Children's literature: a source of hope and morality

''Children's literature represents a particular kind of hope,'' says Julius Lester, a black author of books for both children and adults recounting folk tales and stories from the days of slavery. ''Children demand that the tale be moral,'' he believes, a morality that consists not in ''a list of do's and don'ts, but (in) the spirit we bring to literature and to being. True art,'' he says, ''is a thoroughly honest search for values.''

He spoke at a series of guest lectures on ''Children's Literature Today'' at the Smithsonian Institution. Professor Lester, the son of a preacher, spent the civil rights years with Stokely Carmichael and now teaches Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. And he thinks children's literature - like all literature - should concern itself with ''ordinary people muddling through ordinary situations.

''When my daughter came home and told me her best friend wasn't speaking to her anymore because she had another best friend, that demanded all my attention. That was the sort of ordinary situation literature should address,'' he explains. Most popular adult literature, by contrast, consists of ''extraordinary people in extraordinary situations,'' says the professor, ''and is therefore not moral, but freaky.''

But good literature - including the best of children's literature - offers hope by showing such ''muddling through,'' he thinks, and by holding up a high ideal for human behavior. ''Literature should provide us with that flicker of lightning that shows us where we are, while showing us a vision of where we ought to be,'' he said in his lecture.

For Lloyd Alexander, a tiny man with a large imagination who writes fantasy for children, literature should be ''useful. Our problems are very real and require useful solutions,'' he says.

Literal-mindedness, on the other hand, though ''admirable in airline pilots, is not good for writers,'' he believes, and fantasy as he defines it is useful ''as a survival mechanism.'' Deprived of imagination, ''we suffer a kind of psychic malnutrition,'' he says, ''and then we are less than we might be.''

Beverly Cleary, author of characters like Henry Huggins and ''Ramona the Pest'' who are straight out of Professor Lester's demand for ordinary people muddling through, also speaks of this ''kind of starvation for the world's imagination.'' Her mother, a teacher and homesteader in Oregon, overcame the hunger by starting a library ''when other homesteaders would come for miles around just to borrow her one book.''

Mrs. Cleary became a librarian as an adult in tribute to her mother and the children's librarian who reigned three blocks from her home in Portland. ''The atmosphere of the library was spacious and uncluttered, with pretty colors and a painting of swans,'' she recalls. ''In homes of that time, it was fashionable to have a picture of a blindfolded woman playing a harp and chained to a rock - I think it was called 'Hope.' The library was a refuge from all that,'' she says evenly in a demure voice.

Mrs. Cleary's family went through hard times during the depression, and she remembers, ''During a difficult financial time, I went to the library every day.'' She finished the fairy tales first, and then started in on the myths, clinging to the Greek tale of Persephone and Demeter for solace. Pointing to this somewhat unorthodox choice, Mrs. Cleary says, ''Who are we to decide what will help a child?''

Good children's literature, be it myths or stories like Mrs. Cleary tells of children adjusting to neighbors, dogs, babysitters, and working mothers, concerns itself with basic human issues, the authors agree. ''Laughter, adaptability, and human questions, these will survive,'' summarized Lois Lowry, the acerbic author of flip and funny Anastasia Krupnik.

Children's literature should speak to children where they are, says the popular Ms. Lowry. She talks of the first time she had to make a ''palpable decision whether I was going to address adults or children, for I found that you can't do both.''

It happened at a commencement exercise for a middle school in Maine where she'd been asked to speak as an author, in the days when she wrote largely adult books and stories. ''There were two other speakers,'' she recalls, ''and the first one said, 'These are your golden years, which you will look back on with great fondness.' The second one said, 'Life is like a football game, and you've gone through your first down.' ''

The graduates, all of whom were ''sitting on stage, wearing either pretty dresses or corduroy suits that were too large because their mothers knew they'd grow a foot during the summer,'' had glazed eyes and slack jaws by the time she stood to speak.''

So she said, ''I don't think these are your golden years, and I don't think life is like a football game.'' She then related how much she had disliked eighth grade and why - at which point, she says, two things happened. ''The kids woke up, and the audience stiffened. So I turned, and talked to the kids.''

The decision to write for children came just as plainly to Mrs. Cleary when, as a librarian, she'd watch boys troop in from a local school and ask for stories about ''kids like them, and there weren't any.'' She and her husband later moved into a house in Berkeley, Calif., she says, where there was ''a large pile of typing paper, and an old kitchen table where I could write.

''My husband suggested that I sit down with my typewriter and try, but I told him I had no sharp pencils,'' she explains. So he bought her a pencil sharpener, and she got started.

Pencils are important tools to the Cleary imagination, she says. ''When I write, I spend a few days chewing on pencils and walking around, with things boiling in my head.''

Mr. Alexander has found another way to get words to paper: He gets up at 4 a.m. to write, when he says he's ''closer to my imagination. Also, for years I held other jobs.''

Now he write four to six hours in the morning, handles the mail, and takes a nap in the afternoon - ''the cats love that.'' Then before dinner he looks over what he's written that day, and has another peek before going to bed at night.

''In a sense, I work mentally 24 hours per day, but anywhere from two to 10 hours physically,'' says Mr. Alexander, who says he's learned never to quit until ''I've reached a good point and things are going well. If you quit when you have a problem, you come back to that problem.''

He spends a great deal of time researcing his Arthurian-type fantasies, immersing himself in the archaeology, history, and legends of Great Britain. ''I was in Wales briefly during World War II - it was the first time I'd ever been out of the country - and it staggered me,'' he says.He also draws maps of the mythical countries he writes about because ''when you do fantasy, you have to be firmly grounded. You can create any world you want, but then you're stuck with it and have to work with that world.''

It is just such fantasy worlds - as well as legends and folk tales, Professor Lester points out - that are told to adults rather than children in traditional societies because ''they tell adults what they need to know to be human.'' In our society, he says, they're restricted to children - and then debased.

''There is a sense that those who write for children are 'failed writers,' and that children's literature is not 'real' literature,'' says Professor Lester.

''Real'' or not, good children's literature, the professor believes, is one mechanism society uses to ''say to our children, Be good.'' As such, it must stand firmly on the author's belief in goodness, he thinks. ''If we lose our faith in good,'' he says simply, ''we can't leave our children in awe of good.''

And it is just that sense of awe, communicated clearly, that makes children's literature a ''kind of hope,'' says Professor Lester.

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