Into the Minds of Babes

Felt better yesterday and today. I’ve settled into my new project (the Trenchcoat Farewell Project) and have occupied myself with layouts, illustrations and desktop publishing. I took a friend to see Signs and, while I stand by my review of the movie, I’d have to say that the film is best viewed in a large theatre full of patrons, or in a small dark room. We were in a Friday matinee showing in a dying theatre that could sit over two hundred, but contained about ten, and the effect of some of the thrills were lost.

Actually, on Monday, not only was the theatre full, but in front of us sat a set of fifteen year olds. These were your usual rambunctious teenagers, chattering and bouncing and throwing popcorn at each other in the leadup to the movie and through the trailers. Erin’s step-mother, Judy, turned to me and whispered that “the teacher part of me wants to tap them on the shoulder and shush them,” to which I replied, “Judy, I’m feeling it too, but I don’t think that’s the teacher part that’s speaking.”

Ah, I’m getting old.

However, once the movie started, the kids in front settled right down, and we had far more trouble with the thirtysomethings behind us, leaning towards each other and muttering things like “okay, who’s this guy?” “I think he’s Mel Gibson’s brother” “Why is the policewoman calling Mel Gibson ‘father’?” “I think he used to be a priest”. Please note, by the way, that I myself engaged in similar activity, leaning in and commenting briefly to Erin and Judy.

That audience leant Signs a considerable amount of energy, and the teens in front of us contributed a great deal to that energy. They screamed at the right moments, and I think that helped Erin and even myself to scream (once). They were just the right ingredient for that afternoon.

Some of you may be wondering what fifteen year olds were doing watching one of the scariest movies since Alien. Well, Signs was rated PG, not PG-13 or AA (Adult Accompaniment). There was almost no blood in the story, and no sex. There was nothing concrete that the censor boards could hang their hats on and bulk up the rating. Not that they needed to, because children love to be scared.

Sometimes we don’t give children enough credit. It goes in phases, and we see this by our own surprise over what we allowed or expected children to see and read and watch in years gone by.

Some of the most mature writing that exists comes from children’s literature. Consider the fairy tales as they existed before the Victorians got their hands on them and Bowdlerized them. Little Red Riding Hood is originally called upon to strip for the wolf (which completely changes the “wolf” connotation in this story) and what Hansel and Gretel did to the poor witch would probably have them pilloried as home-invaders by today’s press (actually, I believe in one politically correct version the children were arrested).

But even with these changes, children’s literature has the power to shake adults. One of the frankest depictions of polio comes in the recently published book by Orca Book Publishers, Anne Laurel Carter’s In the Clear. The first-person description of a seven-year-old being paralyzed inside an iron lung left me unsettled, and this book is rated for 9-13 year olds.

Doctor Who has been in trouble a number of times. Though supposedly a children’s show, it has undergone a few phases where frightening stories were the norm, and it didn’t shy away from violence and even blood. Parents were outraged. Children, on the other hand, ate it up. The only time children themselves were unsettled was when the show made the ordinary seem horrific. The time the Doctor reached out and pulled the mask off the face of a London policeman, revealing the faceless automaton beneath, that took the show to a new level of controversy.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy contains moments which still frighten this thirty-year-old. C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle is the Battle of Armageddon written for children. Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time penned a sequel entitled A House Like a Lotus which has discussions about homosexuality, and has a brief (and tastefully handled) scene of the sixteen year old daughter of Meg Murry losing her virginity. What is appropriate for children and what isn’t? Well, our tolerances may vary, but I think we know when we see it.

In all the examples I have come up with, children’s literature may frighten or inform, but it never sickens, this despite the fact that children (boys especially) are among the grossest creatures on the planet. Gorefests remain outside the realm, although I’m sure that there are exceptions. A lot depends upon the telling, and I can’t even begin to set down the rules.

I guess, when it comes to writing any story, you should not aim to write for children especially. Just write. The story’s internal integrity is more important than the audience the author wants to reach. The story will reach for its own audience.

I’m thinking about this as I am writing sequels to Rosemary and Time because I am finding that, as I go through the series, the books get more mature. This happened to Madeleine L’Engle as well (witness the difference between A Wrinkle in Time and A House Like a Lotus), but I’m no Madeleine L’Engle. Assuming that I am lucky enough to get the first book published, will I end up writing myself out of my age group?

The Young City features Rosemary and Peter as eighteen-year-olds. They are comfortably in love, but then suddenly thrown back to 1884 Toronto, where they must pose as a married couple in a one-room apartment (the assumption comes accidentally, but they stick to it so that they can stick together). This lasts for four months.

They’re eighteen. They’re in love. And they’re forced to live together. I can already tell that there is going to be an undercurrent of unresolved sexual tension here that will lend this story an edge (they’ve resolved to abstain, partly because they’re not ready but also because birth control is almost non-existent in 1884 Presbyterian Toronto). How far can I take this tension?

In this scene, Peter and Rosemary have been stuck in 1884 Toronto for over a month. They’ve adapted their one-room apartment with sheets hung from the ceiling to maintain private areas. But asking for privacy in a one-room apartment might still be impossible…

Rosemary splashed water over her arms. “Oh, and don’t let me forget to go down to the butcher’s tomorrow. He said a new shipment of meat would be in, and I want to get it while it’s still fresh.”Peter coughed. “Yes, Rosemary.”

She frowned. “Are you okay?”

She could hear him squirming on the bed. “Yes, absolutely. Just a frog in my throat.”

“Okay. Watch that. We don’t have good cold medication in 1884.” She finished rinsing and stood up in the middle of the tub. After stretching a moment (the washtub was horribly cramped), she poked her hand out between the hanging sheets. “Towel, please?”

Peter got out of bed. Peeping through the covers, she could see him approach, his eyes averted and his cheeks flushed. She smirked. He pressed a towel into her hand and returned to the bed.

“Thanks!” She dried herself and wrapped the towel around her before stepping lightly through the sheets and behind the privacy screen on the other side of the room. She slipped on her bedclothes.

“You going to have a bath yourself, Peter?”

“No.” Peter’s voice seemed oddly strained. “I’m too tired. I want to sleep.”

“Suit yourself.” She emerged from the screen, brushing her hair, and stopped dead.

She stared at the sheets they’d hung around the washbasin. The window was behind them and the moon shone through, setting the sheets aglow. Against this, the tub was a dark silhouette.

She looked at Peter.

Peter rolled on his side and pretended to be asleep.

She slipped into bed beside him. Silence stretched for minutes. Then, without warning, she slugged him in the shoulder.

“Ow!” said Peter. “Sorry.”

Despite herself, Rosemary chuckled.

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