Private Life of Books


The world of books is quite mysterious. The world of children is extremely mysterious. However, the last thing that one can say about the world of children's books is that it has anything to do with mystery. In any case, it is a slippery topic, which is caught in an endless whirlpool of contradictory opinions and hasty judgements. For some, they are only a sub-genre within literature. For others, they are something radically different from literature: an instrument of socialization, a learner's manual, a toy, or above all, a respectable tradition.
The greatest obstacle to judge these books is due to their peculiar idiosyncrasy: adults produce them and choose them based on the assumption of what is best and most appropriate or what children will prefer the most.
My personal opinion about books for children is that we don't think about them very much, just like we hardly think about children, and when we evaluate them, we get carried away by a series of recurring ideas that only deal with part of the question.
I would like to briefly revise some of these ideas and invite its readers to think about the specific prejudice which especially affect our understanding of infancy and what children really are. I have noted down seven, although I am quite sure that there are many more.


Many people think that children's books are important because they pursue an educational aim: to convert children into adults. Others think that the best thing about them is that they keep children entertained: one day they will be honest citizens but for the time being, let's keep the children quiet. What do we expect from books as adults? Should they entertain us on rainy days? Should they stimulate our imagination? Should they supply us with interesting information? Should they console us when we are sad? And what do children expect from books? Irregardless if it is literature or not, one thing is clear: the books intended for young readers must fulfill the exact same demands that we adults expect from our own books.


It seems that some books tend to consider children as very simple creatures with a potatoe instead of a brain which it is necessary to water every now and then so that it can grow in size. This belief is surely what inspires authors and publishers to make idiotic books which adults would never ever read. But the brain of these children is not a vegetable or even a beautiful flower: it is a wild animal that is always hungry. In any case, it is also necessary to mention that, in fact, many young readers have a great time reading books which are truly idiotic. Naturally, this is not because children are idiots, but because they can imagine better things than those that take place in the book. Jules Renard made this note in his Diary: "What is our imagination compared to that of a child who is able to make a train out of a few asparragus?". A book without its reader is nothing: the book only begins to exist when someone opens it and becomes absorbed in it. It takes two to make the book.


Books must always be entertaining, because unless we are told otherwise, everything has been placed into the world to entertain us. When we are children, time never ever seems to pass; on the other hand, when we become adults, life seems far too short. In spite of the fact that some have the time which others lack, it is not fair that adults only use books as a toy which they exchange for a moment of calm; all too frequently this attitude leads to a whole series of misunderstandings. And clearly, it is necessary to ask ourselves in view of all the extravagant books that we have destined for the entertainment of the youngest readers, what exactly do adults understand to be "funny" or "entertaining": underneath the skin of the friendly brother bear and the charming little rabbit, there is a terribly narrow-minded vision of the world accompanied by the most dull and depressing ideas.


Irregardless of whether it serves to focus the consumption, does it really make any sense to establish watertight compartments among the age groups of readers? From a certain point of view, this classification is a restriction and a form of censorship; another perspective understands, in a very deceitful way in my opinion, that there is a progression in reading levels and that readers become more demanding as we grow up. Are the poems of Benjamin Péret adult reading material? Are the Alexander Dumas novels reading material for children? Are the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales reading material for toddlers? It depends, it depends. Not all ten-year-olds have the same experiences, the same interests, or the same capacity to understand. We will also not find the same consensus among fifty-year-olds. How-ever, it cannot be denied that children of all ages share the same curiosity and desire to learn new things.


The annoying habit to determine ages for books, as I understand it, is because of two prejudices that affect the use of images: the first considers that the illustrations are a support for those who are still not too familiar with words, and the second states that once people are able to successfully read written texts then the images are no longer necessary. Thus the child is directed to the upper level books in this way, and thus the teenagers and the adults depart from the lower level books: grown-ups never read a children's book or a book with illustrations again because these books belong to a stage that they have already passed. However, books are ageless; they only belong to those that enjoy them and adopt them as their own.


It is said that children like above all what they recognize, although this is certainly true for everyone. Perhaps this desire to please children explains why some illustrators attempt to imitate their particular way of drawing by using methods which combine rough and sophisticated styles: they hold the pencil in a closed fist, they use the left hand (if they are right-handed) or the right (if they are left-handed), they draw upside-down on the paper, etc. Those who use these methods only scratch the surface and they can't get to the other side of the mirror. On the other hand, no writer ever writes like a five year old child; with few exceptions, all writers write for those who understand them and because they want to communicate something. It is important to educate the tastes of those who are beginning to enter into the realm of books, especially in a world where the visual occupies such a predominant place, it is necessary to learn to read and criticize the images. It is a long path, thus it is necessary to start walking at an early age.


For many book buyers (I don't call them readers), the illustrations in books only serve to decorate them, make them beautiful, and nice to look at; in the same way, many book-sellers (I refuse to call them publishers) claim that they are nothing other than a ploy to attract their clientele: a drawing with bright colours is an inseparable part of children's books, like the corolla, the petals, stamen, and the pistil in the flower. In this way, the illustrator's work appears to be that of the happy juggler who hands out sweets, and this has absolutely nothing to do with the illustrator's job at all. Of course, the illustration must be attractive, and it must also be well constructed, but it must also be relevant and provide its own potential reading levels. If the images do not say anything, if they say the exactly same thing that the text says, or if they are absurd, then it is preferrable to have a book with blank pages in order to imagine better things or to give our eyes a chance to relax.


When writers are asked why they write, they usually have answers to please everyone: some answer that it is what they do best, others state that it is the only thing that they know how to do; some write so that people will love them more; and many others are not at all sure why they write. Perhaps, deep down writers write in order to find out why they write.

Perhaps, deep down writers write in order to find out why they write. What about publishers? What are their reasons? What is it that motivates someone to become a publisher? Today, as I pause in my task of making books, I look into the sky, which is an immense blank page, and I ask myself: "Why do I make books?".

Since there are always seven reasons for everything, it is obvious that there must be seven reasons to make books, and thus I shall not give it another thought: there are exactly seven reasons and here's what they are:

1. The first reason is that "I must make a living somehow". The verb "to make" is an outstanding verb. Let's see, there is the "Money-maker", the "Supreme Maker" and the "Love-not War-maker". I don't know exactly why, but I must make a living somehow. So let's make books for children!

2. The second reason is not even a reason, because I find nothing reasonable about making books for children. Let's just say this job is a whim and that it's fun. Please allow me to fool myself into believing that this is case. And if it is fun, then it is a wonderful thing to make books for children!

3. I can't help it: I am a reader. I learned how to read and I just keep on reading. Like all veteran readers, I don't trust in the usefulness of reading, but I naturally believe in books and it is very difficult for me to imagine a world without them. In a world without books, the people who are used to reading them while they stroll along the streets wouldn't stick their feet into the puddles, run into street lamps, and someone has to do these things. The kids wouldn't get to scribble in them, throw them around, and use them for their target practice, when these things are so vitally important. Since someone has to make books, then the person who has fun making them should make them. So let's make books for children!

4. I am almost ashamed to confess the fourth reason. I have watched people read since I was little and it doesn't appear to me that anyone is any better because they have read one, two, or two thousand books that are within their reach. If we want better people (everyone knows what I mean by this), and if we believe that books must continue to exist because it is something that we have fun doing, and sometimes they are fun to read and because it is necessary to make a living doing something, perhaps the solution lies in making the books that don't exist. We must make the books that don't exist so that the people who don't exist will exist. If this is not a childish faith, then it is worthless. Let's make books, children!

5. I am an idealist, and I want to save the world. That's what happens when you read too much, you immediately want to save the world. But when you only read a little bit or when you only read the Bible, or when like Charlton Heston, President of the National Rifle Association, you interpret the role of Moses and all you can do is read the Ten Commandments, than that is even worse. When one grabs a rifle with so much joy, what are these seven reasons, what are these Ten Commandments worth? Instead of rifles, let's make books for children!

6. It is necessary to save the world, but let's not overdo it. And if I can't save it, then at least I can have some fun, and thus save myself. For selfishness, I vindicate the craftsmanship of publishing and handmade work, which produces a certain degree of satisfaction afterwards. If there is no money, there are no books; and if there is too much money then there won't be any either. To convert a certain amount of money into books and then change these books into even more books is a gymnastic feat that is difficult to manage. Let's make books, let's make books for children!

7. Making books is just as good and just as bad as doing anything else, but why for children? In my opinion, if it makes any sense to make books, then it makes even more sense to make them for children. Because the world (and we sometimes forget this) belongs to children. The best books must be for children, the best stories, the best drawings, the best paper, and the best shelves. Forget about distributing leftovers and condemning children to the most isolated corner of the bookshops, let's stop giving them undemanding texts and drawings that are nothing but a sad caricature of what children actually do. This is not right and it is not pretty.

Vicente Ferrer Azcoiti