EdBookFest | The Child is Father of the Man: celebrating childhood with Neil Gaiman and Vicky Featherstone
A conversation between acclaimed author Neil Gaiman and the Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre, Vicky Featherstone, may sound like an event for the theatrical high brow, but was in fact a talk aimed at children. Featherstone had worked with Gaiman on a stage adaption of his children’s novel ‘The Wolves in the Walls’ for The National Theatre of Scotland when she was Artistic Director there, and is one of the many adult fans of his children’s fiction. Those who have never read Gaiman’s novelistic output will nonetheless invariably be familiar with his work; he is the author of Coraline, Stardust and two acclaimed Doctor Who episodes, to name a but a few of his more high profile credits. An immensely talented Author with a capital ‘A’, Gaiman spoke today about his latest work for children, ‘Fortunately, The Milk’, and more broadly about his attitude and approach to fiction for the younger crowd.
‘Fortunately, The Milk’, tells the story of one dad and his quest to buy milk for the family breakfast, who is endlessly and spectacularly waylaid by a series of ever more spectacular adventures. These include pirates, aliens and a Stegosaurus in a Hot Air Balloon. In his warm and candid style, Gaiman revealed that this work was the result of feelings of guilt over an earlier work, ‘The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish’, and its negative portrayal of fathers as nothing more than “carrot eating, newspaper reading, lumps of obliviousness.” Interrupted by a knowit-all son and imaginatively illustrated by Skottie Young, ‘Fortunately, The Milk’ is a comedic romp with all the fun and imagination a young mind craves, and enough to entertain any older readers too. Like any great Children’s author, Gaiman’s magic comes from treating his readers as the adults they long to be; there isn’t a trace of condescension in his work and it’s immensely refreshing. Featherstone pointed to a line from Gaiman’s most recent Adult work, ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’, as a possible explanation for this approach: “grownups don’t looks like grownups on the inside’’. The old cliché that we’re all really children on the inside may be trite, but authors like Gaiman highlight how patently true it is.
Gaiman revealed that the first novel he ever wrote was, in fact, one for children, but that it was rejected by a publisher and as a result stored away and forgotten. Years later, when Coraline was published, Gaiman remembered his first foray and read over it again, coming to the realisation that it wasn’t really in his voice and feeling relief that it was never published. The great respect which Gaiman holds for children themselves, as individuals separate from the parents buying the books, is very important, and is sadly not found in every children’s author. Gaiman came to write for children because, as a father, he was tired of seeing the same patronising stories play out, i.e. hero thinks everyone has forgotten their birthday, hero is sad, it turns out everyone did know, surprise party, everyone is happy. For Gaiman these stories paint the world as an impossibly hospitable place, and that is a dangerous thing for children to grow up believing. If stories are a means by which to escape, Gaiman believes that when we return from them it should be armed with tools we didn’t possess before. If there are no risks involved in a story then how are we to invest ourselves in it and so learn from it? Gaiman believes that one of the most important things that stories teach us is empathy, and so in his work for children we find characters in dark, genuinely terrifying situations, provoking genuine emotion. One of his most acclaimed works, ‘The Graveyard Book’, was released in both adult and children’s versions. The difference wasn’t in the plot as one might expect, rather, it was merely in the illustrations.
Gaiman tells the story of when he first began to write, and was told that the world was divided between people who are foxes and people who are hedgehogs: foxes know lots of little things, and hedgehogs know one big thing. Gaiman thought, when he started out, that he was a fox, but has slowly come to realise that he is a hedgehog; the one big thing he knows is that stories are important. The point of all this seems to be then, that Gaiman really buys into the belief that ‘grownups’ only appear to be so on the outside, and that we can, should, and do, all learn internally in much the same way for most of our lives. The expectation that children and adults alike might enjoy the same book equally (and not just for the often snide asides thrown in for parents) is one which more people need to be making. Like Dahl, Kipling, or even Watterson before him, Gaiman believes in the power of a child’s mind above and beyond that of an adult’s, and that is something we can all learn from.
Words: Joanna Thompson
Picture: Neil Gaiman at Edinburgh Book Festival, © chrisdonia