When you think of a boy named Max, it’s hard to imagine any other boy but one wearing a wolf suit and terrorising his family. Such is the power of literature we read as children to inscribe images, to create worlds and to spark emotions. When Where the Wild Things Are was published, Maurice Sendak was challenged for scaring children with his vivid imagery and narrative involving violence and power.
John Marsden, Morris Gleitzman and Isobelle Carmody, who have between them a readership of millions of Australian children and young people, have all focused on the full spectrum of childhood emotions through their books. Although they all came to Sendak’s writing as adults, they agree that his books opened up the way we thought about children’s literature and what it was possible to write.
Morris Gleitzman spoke about his treatment of adults in his book, which is based on a recognition that in every child there is an adult and in every adult there is a child. He likes to portray his adults through the eyes of young people, drawing attention to the differences in the way adults like to be perceived and how they really are.
His books are loved for their humour and Gleitzman admits comedy is one of his greatest expositional tools. He explains an important piece of information for writers of children’s literature to understand: adults don’t find the word penis funny, children do. File that.
Each writer has a different way of visualising the audience they are writing for, John Marsden describes his as a ‘mythical relationship’ with a very specific individual person for whom he writes. He likes to focus on the gap between the way things appear and the way they are, as in his book Home and Away, which explores the life of a refugee coming to Australia.
Marsden tries to emphasise the subconscious in his novels, he said it is an area which is repressed in Australian culture and often children are completley overlooked as having an unconscious. He attempts to make young people feel important through his novels, he is passionately interested in what they are thinking, feeling and doing.
All authors express that there is a misconception about children, that adults somehow confuse their physical size as being commensurate to their feelings, that because they are small their emotions should be smaller. But when we think back to our childhood, we know that a child’s experience of anger, fear or joy is not less than an adults.
This is why books like Where the Wild Things Are are so important. They put the child’s experience centre stage, removing the adults and allowing a child the freedom to express their emotions and return to a place where their supper is not only there, but it is even warm. The fact that we all loved books like Sendak’s, assures we read them to our own children, giving the children’s novel a timelessness very few other books have.
Ajita Cannings is a media student at Southern Cross University.