Barking with the Big Dogs: On Writing and Reading Books for Children

Barking with the Big Dogs: On Writing and Reading Books for Children

by Natalie Babbitt

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Overview

In this collection of essays and speeches written over the course of four decades, beloved storyteller Natalie Babbitt explores what it was like to be a “little dog” in the literary world, continually being forced to justify her choice to write books for children—instead of doing something more serious. Babbitt offers incisive commentary on classic children’s books as well as contemporary works, and reveals colorful insights into her own personal creative life. Filled with a voice that rings with truth, wisdom, and humor across the years, the essays gathered in Barking with the Big Dogs exemplify on every page true reverence for children and an endless engagement with the challenge to write the books that shape them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374310400
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/20/2018
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,147,193
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 3 Months

About the Author

Natalie Babbitt (1932–2016) began her career in 1966 as the illustrator of The Forty-Ninth Magician, written by her husband. Her first novel, The Search for Delicious, established her gift for writing magical tales with profound meaning. Kneeknock Rise earned her a Newbery Honor Medal, and in 2002, Tuck Everlasting, her most popular book, was adapted into a major motion picture.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Happy Endings? Of Course, and Also Joy

(1970)

What in the world is a children's story anyway? What makes it different from a story for adults? Why does one writer choose to write for children and another for adults; or, if you will, what quality makes one writer's work appropriate for children while the work of another points in the other direction?

P. L. Travers has said, "There is no such thing as a children's book. There are simply books of many kinds and some of them children read. I would deny, however, that [they were] written for children." Well, perhaps. Sometimes. But someone must have the child in mind even if the author doesn't. Someone, editor or critic, must head a story in the right direction. As a rule, it isn't an especially difficult direction to find. Everyone can tell a child's book from one for adults, just as everyone knows hot water from cold. The difficulty lies in trying to define the essential nature of the difference.

The most common assumption, at least on the part of people who have had little to do with children's literature, is that books for adults are serious in intent while books for children are designed to amuse. But this is only an assumption and nothing more. There are indeed many serious stories for adults and truckloads of children's stories intended only for pleasure, but the reverse is just as true. Fluff, be it trivial or memorable, predominates in both worlds. However, you would be doing both an injustice if you tried to define their separate natures on the basis of fluff. There are no answers to be had by contrasting Jeeves to Winnie-the-Pooh, Hercule Poirot to Nancy Drew, Rhett Butler to the Grinch, or even the Yankee from Connecticut to Dorothy from Kansas. Dear friends all, each in his own place and time, but all members of the same unsubtle family. This leaves in each world an armful of books that are sometimes called classics (make your own list). These are both serious in intent and entertaining, as all good stories should be; and it is only in these that any real definition can be found, if in fact it exists at all.

Well, then, perhaps you will say that the difference is still obvious, fluff or no, because adult books deal with adult emotions: love, pride, grief, fear of death, violence, the yearning for success, and so on. But why do we so often forget that children are not emotional beggars? They understand these feelings every bit as well as we do, and are torn by them as often. There is, in point of fact, no such thing as an exclusively adult emotion, and children's literature deals with them all. As for love, "Sleeping Beauty" and her sisters are nothing if not love stories of one kind, while The Wind in the Willows is another, and Heidi and Hans Brinker yet others. Pride? Where is pride more gleefully exposed than in Toad of Toad Hall? For grief unsurpassed, try the closing chapters of The Yearling. Fear of death begins in childhood and is dealt with supremely well in Charlotte's Web, while its other side, the quest for immortality, is dealt with just as well in Peter Pan. When it comes to violence, Ali Baba, Jack the Giant Killer, and the brave little tailor are only three of hundreds of inventive and bloody examples. And the yearning for success is a thread so common to all stories that I wonder why I even bothered to bring it up.

There is really no difference where emotional themes are concerned. There are only the subtleties, the nuances, the small ironies, of which adult fiction has made far more use but which are equally available to children's fiction, where their fitness is dictated exclusively by the writer's style and his attitude toward the perceptivity of his readers.

No difference in emotional themes? No — I will correct myself. There is one emotion which is found only in children's literature these years and for many years past, and that emotion is joy.

Next you will perhaps turn to range or scope or whatever you wish to call it. But even here, only at first glance does this appear to be genuine ground for defining a difference. While there was a time when the best adult fiction was timeless in nature and dealt at the core with Everyman, that is no longer true. Decade by decade, new books for adults have become more personal, more singular. It is a long and narrowing road from Moby-Dick to Portnoy's Complaint. More and more often we find ourselves making do with what Isaac Bashevis Singer has called "muddy streams of consciousness which often reveal nothing but a writer's boring and selfish personality."

Everyman has gone out of fashion for adults. What separates us has come to seem more pertinent than what draws us together. But Everyman is present still in the best children's stories, just as he always has been. All children can identify with and learn from characters like Peter Rabbit and Sendak's Max, in spite of the years between their creation; but many adults have trouble finding common coin with Henry Miller's Mona the way they could with Tolstoy's Natasha.

Content? Barring only graphic sex and other routine adult preoccupations (many of these dull to begin with), there is little difference. War, disability, poverty, cruelty, all the harshest aspects of life, are present in children's literature. Daily banalities are there, too, and the more subtle stuff of boredom, prejudice, and spite. Where did we get the idea that a children's book is gentle and sweet? The only ones that are are those written by people who have been deluded by isolation or a faulty memory into thinking that children themselves are gentle and sweet.

A children's book is peopled with talking animals and other such fantastics? Sometimes, but by no means always. And anyway, adults are just as prone to attributing human characteristics to nonhuman things as children are, in life if not in their fiction. You need only mention the family dog or cat at a dinner party to find this out. And as for the dark world, children did not invent Martians, poltergeists, the séance, or the Devil, or, I might add, the id and the ego, those goblins that out-goblin anything in the Brothers Grimm. If fantasy is absent from adult fiction, it is absent only because adults are too pompous to admit they still have a taste and a need for it.

A children's book uses simple vocabulary geared to the untrained mind? Compare a little Kipling to a little Hemingway and think again. Opening sentence of one chapter from A Farewell to Arms: "Now in the fall the trees were all bare and the roads were muddy." Opening sentence of "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin": "Once upon a time, on an uninhabited island on the shores of the Red Sea, there lived a Parsee from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour." So much for that!

You might in desperation do something with size of type, seeing that children's books are usually printed in larger typeface; but this is really only because they shrewdly refuse to be bothered by anything less. Their eyes, after all, are by and large 20/20 percent better than ours. You might also be reduced to bringing up length — children's books are usually shorter. However, I question whether, having said this, you have said much.

Not one of the above proposals will stand up. They are too arbitrary, too trivial, too riddled with exceptions. Perhaps it is possible only to settle for knowing the difference between the two literatures without being able to articulate it. And there are just enough stories that fall somewhere in between to cloud the issue further. Scrooge, Bilbo Baggins, Alice, Huck Finn, even Charlie Brown — for whom were these created? Ichabod Crane, William Baxter, Jason and Medea, on whose shelf do they belong? Perhaps there is no such thing as a children's book once we are blessedly beyond the forgettable.

And yet it seems to me that there is a tangible difference when you apply one rather simple sieve to the mass. It does not work for every children's story, but perhaps it does apply to all that we remember longest and love best and will keep reading aloud to our children and our children's children as a last remaining kind of oral history, a history of the essence of our own childhood. I am referring, of course, to the Happy Ending.

Not, please, to a simple "happily ever after," or to the kind of contrived final sugarcoating that seems tacked on primarily to spare the child any glimpse of what really would have happened had the author not been vigilant; not these, but to something which goes much deeper, something which turns a story ultimately toward hope rather than resignation and contains within it a difference not only between the two literatures but also between youth and age.

What, in the very simplest terms, is a child, after all, but an unrepressed adult? What is maturity, that supposed nirvana we seem never fully to achieve, but total emotional control learned from confrontation with experience, which teaches us the necessity for compromise? When one learns to compromise, one learns to abandon the happy ending as a pipe dream, or — a children's story.

When we envy our children, we envy them this first of all: "Oh," we say, "they have their whole lives ahead of them," and we believe with them and for them what we no longer believe for ourselves — that anything is possible. We believe that they may grow up to be another Sarah Bernhardt, a Madame Curie, a Jefferson, a Dickens — pick whichever giant you like. We believe that they may grow up happy, fulfilled, beyond pain. And when we pity our children, we pity them for this: "Oh," we say, "I wouldn't be young and have to go through all that again for anything."

By "all that" we really mean that we remember all too well the first hard lessons in compromise, the abandonment of the primary and then the secondary dream, and so on and on down to what we have at last settled on as possible. Alas, we have arrived and we are not unique after all. We are not beautiful, nor clever, nor even very good; and no matter how well we do what we do, there is always someone who can do it better. The big house on the hill is lost to us forever, and all of our sweet tomorrows are rapidly becoming yesterdays which were almost (if we were lucky) but not quite.

But for the children, no matter how unpromising their circumstances, it is not too late. And we who write for them, or, if you must, we whose work seems appropriate for them, are perhaps those who, far from being glum, have a particularly tenacious view of life as an experiment in possibility without compromise. If we are not clever nor unique, we can at least recall without regret how it felt to believe that we might be someday; probably despite plain and discouraging evidence, we are still not totally without hope; and so, in our stories — since, like it or not, every story comes out of the psyche of its author — Wilbur can escape an early death, Cinderella can be queen, Bilbo can outwit the dragon, and the ugly duckling can become a swan. Not without pain, not without violence, not without grief, but in the end, somehow, everything will always be all right.

To be sure, there are stories for adults which end happily, but it is, in the stories that have lasted, a qualified happiness only, the quiet happiness of characters who have made their peace with their own compromises. So Natasha at the end of War and Peace "had grown stouter and broader ... Her features ... wore an expression of calm softness and serenity. Only on rare occasions now the old fire glowed in her again."

Not so with Ratty and Mole and Toad. Their story ends this way: "The ... animals continued to lead their lives ... in great joy and contentment ... Sometimes, in the course of long summer evenings, the friends would take a stroll together ... and it was pleasing to see how respectfully they were greeted ... 'There goes the great Mr. Toad! And that's the gallant Water Rat ... And yonder comes the famous Mr. Mole ...!'" Beauty established, nobility achieved, all obstacles overcome. A pipe dream, or — a children's story.

CHAPTER 2

The Child as Chimpanzee

(1971)

The world of American children's books has a problem. It's not a new problem, although it seems more visible these days than it once did, but it's an awkward problem to define because we would vastly prefer to deny its existence. However, deny it as we will, it colors our attitudes in a number of areas of which children's fiction is only one. To put it flatly, there seems to be a widespread American belief that children are irrelevant.

As a children's author, one begins to be aware in a dim way that something is askew when one is asked for the first time, "You write books for children? But why? How come you don't do something serious?" From there one fumbles along, trying hard not to trip over one's defensiveness, through all the criticism within the field about how there are too many books, and how too many of them are bad, and about how permissive the reviewers tend to be, and how hard the reviews are to find, anyway. And after a time the suspicion begins to grow that the problem itself must be a good deal larger than the sum of these particular parts — that all of them are merely symptoms of a phenomenon which might better be left to the analytic skills of a social psychologist. However, having been offered the opportunity to discuss the current state of children's books, I feel duty-bound to rush in like the proverbial fool and attempt to grapple with the problem itself.

It might be well to begin by looking backward on this belief that children are irrelevant. Consider, then, how as a nation we tend to view all aspects of competence as qualities bestowed, along with the diploma, upon graduation from high school. At that magic moment, the young are ceremoniously separated from the glass through which they have presumably been seeing darkly for eighteen years and — shazam! — they are suddenly become a man. Like so many jovial Saint Peters, commencement speakers across the land welcome them warmly to the heaven of rational adulthood. Even though they may have opted for a stopover in some purgatorial side aisle like the university, they are still counted as among the blessed and are told in ominous tones that they had better act the part. If, through some inexplicable impulse, they should lapse, they are labeled childish with a disgust one might suppose was reserved for pejoratives like leprous and treasonous.

Where have children been before the age of eighteen? What curious, invisible space in society have they been occupying? If the word childish is derogatory, does that mean that it is somehow ignoble to be a child? If we are to be honest, we must admit that this is exactly what it means.

For one thing, in a nation where individuals take great pride in the roles they play in their various governments, from the family unit to the White House, children are totally without influence. They stand outside the formal politics of society, along with felons and transients, in an area somewhere beyond the pale where to be cloutless is to be without importance and by extension not worth serious attention, except insofar as children, at least, will eventually "grow out of it" as one "grows out of" acne or asthma.

For another thing, children are small, and this is not as trivial a crime as it may seem. Small people of any age have a hard row to hoe. We have a tendency to look down on those we look down on, as if, Napoleon notwithstanding, length of bone were somehow a yardstick for measuring significance.

Then, too, children are inexperienced. Like the classic job-seeker who has never held a job, they are apt to be denied experience until they have had the experience to handle it. This leads to a curious maze of interconnecting attitudes toward development which culminates in that apron-string-cutting ceremony, the above-mentioned commencement, in which the young are ejected into the world from which they have been scrupulously protected for so long, and expected, by virtue of their sudden attainment of majority, to cope. Until that moment, they have not "set" and are in an unpalatable condition comparable to undercooked pudding. They are not what they will be, which makes them seem unstable and difficult to deal with.

And finally, as if all this were not enough, children are guilty of the worst crime an American can commit: They are idle. By the rules formulated from the well-known Puritan Ethic, under which we all of us sweat, children are ignoble because childhood is a time of pure pleasure, and pure pleasure is taboo. Never mind that childhood is not a time of pure pleasure; according to the Ethic, anyone who is not working must be having fun, and that is a synonym for wasting time. So once again children are placed outside society, outside useful, productive society, to stand with the jet set, hippies, the poor, the aged, and, until recently, women again.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Barking with the Big Dogs"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Estate of Natalie Babbitt.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction Katherine Applegate ix

Preface 3

Happy Endings? Of Course, and Also Joy (1970) 7

The Child as Chimpanzee (1971) 17

The Great American Novel for Children-and Why Not? (1973) 29

You Must Go Home Again (1978) 45

Saying What You Think (1981) 61

The Way We Were-and Weren't (1985) 81

Something Has to Happen (1985) 93

The Roots-and Branches-of Fantasy (1986) 101

Easy Does It (1986) 113

Metamorphosis (1987) 127

A Question from Justine (1987) 141

The Purpose of Literature-and Who Cares? (1989) 153

Darkness and Light (1990) 165

Protecting Children's Literature (1990) 179

Beacons of Light (1993) 191

Finding Paths (1999) 205

New World, No World (2001) 219

We're All Mad Here (2004) 233

Notes 251

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