Posted by: David Thorpe | September 11, 2010

Put away childish things?

When I was a child I used to wonder why it was that grown-ups seemed to have forgotten what it was like to be a child themselves. They really didn’t have a clue.

So I promised myself that when I grew older I would remember. All those things that matter to children at each age. How everything is so new, how things adults don’t notice are so matters of life and death. Why couldn’t they understand? Attention shifts from this to that, because this is so utterly fascinating and that is now completely boring.

And, of course, I want to have fun.

That’s partly why I write children’s books and partly why I enjoy it so much, connecting back to those teenage excitements and emotions. I hope it’s why kids enjoy my books.

Last night I was chatting with Elen Caldecott after a reading/workshop we both gave with Val Tyler in Rhayader, and she told me how her younger self used to write messages to her older self and roll them up and leave them in the spines of cloth covered books for her older self to find. Because she knew she would forget. And she was right.

Letter to Myself by Arnold Wesker - part of poster for the play featuring Isabel RabeyLetter to Myself‘ is the title of a short play written by Arnold Wesker for a friend, Isabel Rabey (part of the poster is here), to perform as a solo half-hour piece when she was 13, in which younger versions of herself told the older version exactly what the world was about. Of course, the older version couldn’t believe it. But Arnold knew, because he had known Izzy all his life.

Or had he? After all, he was a grown-up.

As for Elen, she didn’t pay any attention to her younger self’s letters either. She couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. In fact, she confessed that she has probably turned into the kind of person her younger self totally disapproved of.

And she writes for children.

So what does that add up to? Do you need to feel like a child to write for children?



  1. Fascinating topic, David. I remember a blissful period of childhood between about the ages of three and ten when I was almost feral. As much as I would like to capture that child in a book, I’m not sure it’s possible. Roddy Doyle comes close in ‘Paddy Clarke’ – but Paddy is a very observant and clever child, and I was more like a chimp. My child characters are always too knowing; I have tried to create a character who was like me, but when I was young the world was a delicious blur of romps, bumps and scrapes. It’s so tricky getting a story through the mind of a child who isn’t much of a thinker.

  2. I just remembered – the other night Izzy’s Mum was complaining how patronising teachers often are to kids – even the 19 year old students of theatre-in-education she tutors. How quickly we forget! As kids we hated such instructors. As a reader I smell condescension in many a childrens’ writer of old. Are we guilty of it ourselves? How do we tell?

  3. Definitely food for thought, David. I doubt if many of us truly capture what it was really like to be a child and record it as a child would record it (if indeed that’s what we’re after). I think we must all be good at taking on roles and I guess we have strong empathy skills. I’m too shy to be an actor, but when I wrote my first book, I had to almost become the main character Artie, while I recorded his thoughts and feelings, at least while I was at the keyboard. I may even have spoken some of his dialogue out loud sometimes

  4. Ooh yes!
    But then I don’t think I ever grew up…

    I love the idea of hiding little messages in the spines of books for my elder self.
    Luckily, I only have to open a much thumbed and spine- tattered book from my childhood, to put my nose in the gutter and breathe deep and I’m there.
    Just the sight of my sputtering and scrawled signature and the years fall away.
    Then there is the revisiting of these sacred texts over the last 26 years of my fatherhood with my six children and the promise of reprise with my little daughter, now one.
    I garden from a toddler’s perspective too!

  5. I actually think this is the main qualification for becoming a children’s writer – the desire to see things through a child’s eyes, and to take their world as seriously as they do.A problem I frequently come across when critiquing unpublished novels is the author swinging the story round to the adults’ point of view, without even realising they’re doing it. On the other hand, it’s not always (or often) necessary or desirable to make your characters wholly realistic children, because children aspire and they want heroes, not a mirror.

  6. I don’t think I feel like a child, but I am still very easily bored. Consequently, if my writing holds my attention, I expect it to hold everyone else’s.

    I encouraged my daughter to write herself a letter when a young teenager to open many years hence. I wish I had thought to do this when I was a child.

    I very much enjoyed meeting you, David, and Elen on Friday night. It was a terrific evening.

  7. Ha! I wondered if my idle comments would make it into your blog.
    My feeling is that there are some points in your life that you remember vividly, and others that have faded. I remember being 8,9,10 yeas old very well. I can’t really remember being 5, or 15. So, when I write, it is with that version of me in mind: what would I have liked to read? Of course, it has to be updated, language has changed and cultural mores have shifted. But I still try and hold on to the perspective of that long-ago little girl.

  8. @Val – Yes, it was a good evening. Rebbecca organised it terrifically and the kids were great. I really enjoyed your reading. I want a storytelling cloak like yours!

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