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Children's Books
by Deirdre Baker

Talking about Excellence

Children's book reviewer Deirdre Baker is passionate about children's books. She talked about what she believes constitutes excellence in children's literature during a panel discussion that took place at the monthly meeting of the Canadian Association of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP) on November 13, 2002. Baker's remarks are particularly interesting in light of the fact that she's about to publish A Guide to Canadian Children's Books which she co-wrote with Ken Setterington and which will be published next month by McClelland and Stewart.

Three points: Words last, Style matters, Read the greats

First I am going to read you poem and tell you why I think your work as writers and wordsmiths is so important, and so why aspiring to excellence is important. Then I'll make a few remarks about style and excellence¨about how words are put side by side to bring into being, miraculously, whole, deep worlds of meaning. Finally, I'm going to talk about literary models and make some suggestions about where they may be found.
First the poem, by Robert Louis Stevenson:
Bright is the ring of words
When the right one rings them,
Fair the fall of songs
When the singer sings them.
Still they are carolled and said ¨
On wings they are carried ¨
After the singer is dead
And the maker buried.

It happened recently that in trying to find a blank tape to use for an interview I tapped into a previous interview. I pressed the "play" button and a voice sounded out at me¨"We are the custodians of language," said Kevin Crossley-Holland, speaking of children's writers. The next day, re-reading A.S. Byatt's Possession, I read "for the difference between poets and novelists is this¨that the former write for the life of language¨and the latter write for the betterment of the world." This statement, written by the fictional 19th century poet R.H. Ash, I wish to revise. For I think one can't write for the life of language without also writing for the betterment of the world¨and vice versa. Indeed, the great novelists and picture book writers¨and writers of non-fiction¨do so. The custodians of language are also the custodians of the world.
What do I mean by writing for the life of the language? "Still they are carolled and said¨on wings they are carried¨After the singer is dead and the maker buried." In fact, verbatim or just by a kind of auditory, verbal or linguistic residue, the words children read and hear, make¨they actually set in stone¨the structures in which and by which those children do and will interpret the world... from human behaviour and relationships to environmental data to political, social and psychological issues of all sorts. The words that become part of children's hard drives, as it were, set the possibilities and limitations of adulthood. We learn and are formed by our models. And linguistic and literary models are what we use to interpret and analyse, to find solutions or not to find solutions. Your words, carolled or said, will ring perpetually in the minds of your readers. They will take those words to their graves, they will pass them on to their children and students, and as your writing lives on, so will those words continue to sound and influence.
It's for this reason that I'm going to talk to you about excellence in style. A reviewing friend of mine was once lamenting the mediocrity of some of the books she had to read, and a relative¨a physical labourer and not a big literary aficionado¨finally got fed up and asked to take a look at one of them to judge for himself. Surely she was just whining, he thought, or being nastily critical or demanding. But no. After half an hour of reading he protested, "This isn't writing! This is just saying what happened."
Ordinary words to say ordinary things in an ordinary way. Language used in a single-layered, literal and literal-minded way actually wears ruts in the brain. This is a proven fact. After a certain amount of exposure and repetition, it becomes impossible to drive outside the ruts¨impossible to conceive, say, of turning a sentence around, of seeing from another perspective, of choosing a different word or a different word order....
So let us think about what a reviewer or reader might look for in style, in how a given writer puts words together. In art, in picture book illustration for example, we might perceive certain elements on any given page¨ line, texture, colour, pattern, movement, perspective, medium, shape, composition.
A reviewer might look for the same sorts of things in any paragraph of text, sequence of sentences, chapter, short story, novel or poem. She might think about sentence structure, word order, vocabulary, paragraph structure and punctuation. She might think about words that are left out and words that are left in. She might think about implications, allusions explicit and implicit, about images, metaphors, expressions and indeed figures of speech of all kinds. She might think of verbal echoes or visual reflections or of what isn't said. She might notice emotions and dynamics that only come into the consciousness as the reading eye leaps from the last word of one sentence to the first word of the next. She might notice alliteration, onomatopoeia, liquids, fricatives, plosives and gutturals. She might notice rhythm and rhyme, iambs and trochees, dactyls and spondees, and lines catalectic and acatalectic (that means they end a beat early or they don't). She might think, even, of how the physical text looks on the page.
As a writer, you probably don't¨and shouldn't!¨think of these things in your conscious mind. Instead, they will be there subconsciously, in your ear's memory and your mind's eye. But for a literary reviewer, it isn't enough to leave these elements to the subconscious. And that is the hard part of reviewing. It's easy to say "this is great" or "this stinks." Indeed it may be all that some people want to know. But saying why this is wonderful or dreadful, giving a sense of the subtle ways language mounts in the story to bring us (even the hardened reviewer) to a place of new understanding or revelation¨is much more difficult. Describing the tone or mood of a certain work, understanding how it is accomplished, is hard work. But I know that if I have read a work three times and I am still being surprised by it, it is a work of excellence....
Let's look at a few examples:
"He was called Smith and was twelve years old. Which, in itself, was a marvel; for it seemed as if the smallpox, the consumption, brain-fever, gaol-fever and even the hangman's rope had given him a wide berth for fear of catching something. Or else they weren't quick enough."
This is actually the first three sentences of a novel. So notice the implication of the narrator¨that we already have our eye on this "he". How different this is from "There was once a boy called Smith and he was twelve years old." We jump right into this "He was called Smith." No time to give us a leisurely introduction. Life in Smith's life is going to be hectic, active¨as the third remark makes clear, by implication. "Or else they weren't quick enough."
Twelve years old. On the cusp of adulthood. At the marge of childhood. In a kind of neutral zone. "Which, in itself, was a marvel." Suddenly we realise that 12 is old in Smith's world. Secondly, that he must be special, singled-out, saved by supernatural, miraculous or marvellous intervention. But the idea of marvel is paradoxically placed next to these horrible, mundane deaths (and indeed this juxtaposition is critical, it proves to be the very woof of the story). Small-pox, consumption, brain-fever, gaol-fever, hangman's rope. Such a mound of horrible deaths. Disease, infection, crime. Five of them, all quite precise. We know now that Smith's world is seething with threat; we know too that his resistance to it must be remarkable. It could be that he's too good to die! But no: they've given him a wide berth for fear of catching something. He's more pestilential than all these fates combined! He's the diseased-est of the diseased. "Or else they weren't quick enough." There we have the confirmation of the breathless pace of Smith's world. By it's not being quick enough (even germ, bacteria, pestilence), we see Smith's preternatural speed. (In the next paragraph we think of him as a sooty spirit, subtle air, or a powerful whiff. So quick as to be immaterial, it seems.) We've already located him in the underside of some brutal world¨some world in the past where they still have hangmen and consumption. If we're a young reader and we've never heard of consumption, we know by its association with small pox, jail and the hangman that it's no good news. All this in under 50 words.
Second example: "When Papa was away at sea, and Mama in the arbour, Ida played her wonder-horn¨but never watched." Here we have an example of the line catalectic. Here's a series of trochaic feet¨and the last ends abruptly, end-stopped with the difficult sound of tchd. I'm taking the "when" as an up-beat. When / PApa WAS aWAY at SEA and MAma IN the AR-bour/ I-da PLAYED her WONder HORN but NEver¨ WATCHED. Watched. Watched what? Well, what she was supposed to be watching was taken away by goblins, so it's not surprising that it's not included as the direct object in this first sentence (another first sentence). This family of three¨Papa, Mama, and Ida¨is lacking its fourth, baby. Even a prelingual child, a baby who might not understand the sense of the words, would notice that there's something cut off in the sound of these words. Notice too, that the story's set up by absence of parents, also central to this tale. And what is this mysterious "wonder-horn"? Are those two words meant to go together? And look at this¨already Ida has done something dire: that little "but", that "never", tell us so. And so on.
There are two points I want to make in conclusion in the interest of literary excellenceÓAlthough you will never write, and never want to write, in the manner of Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Austen, Brontd or Woolf, reading their works ű even studying them -- can only provide you with rich nourishment and unbelievably high powered compost, as it were, from which your own words and works can grow. Exposure to the words and ways of these writers and other great writers of literature is an apprenticeship in the play of words, the life of language, that gives facility and freedom of choice in language. It gives the opportunity to develop a voice not by default, because you can't think of anything different, but because of all the possibilities, this is the one you choose.
Secondly, I want to alert you to the vast and astonishing body of children's literature that came before you. "Excellence in children's literature seems to be a rather slippery topic. Perhaps this is because we have no kidlit version of the western canon that we can throw and test ourselves against," one writer here commented.
Oh yes we do. And if you want to become a great writer, to excel, you probably ought to know it all. Carroll, Kipling, MacDonald, Stevenson, Nesbit, Baum and Hodgson Burnett¨and that's all before 1910! Tolkien, Ransome, Pearce, Lewis, Lindgren, Sutcliff and White¨and that's all before 1960! You get the drift, and in the interests of pedagogy, of literary excellence and of evangelism, I share with you a limited list of your predecessors, a canon, a measure of excellence. ˛
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