a zoo in hell


A Tota Light in the Attic

For the last eleven or so days, I’ve been immersed in the Writing for Young Adults and Children program at Hamline University. Not strictly as a writer, but as a documentary filmmaker. (Long time friends of mine will no doubt find this a pinnacle of irony. But it is true, I have taken quite a liking to non-fiction production.) When the camera wasn’t rolling, sometimes when it was, I allowed myself to engage with the material around me as a writer.

I discovered some amazing things while I was moving through these days, I am sure not as intensely as the other students who were actively developing their manuscripts, but probably more unexpectedly. I didn’t enter the week as a student of the genre of young adult fiction, or even as someone who really understood it. I was burdened with the distaste of what Twilight hath wrought. I had placed young adult fiction on the same bittersweet shelf with past loves, obsessions and ideals that have not withstood the facts or evidence of this one particular life.

I am not going to do the experience justice. I will say at first I felt an alien warmth returning to some cold part of my inner life. Maybe like one of those moments when a lick of flame graces its way across the ashen powder of an hours old campfure and ignites the last nugget of naked wood. Maybe like one of those impossible lighting forks where two bolts manage to connect by the briefest sky spanning arc.

As the time and the study deepened, as my own engagement slipped through the “porous membrane” between observation and participation, this new warmth brightened into a burning beacon, not lighting the way into the future, but illuminating a path which had been followed. This light fell across the pages of Charlotte’s Web, Jacob Two-Two, Watership Down, The Hobbit, Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, David Macaulay, and Richard Scarry.

While I have no expectation of suddenly dropping everything and converting completely to being a “YA Writer”, I will say that what I could see, for probably the first time, is how much I owe to this genre and this kind of work; both as a human being and as an artist. What I’ve been missing, I suppose in my eagerness to justify my interests as legitimate and grown up, is the childish impulse and pure imaginative joy which is the raw matter which all imaginative “adult” fiction springs from.

I can say that I am somehow more alive in my art, more aware of some shared struggle to preserve the paradise which has been so crudely taken from us by time, crime and the banalities which both protect and destroy our bodies and desires. In illustrated page after illustrated page of a children’s book, I can see the impulse of comic books, of storyboards and graphic novels. In the smell and crack of every freshly opened first page, I can feel the awe and terrors which have carried me forward from year to year, and link backwards further than I can say I remember.

So, before there was HP Lovecraft, JG Ballard, Phillip K Dick, Borges, Calvino, Marquez, Boyle, Murakami, Ligotti, Oates, Barker and countless others who have inspired and awakened me, there were people like L’Engle, Seuss, Blume, Silverstein, Lewis, and Edith Hamilton; artists whose work fuelled and protected the fragile source of a child’s imagination and sense of wonder.

I believe that each and every one of us who have a stake, interest or belief in the redemptive power of imaginative fiction, whatever the form, owe it to ourselves to look back and look around, not only at the early works of our cultural history, but at the early works which nurtured our eager and expansive minds.

So, maybe as paradise is lost, it can also be regained in time.