Top authors turn their talents to stories for children -- (and grownups); Wonders: Writings and Drawings for the Child in Us All, edited by Jonathan Cott and Mary Gimbel. New York: Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books. $17.95.
It is certainly a wonder that one would ever find the following works rubbing shoulders together in one volume: a nonsense poem by Norman Mailer; George Plimpton's dialogue concerning the polymorphous perversity of the Greek gods; an Appalachian Mountain tale lustily retold by Ken Kesey; a doll story by Betty Comden; a spiritual parable by Allen Ginsberg; Maxine Hong Kingston's witty cartoon recipes about "Ways to fly" and "How to make knives out of nails;" a Paul Goodman marionette play; an Isaac Asimov fable about that perennial question, "Who Will Go to Heaven?" a Nikki Giovanni rhyme that begins: "Never tickle/a prickled pickle/cause prickled pickles/Don't smile"; Alice Adams's updated parody of 19th-century moral tracts, "Success: An Admonitory Fable for Young Girls"; Max Apple's story about how the stories took over the Apple house.
Yet these offer only a fleeting tast of the 147 minor and major "wonders" that Jonathan Cott and Mary Gimbel have blended together in this anthology of unusual works by established and avant-garde writers and artists, their children , their friends, and their friends' children.
The editors asked this widely varied group, most of whom had not written for children before, to "contribute a story, or a poem, or a fantasy, or a fable -- whatever you have in mind -- that you might like to tell a child (of any age)" or "that ultimately appeals to the child in you -- regardless of the conventions of 'children's literature.'" One might expect the results of so many first efforts to be somewhat uneven in quality -- and they are. The works range from the pedestrian (Anne Beattie's coy, elliptical dog story/cartoon) to the puzzlingly internal (Strawberry Saroyan's stream of consciousness "Strawberry Talking") to the outrageously funny to the purely astonishing (Leslile Fiedler's haunting, primordial retelling of the Japanese "Peach Boy" folktale).
Collectively, this range of contributions demonstrates the "kiddie lit" isn't mere child's play, the kind of writing a "serious" artist hacks out on a weekend to turn a quick buck. The works in "Wonders" illustrate just how difficult it is to write well for children or from one's own sense of childhood, as I am sure many of those collected here would readily admit. Yet the important thing to acknowledge here is that this interesting group of writers were all willing to take the plunge and the attendant risks of working in a field that is generally snubbed by the world of letters. And they have taken their chances, even in the disappointing pieces, with panache, sincerity, imagination, and love.
To simply comment on the varied successes of the entries, though, is to miss the point of the book and thereby to neglect to note its power in the deeper sense of wonder that it achieves. If all of the works in the book are not what we would normally think of as "children's literature" (viz. John Irving's absurdist domestic drama, Jill Johnston's probing in what seems to be an overheard conversation between an unconscious boy and a supremely aware girl, or Richard Eberhart's evocation of boyhood cruelty in his memory about snaring gophers) -- it is because, as Jonathan Cott points out in his introduction, we are invoking a regressive and ultimately repressive idea of what children's literature should or shouldn't be. "Too often," Mr. Cott remarks, "what is considered exemplary -- i.e. 'inoffensive' -- in the field is merely a devitalized and trivialized sense of childhood, leading to sentimental and patronizing books that are meant to satisfy only hypothetical children."
He invites us, rather, to consider the words of P. L. Travers in a statement that is worth repeating here and worth posting directly above any would-be writer-for-children's typewriter and kept in clear sight by many who already claim to be writing for children: "To be aware of having been a child -- and who am I but the child I was, wounded, scarred and dirtied over, but still essentially that child, for essence cannot change -- to be aware of and in touch with this fact is to have the whole long body of one's life at one's disposal, complete and unfragmented. You do not chop off a section of your imaginative substance and make a book specifically for children for -- if you are honest -- you have, infact, no idea where childhood ends and maturity begins. It is all endless and all one."
It is in this holistic spirit that "Wonders" should be taken. It is a boldly provocative attempt on the part of nearly all of the writer's to return to the creative wellsprings of their own recovered childhoods; it is also a cumulative effort to rescue children's literature from its second-class literary citizenship. "Wonders" is an experiment, a pioneering book. As such, it may easily be misunderstood. The remarkable, understated control in Peter Matthiessen's slice-of-life account of Tukum, a New Guinea boy, and his poignant struggle to acquire a new name and some measure of self-worth is a tale that probably would not make any present publisher's juveline list. But it should. And let us hope that the ripple effects of Cott's and Gimbel's anthology will make it possible for works like Matthiessen's (and many others in the collection) to appear and be available for children andm adults -- without reading-level tags or any other apologies. In short, let us hope that the "wonders" that have begun with this book are only the beginning.