Writing

A note on the tragedy of children in fiction

I just googled “children artwork” and this was one of the first results:

It’s roughly what you’d expect. Colors and stick figures, a sun with rays that look like hairs, flowers all facing a single direction.

I’ve never looked into it, but I wonder how much anyone’s ever taken the time to analyze the most frequently recurring symbols in the art of children. Why are their pictures so often set outdoors on a sunny day? Why do flowers feature so prominently? Why are there more smiles than frowns? Why is the sun in the corner of the sky?

I had an idea yesterday for a story I can’t be bothered to write. Perhaps someday it’ll feature in something I do. A teacher is surprised to find that one of his young students can only draw abstract representations of things. While all the other kids are outlining little people next to houses with trees and flowers and a sun in the corner, this kid is drawing uninterpretable shapes. The teacher asks him to talk about the drawings, and the kid points at each shape and says: “That’s my house.” “That’s my mom.” “That’s the sun.” He gives the exact same answers all the other kids do, but his pictures are incomprehensible.

At this point the story can go in radically different ways:

It could be a corny morality tale: maybe the teacher is a simple-minded but friendly villain and he gently encourages the kid to make the drawings more accessible so everyone can enjoy them, and the kid, so very innocent, complies. The world is thereby deprived of a great individualist.

It could be structured like a detective story: something about this child is mysterious, and the teacher decides to find out more. At the end of the story, it is revealed that the child has some special quality that explains his drawings.

It could be a story about friendship and un-learning: the kid and the teacher talk about life in a way that never strays too far from the pictures, and the teacher ends up learning far more from his own student than he could ever have expected.

Or maybe the whole point isn’t the child, but the teacher himself, who, it is revealed at the end, was an unreliable narrator who misinterpreted the drawings. They were perfectly normal all along, and the teacher is the real inventor, in some sense. You could cheapen it with an emphasis on his insanity or something.

The only kind of ending that I can think of without instant disgust would be something more ambiguous: something without a twist, without a moral message, without even much of a resolution. Perhaps the teacher accepts the kid’s explanations — “I see. Very nice!” — and moves on to the next student.

That seems sufficiently tragic, realistic, unrealistic and satirical to me, and it almost avoids the trap of “necessary resolution” that bugs me about stories involving children. The child never stands alone: he or she is always in contrast to the adult world, an emblem of secret untainted wisdom, or a symbol of the protagonist’s very real need to “grow up” or assume responsibility, or a glimpse of hope amid the story’s present chaos. It’s rare to find a film or novel that grants a child the kind of tragic mundanity that writers so subtly grant to people generally.

Secondary characters are “secondary”; the protagonist is “the main character” while the antagonist is “the character that opposes the main character” — and somehow children are a subspecies of character that can’t be left to sit in with the rest of the crew. The protagonist must protect the child, the antagonist might very well kidnap or molest the child. Among children, one must be the bully because that creates instant dramatic tension. There’s nothing quite as formulaic than children when it comes to portraying characters by age group.

A teacher who chooses to ignore the radical weirdness of abstract artwork in his class of six-year-olds has already done something significant in a story. Anything that gets too close to the mystery is in danger of losing sight of the mystery.

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