Sunday, July 5, 2015

What We Can Learn From the "Competent Children" of Literature

I've been rereading E. Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet, the third book in her Psammead trilogy (for those of you have who sadly missed out on these books as kids, a Psammead is a sand fairy, capable of granting wishes), and returning to it as an adult I've been thinking a lot about "competent children." This is a phrase I've heard numerous times in numerous contexts; Laura Miller in her book The Magician's Book ascribes it to writer and critic Colin Greenland, but I can't trace the source. In any case, competent children are the adventurous protagonists of children's literature, especially British children's literature. Competent children are level-headed, sensible, forward thinking, and good problem-solvers. They are determined, brave, capable of learning from their experiences, and, most importantly, open-minded - magic doesn't oppress or terrify them. The salient quality of competent children that tends to make adults, especially parents, uncomfortable is that, in order to be competent, adult caregivers have to be eliminated or rendered irrelevant. As Laura Miller writes, "The presence of Mother and Father guaranteed that children were stuck being children." From a child's perspective, no matter how safe or loved she may feel in the care of her parents, this experimental imaginary independence enacts, in the most secure and un-frightening way, the much-anticipated advent into adulthood.

Many girls in these books become surrogate mothers within their sibling or friend groups. In Nesbit's trilogy, Anthea in particular takes on a maternal role, insisting that her siblings eat properly and remember their manners; in The Story of the Amulet she takes on a similar role with an adult boarder, a student of antiquities who helps them read the writing on the amulet, by reminding him to eat his dinner and take better care of himself. Anthea is reminiscent of Wendy, from Peter Pan, who even more explicitly playacts this maternal role, actually being called Mother by Peter and the Lost Boys, and carrying out housewifely tasks, such as sewing pockets, cooking, and dosing out medicine. To a lesser extent, Susan Pevensie, from The Chronicles of Narnia, is also a maternal sibling, urging her brothers and sister to wear galoshes in the wet weather, but Susan's maternal behavior eventually morphs into an overly eager grasping at adulthood, which ultimately bars her from Narnia. When she transitions from playing at a maternal role to actually inhabiting it and becoming as skeptical as a grown-up, her ability to recognize Aslan becomes clouded and eventually she is estranged entirely.

Often there is a reversal in the dynamics between adults and children. Grown-ups, faced with magic and uncanny experiences they can't rationally explain, must rely on the children, unfazed by these bizarre happenings, to get them out of trouble. The learned gentleman friend in The Story of the Amulet is so completely incapable of believing in magic that the children have to rescue him numerous times. In The Magician's Nephew, Uncle Andrew is totally undone by his encounter with Jadis and subsequent shocked observance of the creation of Narnia. Memorably, the newly sentient talking beasts believe him to be a tree and attempt to replant and water him.

Competent children above all approach any change in their circumstances by coming up with plans and making use of the resources they have. In Matilda, Dahl's child prodigy protagonist discovers her telekinetic powers and makes use of them to free herself, and her favorite grown-up, the sweet but rather mealy-mouthed Miss Honey, from the tyrannical adults that terrorize her and the other children around her, while in The BFG, Sophie is the brains in the operation, and a humanitarian and political thinker who captures the attention of the Queen of England, while the BFG follows her instructions. In Prince Caspian, the four Pevensie children, particularly suited to face adventures after their first foray into Narnia, pragmatically approach the challenges of surviving in the wilderness, cautiously exploring their surroundings, foraging for food and water, and building a fire. Dorothy in L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz and its many, many sequels and Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass both break free of the restraints of childhood by inhabiting their respective fantasy worlds; Dorothy shows considerable pluck, standing up to villains like the Wicked Witch of the West and the vain Princess Langwidere, who covets her head, while Alice's exploration of Wonderland is perhaps the purest example of an independent child journey, as it takes place, at least in my view, in her own psyche.

In My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett, Elmer Elevator runs away from home to Wild Island to foster a baby dragon; throughout his adventures, he shows a keen curiosity and a creative use of the objects he's brought with him, such as a comb, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and many-colored hair ribbons. Paul Gallico's Jennie is unusual in that its protagonist, a boy named Peter, is only able to acquire his independence and autonomy after being transformed into a cat; unlike many of his peers, his transformation into a competent child is facilitated by a more experienced character, another cat named Jennie. Even in Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin sheds his helplessness when he enters the Hundred-Acre Wood, becoming the protector and guide to the stuffed animal denizens of his imagined kingdom. Eeyore seeks him out when he's lost his tail, Rabbit runs to him when Pooh has become stuck in his doorway, and it is to his house that everyone retires in case of an emergency. 

One certainly can't write about the competent children of literature without mentioning Harry Potter. In Rowling's series, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are nearly always acting on their own as they battle Voldemort. The adults that recognize this need to prove themselves and act of their own free will, like Dumbledore, Sirius, and Hagrid, might offer a certain amount of help, but the three friends are largely exercising their own decision-making and their strongest allies are other children, particularly, Ginny, Fred and George, Neville, and Luna. While Harry, prior to attending Hogwarts, is totally without supportive caregivers, and Hermione becomes divided from her parents both by her magical ability and her paternal decision to alter their memories and get them out of danger, it is Ron, product of a loving, warm home, who struggles most to assert himself independently and face the trials of fighting Voldemort without adult guardianship. His happy familial situation becomes almost a handicap, while Harry and Hermione, already accustomed to depending on themselves and having few knowledgeable adults to guide them, tolerate much better the exigencies of their journey.

There are competent children outside of British and American literature as well. The brilliant German writer Michael Ende's protagonist Bastian in The Neverending Story embarks on a journey that is purely individualistic and creative, an act of literary experience that must exclude others in order to be lived. Even before his interaction with the talismanic book of the title, Bastian resists the interference of grown-ups, isolated within their adult worldview and unable to fathom what could be going on in the brain of a boy who at first glance seems utterly unremarkable. Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio also, to a certain extent, fits the bill, though the book's anarchic, willfully wicked protagonist has a complexity and a chaotic spirit not in keeping with the sensible level heads of British competent children.

Though it perhaps goes without saying, competent child protagonists take on outsize importance in our current social milieu, in which children are infantilized far beyond the span of years that constitute childhood. The children in these stories accomplish more than perhaps any real child could be expected to, but it's worth noting that in most cases their skills and know-how are acquired as they go along. Matilda doesn't just have telekinetic abilities; she's intellectually brilliant and a voracious reader, willing and able to seek whatever information she may require. The Pevensie children are not just the destined heirs to the Narnian throne; they grapple with moral choices and spiritual quandaries, and work together to solve practical problems both of large and small magnitude, from defeating a far superior army with little bloodshed to figuring out how to fish without a pole. Harry Potter is not only the Chosen One, the designated force of good against evil; he's also extraordinarily brave in the face of danger, would sacrifice anything to save the life of a friend, and is single-minded in his pursuits. Magical destinies can only be granted to real children through the medium of literature, as well as the other arts, but those skills and qualities that make these fictional children competent can only be acquired through independent living, whether through free creative play or within the confines of the child experiences of family, friendships, and school. What we as adults would do well to remember is that the best and brightest are never the most sheltered and coddled - they are the children that forge their own paths, solve their own problems, and found their own friendships.

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