Then somebody (mysterious unknown somebody) came up with an even better Rule. This was that children’s books were allowed only to deal with Problems. You took a social Problem - parents divorcing, mother a nymphomaniac, father drunk or gay (or both), brother on drugs, child crippled or bullied, a moron in the family, epilepsy, poverty (but only if you were stuck for a problem; poverty was too easy) - and you wrote about this Problem in stark, distressing terms. Then - this is the Rule - you gave it to the child with that problem to read. The child was supposed to delight in the insight and to see his own parents (or brother or disability) as a Joyful Challenge.
This rule is still in force today. People truly believe in it - and this is despite the obvious question that Jill Paton Walsh once asked: if you were divorcing, what would you think of the person who made you read Anna Karenina?
One adult I questioned said that John Masefield’s The Box of Delights would have been his always-remembered marvelous book, but for the fact that when he thought of it he always remembered that at the end it turned out to have been only a dream. Quite right. This is cheating. It is giving a feast of the imagination with one hand and taking it away with the other. It is as if Masefield’s nerve failed and he said at the end, ‘You needn’t bother to believe this.’ But in doing so he had abused the responsibility he had by suddenly grinding the reader’s nose into a sober, waking life where the wonders he had been telling you simply do not count.
If the wonders are going to be with you for the rest of your life, why do they not count?
To take the most obvious first: I found myself thinking as I wrote, “These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.” Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers. Children are used to making an effort to understand. They are asked for this effort every hour of every school day, and though they may not make the effort willingly, they at least expect it. In addition, nearly everyone between the ages of nine and fifteen is amazingly good at solving puzzles and following complicated plots - this being the happy results of many hours spent at computer games and watching television. I can rely on this. I can make my plots for them as complex as I please, and yet I know I never have to explain them more than once (or twice at the very most). And here I was, writing for people of fifteen and over, assuming that the people who read, say, Fire and Hemlock last year have now given up using their brains.
This is back-to-front to what one usually assumes, if one only looks on the surface, but I found it went much deeper than that. At first I thought it was my own assumption, based on personal experiences. Once when I was doing a signing, a mother came in with her nine-year-old son and berated me for making The Homeward Bounders so difficult. So I turned to the boy to ask him what he didn’t understand. “Oh, don’t listen to her,” he said. “I understood everything. It was just her that didn’t.” It was clear to both of us that his poor mother had given up using her brain when she read. Likewise, a schoolmaster who was supposed to be interviewing me for a magazine explained to me that he had tried to read Charmed Life and couldn’t understand a word, which meant, he said, that it was much too difficult for children. So he didn’t interview me. He was making the surface assumption that children need things easy. But since I have never come across a child that didn’t understand Charmed Life, it occurred to me that he was making the assumption about himself. But it was a hidden one, and when I came to write for adults, I realized that it was something all adults assumed. I grew tender of their brains and kept explaining.
This makes an absurd situation. Here we have books for children, which a host of adults dismiss as puerile, overeasy, and are no such thing; and there we have books for adults, who might be supposed to need something more advanced and difficult, which we have to write as if the readers were simpleminded.
It dawned on me that tennis stars were perfect models of heroes – all kinds of heroes – folk tale, myth, comicbook, and above all modern fantasy. And I found myself attending closely and thinking very hard indeed.
For a start, they all had that larger-than-life quality. They stood out among…