Andrea Davidson on the inspiration for Eggenwise
“I haven’t read a children’s book in years!” the professor told me over the edge of his teacup when I shared the news: having been given the chance to do research towards a PhD, I’d switched fields of study, would be learning about an author of children’s literature, and was looking forward to it. How refreshing, I thought, to take seriously something that serious people often brush aside. This was to be our final conversation (although, if you are out there and reading this, I’d like to chat again, sir, perhaps to change your mind).
Why haven’t you? What springs to his mind when he hears “children’s book” anyway? What springs to yours? What judgments and feelings spring along with it?
This last question has been asked and answered by scholars who dedicate their energy to understanding children’s literature as both form and phenomenon with significant cultural impact and aesthetic value. For example, Alison Waller recently surveyed how older adults remember books that they loved when they were young. She found that children’s literature has enough power to last a lifetime. Books beloved by us when we were younger may resonate as a feeling that can always be returned to, even if the books themselves are out of reach and their stories misremembered.
Another scholar, my mentor Vanessa Joosen, has been analysing interviews with authors and readers of children’s books to discover what the intergenerational dynamics of literature for young readers can be. She finds that literature “for children” actually has room to accommodate people of all ages as creators, readers, and characters. Even more importantly: through literature for young readers, people of different ages can connect with each other, imagine empathy for each other, and work together towards the dreams that they share.
The all-age pleasure of children’s literature may be a too-well-kept secret among literary scholars. Anyone who looks down on children’s literature might be assuming that children and adults are too different from each other to share the same sources of delight. It’s thanks and thanks again to children’s literature studies that presumptuous adults can learn to see children as similar and akin to them, equally important, and fully deserving of good books to read.
Unbeknownst to me, back then over tea in one of the plush Victorian sitting rooms of that university, I would soon be writing children’s literature as well as reading and studying it. Eggenwise began accidentally—as something that, in retrospect, I call an experiment as if it were a planned and plotted part of the research that I had set out to do (it wasn’t). In the moment that I wrote the opening lines of Eggenwise, I was suspended someplace in between the scholarly set of mind and the playfulness of this bluebottle fly that would not get out of my home for an entire summer…
The ‘child’ in children’s literature has qualities that amount to assumptions and constructions of childhood and what it is like to be young. What a child reader is capable of, curious about, ready to appreciate, and eager to laugh at are all factors that authors of children’s literature more or less decide on, deliberately or unwittingly, in the process of their writing. Scholars of children’s literature search in these texts for the type of child reader that these authorial decisions imply.
In my research, I search in literary texts for young readers and in authors’ archives, where drafts and other documents related to the writing of those texts are preserved, to investigate how authors construct age. I learned about Aidan Chambers’ creative practice through his archive, which is held at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, U.K. From there, I began to search for likenesses between the teenage characters of his Young Adult novels and the kind of reader for whom his writing asks. As an author whose Dance Sequence novels depict adolescence while his critical writings address adults and his interventions on literature education focus on primary school teaching, Chambers is an intriguing case of an author who constructs several stages of the life course throughout his oeuvre. As a researcher, I grew very interested in the crossover between the three different categories of Chambers’ writing as well as between his constructions of adulthood, adolescence, and childhood.
As a writer, I could not help myself from testing out my research findings creatively. While there may be crossovers between his writings, Chambers is not really known for being a crosswriter. My colleague and scholar Lindsey Geybels has examined the links between works of children’s, Young Adult, and adult literature that more famous crosswriters like Joke van Leeuwen and J.K. Rowling write. Nevertheless, inspired by Lindsey’s research and Aidan Chambers’ address of readers of different ages, the creative writer inside me began to wonder, what would one have to do to write to please an age-diverse readership with a single literary work?
Readers who notice that Eggenwise is like a letter home from a big sister or older cousin are reading (my collection shrewdly and) age into my writing. And how little are the sister’s addressees? As little as they have ever been, and also older. The ‘Mom poems’ in Eggenwise change the construction of age around so that the speaker appears relatively younger all of a sudden. It is partly this shifting of relative age that makes Eggenwise a growing up story. It is also a grownup story for any reader who wants to read it that way. With Amy Louise Evans’ beautiful, playful illustrations and that utterly ubiquitous fly, Eggenwise looks like a children’s book, sounds in its own way like children’s poetry, and welcomes any reader who doesn’t mind being youthful for a few pages and feeling like you’re growing up a little as you read along.