Children need windows. To look out at the world. To raid the world for one brief moment and retreat safely. There are children--I was one--who watch from third-floor windows and drip spit and milk on approaching passers-by, ducking back inside before they can be spotted.
Overtake a station wagon with its three miniature faces, squashed up at the rear window, watching the world unroll backwards. Three tongues snake out at you. Their owners assault that unrolling world for a moment, confident of protection. It's practice.
Books are children's windows. They reveal the world and, in imagination, allow the reader an experimental sortie from the safety of their living room or bedroom. The safety is not absolute. A book can sneak downstairs after lights-out and unlatch the door for bad dreams.
The experienced reader-child--I was one--will keep a volume of Thornton Burgess' "Bedtime Stories" to dip into for a few minutes, if he has been incautious enough to stay up late with "The Monkey's Paw." There is always the risk, of course, that Chatterer the Red Squirrel will whisk across the Green Meadow at 3 a.m., paws dripping blood and twitching for one more child's head to add to the winter store of nuts.
A children's book, like a window, should expand the imagination and reassure it. Proportion is everything, and not fixed, in any case. One child will be made distinctly unhappy by the monsters of "Where the Wild Things Are"; another will find enough reassurance in the absurdity to be able to cope with the monsters. Still others will take a hint from the enthusiasm of the adults and sail gamely along, flying a pennant of enjoyment over a cargo of misery.
Children are always on the lookout for adult clues; giving a child a book can produce real anxiety. What will the newcomer do to the ecology so precariously established? It is also true, from another aspect, that one of the authentic ways to encourage a child's attachment to books is for a parent to enjoy reading them aloud. The real North Star for a growing child is not what grown-ups say or think, but what they take pleasure in.
There's a lot of pedagogy, and not so much pleasure, on display in the children's sections of our bookstores. Maybe as much as in the days of the chapbooks and the morality tales. True, it is a far broader pedagogy, at least apparently.
There are any number of books that teach tolerance with bright colors and squiggly lines. There are those that say, "Smile" and "Have a Nice Day." There are books that give official approval to spontaneous silliness, along with instructions on how to go about it. The books with messages about being helpful also try to include a message about being yourself.
There are pint-size adaptations of the latest ideas on psychological health and well-being. (Alice Walker's "To Hell With Dying" shows that you can be old and gutsy.)
There is Neo-Loveliness; which, I suppose, is the children's-book equivalent of post-modern ornamentation. (Nancy White Carlstrom and Bruce Degen's "Better Not Get Wet, Jesse Bear" intercuts the splashing of its permissibly naughty baby bear with lyricism on the order of: "White Swan, White Swan/Gliding on the smooth pond."
The problem is not that these are adult aesthetics, humor, morality, or what have you, imposed upon children. The problem is that the adults are telling their stories for the sake of what they imagine the children ought to hear or ought to want to hear. They are telling stories on behalf of children; not to children.
Telling a story to someone, in the first place, is telling the thing you want to say. In the second place, it is telling the thing you say to that particular person you want to say it to. The unique teller speaks to the unique listener.
And what can you want to tell a child? You want to tell what you can tell to nobody else; you want to tell about the unassimilated, unregenerate, subversive child in yourself. Only a few of us have it, or know it, or need to tell it. There are only a few tellers of children's tales. And they are all subversives.
The Alices are a reaction to a Victorian age of crushingly material good sense. Lewis Carroll, or Charles Dodgson, a mathematician whose pure numbers were in danger of being overwhelmed by steam engines, thick rugs and tasseled lamps, devised an order of supreme nonsense. "The Wind in the Willows" is another Victorian revolt; Arcadia against factories and slums, a pastoral world of little animals that children could feel reassured with, even while fighting the stoats at Toad Hall.