Yesterday I attended the fascinating and thought-provoking conference, “Fear and Fiction: The Power Of Children’s Books and The Inner Life of The Child” which was co-sponsored by the Yale Child Study Center and London’s Anna Freud Centre and held at New York City’s Bank Street College of Education.
The day began with a superb keynote speech by Steven Marans of the Yale University Child Study Center. Setting the tone of the day, Marans began with a personal story illustrating not only the fallibility of memory, but of adults to know what children truly fear. Marans remembered being 4 1/2 years old and watching the rescue of a raccoon outside his window. Telling his parents years later they looked at each other and then asked, “Do you want to know what really happened?” The real story was horrible, culminating in the shooting not rescuing of the raccoon. His parents had no idea that he had turned the true story into a fictional narrative, “How could we have known?” they asked wondering and wishing that they had so they could have helped him. Marans went on to point out that it always is hard for adults to know what are behind children’s fears. Once, a fear (say of kidnappers coming into the house) gets into a child’s mind, it is no easy matter to get it out (convince them that there is no way kidnappers will get in). And the task is even harder for adults when even the child does not identify the fears, as in Marans’ raccoon story.
Marans spoke of the “mystery of meaning.” That it is difficult for us adults to know since it is so hard for us to listen and remember. That is, we (understandably) tend to relegate our own memories of fears as children (who wants to remember them, after all?) and so it is hard to help children with theirs.
Marans said so much more, often through powerful stories of children he had observed. He spoke of adults giving children words for what they are fearing, of practicing response to the fears, of the capacity for fantasy and imaginary narratives, of the child’s opportunity to control and master scenarios, of the flexibility of fantasy life, and how “narrative creates a resolution…” unlike those in nightmares. He noted that books are children’s tools for mastery of fears even as they also entertain. He ended by talking about the remarkable and frightening movie and book, “Night of the Hunter” and quoted the book of which I only have the part, “Lord save little children….”
Next was a picture book panel featuring Martin Waddell, Robie H. Harris, and Mo Willems. Waddell focused most evocatively on his book, OWL BABIES, which others referred back to through the day. (“I want my mummy!”) Harris talked of putting chaos into order as parents try to do too. How she tries to make children’s fears bearable and discussed her book DON’T FORGET TO COME BACK! in this regard. Of particular interest were those points in the book that made her editor nervous and how they came to resolution about them. (e.g. showing the child in the belly of the moose saying “I told you so” to balance the scary image). Willems was hilarious (much joshing about talking to an audience of Freudians) and serious as he talked about LEONARDO THE TERRIBLE MONSTER, a story of failure more than of fear, he explained. He ended by telling us he always wants to be on the kids’ side and that his book about saying please was about “how to get the cookie.” Getting the cookie is what is important.
The two responding analysts were Jenny Stoker and Alicia Lieberman. Stoker was pretty dense for us non-Freudians, but Lieberman grabbed us from the start with her appreciations of the books and by connecting them to her own work with babies in foster homes. She spoke of the first universal being the fear of the loss of the mother figure (as in OWL BABIES) and of annihilation. While it is comforting to know that tantrums (like the one in DON’T FORGET TO COME BACK!) only go so far it also shows how “puny” the child’s power really is. She also highlighted the existential dilemma of Leonardo filling one whole page of his book. (She mixed the words “terrible” and “friendship” at one point, one of many Freudian slips of the day:) She ended with a personal story involving a nightmare, Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” and the line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.
The afternoon keynote was by Gregory Maguire. Continuing the tone set from the start, Maguire’s talk too was very personal. He quoted Roger Scruton, “Consolation from imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.” However, much of his talk was built around the James Dickey’ poem “Falling” and personal stories tied to it, to fear, to fiction, to children, and the connections between them. It is impossible to do justice to this talk. I was so pulled in (as Maguire is a master orator as any one who has seen him will agree with) that I stopped taking notes and just listened. Just take my word that it was magnificent.
A middle-grade panel followed featuring Neil Gaiman (who was not there so his talk was read by someone else), Lois Lowry, and Pam Munoz Ryan. Gaiman’s words were powerful, but I didn’t take notes so can’t say much more. Pam spoke of moving personal stories, celebrating the importance of teachers and librarians in her and children’s lives. Lois Lowry’s talk, featuring her new book GOSSAMER, was especially moving. Continuing the trend of the day, she too gave us the personal stories that are behind this beautiful work. “Books, “ she said, “become the sort of dream worlds where the terrors dissipate and subside.” The two responding analysts were Judy Yanof and Nick Midgely.
Last was a YA panel featuring David Almond (unfortunately not able to be there so his talk was read by someone else), Chris Crutcher, and Jacqueline Woodson. Almond’s talk was personal and lovely and both Chris and Jackie spoke personally, passionately, and beautifully. Their stories were moving and extraordinarily powerful. Crutcher told an eagaging (and ultimately hopeful) story about one child he had worked with, spoke of “testing kids into comas” and that no child could be left behind because “they aren’t going anywhere” in today’s schools. Woodson talked of her daughter, of her books, and of writing “against her future fears.” As always she was powerful and brilliant. The responding analysts were Karen Gilmore and Arietta Slade.
The day was long, dense, intense, moving, thought provoking, and worthwhile. Another conference is already being planned, ”Fiction, Feelings, and Imagination: The Power of Children’s Books and The Inner Life Of The Child” to be held in London in October 2007.