Does an author (and I will use the term to mean authors and illustrators and author-illustrators; see below) always write with the intention of perfect clarity?


Next question.

I’m thinking of a number of authors of books  children read whose writing has caused me to stop and puzzle. Lots of authors do it, and part of my problem with the Goodreads/Amazon way of presenting books (“What did you use the product for?”) is that too often this leads to a “Didn’t like it? Next!” reaction, the kind of literary equivalent of the whistle stop tour; this approach can (I’m not saying it must) mean we read to write the review and move on, just as we visit this palace to take that picture. “Rushing past… No more time to stay and dream…” as Dowland has it (look, for example, at this version from Les Canards Chantants) .  We actually need time to stay and dream, and puzzling over a book’s ambiguity provides some of that.

Let me very briefly take a few examples: Le Petit Prince; The Rabbit and the Shadow; My Brother’s Book.  I could go on, of course, but these are especially ambiguous in lots of ways. I may be displaying my ignorance here, and to others the answers may be very obvious indeed but

  • Is the little Prince in the novella a hallucination?
  • In The Rabbit and the Shadow,  how many characters have an independent existence? Are they all in a child’s play? Is the soldier, because of their humanity, the one playing?
  • When Guy dives into the maw of the bear in My Brother’s Book, is he already dead?

Notice I haven’t asked these first of all in terms of the author’s intention. I think it’s a different thing to ask “Who does Saint-Exupéry want us to think of when we see the little Prince?” “Does Mélanie Rutten intend us to see this as in some way a “real” adventure, or is it all in the child’s mind?” “Sendak plays with Jack and Guy in other work, and with the notion of death in Outside Over There. Is the Bear the same as the goblins?” These are not so different from exam questions that could be

  • Explore the role of the angelic in Le Petit Prince and Mary Poppins
  • In what ways might the Stag-Rabbit relationship in The Rabbit and the Shadow be a parent-child model and what does this tell us about contemporary models of family?
  • Discuss (with reference to both texts), how death is represented symbolically in the Winters Tale and My Brother’s Book (NB: use of the online game in Winterson’s The Gap in Time will gain extra credit).

None of these nine are, at heart, bad questions, and maybe my query could simply come down to something like “Is it always an author’s task to clarify – or might their work also challenge us to think more , to do some digging?”  We expect it, of course, in some authors (it is central to the work in the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project) and for example in Garner’s “adult” texts, Boneland and Thursbitch (parallels between these two and Le Petit Prince, The Rabbit and the Shadow and in particular My Brother’s Book have not escaped me). We expect it, too, in the Brontës, Sterne, Heaney (hence the digging)… we expect, maybe work for these connections, keen eyes peeled for antecedents, symbols. It seems to me the author makes a choice to be ambiguous: think about the mystery and half-told stories in Jane Eyre until the blunt (and beautifully timed) “Reader, I married him.”  Does a “children’s author” make the same choices?

I don’t think all do – but I do think they can do. I look at Mat’s exposition (again the digging metaphor) of Town is By the Sea or his discussion of the book with the artist here on his blog, and see that there is a real chance for children and adults to think critically and deeply about the books they read.   I also don’t think this always needs to mean that we can work through a line-by-line exegesis or pinpoint exactly where an illustrator is standing when they sketch, but that thinking deeply might mean living with and savouring rather than codifying and commenting on the subtleties of a text or picture. Barring the odd editorial mistake, we must trust the author to have intended a lack of clarity, an image half explained (Simon and the giraffe in Hilary McKay’s The Skylark’s War springs to mind), because life is not neat, every dilemma does not resolve like a Restoration Comedy – and as Saint-Exupéry (half) explains

On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur



2 thoughts on “Understanding

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