Wilkins' Tooth (was Re: Introductions)

Charles Butler hannibal at thegates.fsbusiness.co.uk
Tue Jun 24 09:42:00 EDT 2003

> Jennifer
Didn't She
> Herself say that children mind less about not getting things than adults,
> because they quite often don't get things, and they read the bits they do
> get more attentively? (Rhetorical question, but also not, that is, I think
> remember reading something like that somewhere, but ICBW.)

She's talked about children being more attentive readers in a couple of
places, I think, but the specific question about putting in references to
things children probably won't have read is one I asked in the interview for
"Exciting and Exacting Wisdom". Don't know if this is what you were thinking
of, but I think it's interesting anyway on the way children learn (we'd been
talking about the references to Burnt Norton in F&H):

"I think this goes back to what I was saying about giving children
experience. When they come to read Four Quartets later, if any of them do,
it will chime somewhere. I think it's quite important to give children as
many pegs to hang things on as is possible. This is the way you learn. It
takes a tremendous effort to grind one fact into your head, but if you've
got it there already from something you've read, then it happens happily and
easily - even if you don't know what that something is. So I never worry
about putting in things that are not within children's capacities, because I
don't think this matters. I think it's very good for children to notice that
there's something going on that they don't quite understand. This is a good
feeling because it pulls you on to find out."

Even so, I do believe it's a matter of degree. I think what DWJ is
describing here is a happy medium between two undesirable extremes. At one
end of the scale there's the practice (much seen in panto) of throwing in a
few references that aren't necessary to the plot, that go over the
children's heads, but are picked up by adult/sophisticated readers. I'm not
too keen on this, partly because it seems kind of patronizing to be winking
at adult readers over the little ones' heads, partly because (my formalist
instincts showing here) I can't help feeling that if something isn't
'necessary' it has no business being there! But I realise one can be too
puritanical about this.

At the other end of the scale, the sophisticated references might be so
integral and necessary to understanding what's going on that ignorance of
them would make the book impossible to read. Not just noticing "there's
something going on that they don't quite understand" but floundering
hopelessly. Try reading "Finnegan's Wake" as a bedtime story and you'll see
what I mean. As before, though, one can be too timorous about this, keeping
books back until children are the 'right' age and so on. On the whole my
instincts are well summed up by A Ransome, DWJ's childhood nemesis: 'Better
drowned than duffers. If not duffers won't drown.'


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