jennings books, Just William, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Swallows and Amazons, Robert Louis Stevenson and Peter Pan.

Adults hated this.
But reading these cost me nothing of my prized pocket money. If I cared about reading something enough to part with my precious cash, then I must have really wanted to read it, right? So what were these items?

Firstly, I'm almost ashamed to admit it now, but I bought the whole set of Enid Blyton's Mystery Of... paperbacks, featuring the Five Find-Outers. These were 2/6d each (12.5p nowadays - nothing. But given that I had 6d a week pocket money that was quite a big deal!).

These books epitomise everything that is completely wrong, from an adult's point of view, about Enid Blyton, being badly written, with sterotyped characters, and containing a character called Fatty. None of that mattered to me of course.

Apart from being page-turning whodunnits, there were three important other elements that made them attractive to this 8 or 9-year old: the children knew best, they solved mysteries without adult help, and the authority figure - usually a policeman - was completely stupid. I suspect the latter reason is particularly why adults frowned upon Blyton. But you can't knock the fact that she published a staggering 752 books in her life. That must be some kind of record. Even if they did have names like Noddy Loses His Clothes.

Matilda - probably the best model reader in the world.
There's something in the British psyche: Britons are well known for their sense of fair play combined with a healthy disrespect for authority. And I think I know why. Most children's books liked by children perpetrate the idea that children know best - and what is fair - and adults don't. Roald Dahl is the obvious example, just look at Matilda.

Then, I'd buy the Beano. Like thousands of other kids. You won't be surprised if I tell you that Leo Baxendale, whom I've had the pleasure to meet a few times, and who came up with the Bash Street Kids and Minnie the Minx, is an out and out anarchist and has been all his life. That's anarchist in the traditional British sense, going all the way back to the Levellers and Robin Hood.

Leo Baxendale's Bash Street Kids: anarcho-punks in the making.
He believed that property is theft to the extent that he eventually sued his publishers, DC Thompson, for not paying him any royalties despite the millions they were making from his work - and then settled out of court for an undisclosed sum to pay his mother's medical costs.

And I bought Marvel comics, whether imported or reprinted in the pages of comics Wham!, Smash!, Pow!, Fantastic! or Terrific! - hundreds of them, because they blew my mind with their sheer imagination. But in retrospect, I reflect that there was something else, something very special that made superheroes attractive to me - and to all kids who love them:

They have secret identities.

Pure magic. My name is Thorpe. I WAS Thor!
When bullied, persecuted Peter Parker became Spiderman, he left behind all of his troubles. When puny Bruce Banner transformed into the incredible Hulk, he could smash anybody. When the selfless and lame Don Blake hit his walking stick on the ground, it became Mjolnir, and he was the mighty God of Thunder, a noble Asgardian.

But all of these were secrets known only to themselves - and to me, the reader.

Stan Lee wrote all of these. He is a genius. Like Dahl, Blyton and Baxendale he knew how to create the equivalent of crystal meth on paper. Addictive or what?

These writers are not equal by the way. Today, I can't recall a single Blyton plotline. (And was she the first kids' writer to trademark her name as an instantly-recognisable signature? Is that part of her success - and should we all do this?) By contrast, very many of Stan the Man's stories and characters are burned into my brain. I'd say he was the most prolific of all these writers, and his inventions are the most successful (whether in terms of readership, sales or influence.)

Back to the subject of secret identities. It's not just that every kid longs to have special powers that could help them defeat their enemies (flying, super-strength, invisibility), it's that children have secret lives as well. For many grown-ups these secret lives are forgotten as they get older.

As a child I remember wondering why it was that adults seemed no longer to remember what it was like to be a child themselves, and vowed that I would do my best not to let the memory fade. I don't know whether I do - very well - but I certainly recall that feeling with great intensity.

The powerful idea that you have a secret self, with a special life known only to you, in which you accomplish remarkable deeds, heroic feats - and nobody else (adult) understands, nobody must even know about this - is surely experienced by all children!

They are all, almost perpetually, engaged in one quest or another, one struggle, one battle, or one tumultuous adventure, whether it is emotional, adventurous, imaginative or intellectual. This is what's going on inside children's minds. All the time.

And this is what the best games, books, TV, films and so on both feed on, and feed into, in the fertile forming minds of children.

Always have. Always will.