The Child in the Attic
A speech delivered by Katherine Paterson at the Ohio State University Children’s Literature Festival; February 2000.
I’m going to call him Walter, though that is not his real name. Walter began life in a family of modest means in a city on the East Coast – father, mother, then two younger brothers. Walter, a lively child, was less than enchanted with school, but somehow he scraped through the boring days, investing a minimum of effort. Life may not have been wonderful for Walter, but it was okay, it was normal. Then suddenly, one day, Walter’s life turned upside down. His father walked out, leaving his mother with no marketable skills and three small boys to care for.
It was a time when the job market was flooded with veterans returning from World War II. Women who had worked to support the War effort left their jobs and went home to be the perfect housewives and June Cleaver mothers of the fifties. But Walter’s mother had to go to work. There was, of course, no child care system in place – proper stay-at-home mothers didn’t require it. Nor was there any government effort in place to track down deadbeat fathers and force them to pay child support.
It isn’t hard to imagine what Walter’s mother went through, working at whatever jobs she could find, worrying all day about what her three little boys were doing, worrying all night about how she was going to feed them and clothe them and keep a roof over their heads.
As summer approached, her worry increased. Even though the city streets might have been less dangerous in the fifties than they have become, she was a good and caring mother who didn’t want her children running loose all day long. So when she heard about a farm outside of town where the farmer and his wife took children in for the summer to give them three months of fresh air and good food at no cost-oh, the children would be expected to help out with the chores, but they’d want to, wouldn’t they? When she heard about this opportunity, she jumped at the chance. As soon as school was out, Walter and his two little brothers went to spend an idyllic summer in the country.
You are already anticipating trouble. The farmer was a stern taskmaster. He expected the children to work and work hard. Quite soon, Walter’s lively, not to say rebellious, nature landed him in trouble.
Punishment was called for. And the punishment the farmer decreed was to be locked up alone in the gloomy attic of the old farmhouse. Now we imagine an angry, homesick, apprehensive child climbing the dark staircase, hearing the door at the bottom slam shut and the key turn in the lock.
It is summer, so there is still a little light coming from the small window. I don’t know if Walter is crying; if he is, it is probably tears of anger, but eventually, like any prisoner, he begins to look about his prison. And he sees that he is not alone. The farmer has also exiled to the attic Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Milton. Walter takes down a dusty volume, carries it to the window, and begins to read.
When I was invited to come to OSU way back in another millennium, of course I said yes. I love to come to this festival. I see so many friends. I get to hear so many authors I admire and meet new writers who will become the leading voices of this century. There is, however, always the problem of a speech. The first thing that popped into my mind as I was beginning to get ready for this week was the story of my friend Walter. “The Child in the Attic” seemed like a terrific title for a speech that I hadn’t yet written.
Still, it gave me a beginning for my speech. You see, I am quite aware that most of you have been frantically working at home on all those things that have to be taken care of before you leave home and job for three or four days. Then you’ve had a long flight or drive and, I hope, a good dinner. You’re tired and sleepy. I was thinking of all these matters, and it seemed to me that I could start and end with Walter’s story, and that might keep most of you awake, afraid you might miss hearing whatever became of Walter. If you’ll stay with me, then, I’ll tell you more about Walter before I’ve finished, for Walter is a real, live person, even though the vision of him in that attic brings out all the fictional juices in my system. There is something so evocative about that image – the lonely, misunderstood, despised child, exiled to an attic.
Perhaps that is why fiction writers have chosen to present this image as well. The most famous fictional child in an attic is, probably, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Sara Crewe in A Little Princess. One of the most formative books of my childhood was Mrs. Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I hardly know any female writers of my generation who weren’t deeply influenced by The Secret Garden. Most of my contemporaries would also name A Little Princess as one of the formative books of their childhood. I, however, cannot. We lived in China, and although we owned The Secret Garden, we seem not to have owned A Little Princess.
My earliest contact with A Little Princess was the Shirley Temple movie based on the book, one of the few movies I saw while we were living in Shanghai. I remember loving the movie. I haven’t seen it since, so I don’t know if I would love it still or how closely it follows the rather remarkable book, but I still recall my gasp of utter delight when Sara wakes up to discover that her cold, barren attic has been magically transformed and there is a hot breakfast waiting on the table.
I say “remarkable book,” and that’s what I mean. I realize, of course, that Frances Hodgson Burnett was a true Victorian, and we let her get away with sentiments and sentimentalities we would never tolerate in a modern writer. There is, for example, the scene where Sara is saying good-bye to her father, who is returning to India:
Then he went with Sara into her little sitting room and they bade each other good-bye. Sara sat on his knee and held the lapels of his coat in her small hands, and looked long and hard at his face.
“Are you learning me by heart, little Sara!” he said, stroking her hair.
“No,” she answered. “I know you by heart. You are inside my heart.” And they kissed as if they would never let each other go. END INDENT
But we forgive Frances Hodgson Burnett all manner of Victorian excesses because she is, despite all, a magical writer. I can remember all too well how hesitant I was to read The Secret Garden aloud to my own children. I was afraid they would scorn its sentimentality or worse, that I in my late-twentieth-century cynicism would realize I could no longer tolerate, much less enjoy, one of the greatest delights of my own childhood. But I did read it aloud to my children. Of course I saw sentimentalities and overblown language that I would never let myself indulge in, but the magic was more powerful than the embellished prose in which it was couched. It burst out and touched all our hearts.
A Little Princess, which I came to later in life, has that same magical quality. If you begin to think about the premise of the book in terms of our current moral outlook, you’re soon in trouble. Captain Crewe has raised Sara like a little princess in British-occupied India. Although the Indians in the story are beloved servants, they are still servants. And the fortune that comes to Sara at the end of the story is from colonial Africa in the form of diamond mines, and today we know all too well who worked those mines and under what unspeakable conditions. Becky, the scullery maid at Miss Minchin’s school, is rescued in the end by Sara, but rescued not to be Sara’s adopted sister but to be Sara’s personal maid, which would have been considered the highest possible happiness for one who was, after all, a member of the serving class. So there are a lot of very troubling elements in this book that I’m not going to try to justify because I don’t find them justifiable.
There is, however, one very important idea in the book that I believe makes it worth reading, even for today’s children. Once Captain Crewe dies and Miss Minchin realizes that Sara is penniless, she turns her into an unpaid servant, feeling quite smug that she has not, after all, turned her into the street. Miss Minchin has never liked Sara. Sara is far too self-possessed for a child. She is clever and imaginative and can see right through Miss Minchin’s pretensions and hypocrisy. Now Miss Minchin has Sara where she always wanted her – at her beck and call. She sells all the beautiful things in what had been Sara’s luxurious suite and sends her to live in the bare, heatless attic.
At first Sara is disconsolate. She is mourning for her father and unable to adjust to her radically changed circumstances. But Sara is a great reader of fiction and nonfiction alike. Although Miss Minchin has confiscated her library, she cannot confiscate what is in Sara’s mind and heart. Sara knows history. She decides to pretend that her attic is a cell in the Bastille where she is being kept a prisoner. She makes friends with the other prisoner – Becky, the scullery maid – and with a rat, remembering that prisoners in solitary confinement in the Bastille often tamed rats. She gives the rat the name Melchisedec. Perhaps this is Mrs. Burnett’s joke, as Melchisedec was a kingly high priest in the book of Genesis to whom, we are told, the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of all he possessed. Sara shares her crumbs with the rat, which is a large percentage of what she possesses.
Pretending, when she is in the attic, that she is imprisoned in the Bastille is just one step from her other imaginative coping device. She begins to pretend that she is a princess. “I can be a princess inside,” she tells herself.
“. . . It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it. There was Marie Antoinette when she was in prison and her throne was gone and she had only a black gown on, and her hair was white, and they insuIted her and called her Widow Capet. She was a great deal more like a queen then than when she was gay and everything was so grand. I like her best then. Those howling mobs of people did not frighten her. She was stronger than they were, even when they cut her head off.” END INDENT
Poor Miss Minchin. She cannot understand what’s going on in Sara’s mind. When she berates and belittles the child, she sees something “like a proud smile” in Sara’s eyes. She cannot imagine what Sara is thinking, which the reader knows is:
“You don’t know that you are saying these things to a princess, and that if I chose I could wave my hand and order you to execution. I only spare you because I am a princess, and you are a poor, stupid, unkind, vulgar old thing, and don’t know any better.” END
Oh, how I wish I had read those words before I was nine years old. I think of the people, adult and child, who made me feel belittled and humiliated – if only I could have imagined myself a princess in disguise who could at any moment reveal myself and cry “Off with her head!” Not a very Christian thought, but then, children are not born magnanimous, they are born small. They have to grow into persons large enough to be able to love their neighbors, not to speak of their enemies. We can’t expect self-sacrificial love from persons who haven’t yet learned to love themselves.
We marvel at a man like Nelson Mandela. How was he able to walk out of prison after twenty-seven years of torture and humiliation and lead a tortured and humiliated people into a nation that sought justice without vengeance? If ever we despair of the human race, here is a man who can inspire us once again to hope.
“But didn’t you hate your captors?” an interviewer asked him recently. “Yes,” he replied. “For the first thirteen years I hated them. But then one day I realized they could take away everything I had – except my mind and my heart. I would have to give those away. And I would refuse to do that.”
Nelson Mandela is a miracle, a man who knew that he had a mind and a heart too valuable to surrender, so dear in fact that he would use his solitary sentence to nourish himself. So for the next fourteen years he grew his soul. For which the world will always be in his debt.
I do not claim for a moment that any book could work that kind of miracle in most ordinary humans. But I think there is a gift that a book can give a child which bears some relation to Mandela’s story. A book can give a child a way to learn to value herself, which is at the start of the process of growing a great soul. It is why I struggle so against the idea that characters in novels should be role models. Role models may inspire some children – but they didn’t inspire any child that I ever was. They only discouraged me. Whereas that awful, bad-tempered, selfish Mary Lennox – who could admire her? Who could love such an unlovable creature? Yet she was given the key to a secret garden. Not because she deserved it, but because she needed it. When I read The Secret Garden, I fell in love with Mary Lennox. She was my soul mate. And because I loved her, I was able to learn to love myself a bit.
I am often accused of creating unlikable characters. Many a we11-meaning teacher or parent has taken me to task for bringing Gilly Hopkins into the world. But I wouldn’t give anything for Gilly Hopkins just as she is, and if given a chance to reform her, I would flee in the opposite direction. Because children love Gilly. It seems that the worse they are, the more they love her. Which means, I believe with; all my heart, that loving Gilly, they can begin a little to love themselves, and children who love themselves do not strike out at other people. They do not shoot their classmates or blow up their schools. I would like children to take from a book I’ve written something that helps them love and value themselves.
A teacher last month asked me about another of my attic children, Vile in Preacher’s Boy. Vile reminds me a lot of Gilly Hopkins, she said, and yet you don’t give us the same hope that Vile will be all right. You just let her go off with that drunken father of hers. I want to know that she’ll be all right.
The teacher was referring to Robbie’s lament toward the end of the book.
Vile and her father have disappeared with the coming of the first snowfall:
. . . I got a postal card from Vile at Christmas time written in smudged pencil. They had made their way as far as Massachusetts, hopping trains. Zeb was mostly behaving himself, she said. She herself was working in a mill, which she didn’t mind at all since no one made her recite lessons in a mill. I mustn’t worry. She had taken the primer that Pa had given her and was teaching herself. Couldn’t I tell how much her writing had improved even without her having to go to school? She spelled writing as ritin. And that was about the best spelling on the card. I spent more than an hour puzzling out what she was trying to say. It made me furious that she didn’t know what was good for her. She could have had a swell life here in Leonardstown with us, but she threw it away.
It made me sad, too. Even if she was happier in Massachusetts, she was like a buddy to Willie and Elliot and me. We all miss her. Now that I’m back to being a Christian, I pray she’ll come back. She hasn’t so far. END
What can I say to defend myself? I’m not sure I can. When I look at my major characters, I seem determined to give them hope; when I look at the lot of many of my minor characters, I begin to resemble a child abuser. Well, I’m not Dickens. I can’t make everything turn out rosy for all. There are a lot of Viles in this world who have trouble remembering that their real name is Violet. It seemed that in all honesty, the writer must acknowledge that.
Still, we do not ever know what a child will take and treasure from a book. Once after I had made a speech, a young woman waited until everyone else had left the room to tell me that Bridge to Terabithia had saved her life. It seems she was a victim of incest from the time she was very young and had kept the uneasy secret of her family locked inside herself until one day, inexplicably, someone had scrawled her name and the four-letter-word message of her hidden family shame on the sidewalk outside the school for all the world to read.
“I didn’t know what to do when I saw it,” she said. “Then people came up and began asking me what it meant. But I had just finished reading Bridge to Terabithia, and I remembered what Leslie said to Janice Avery – that if she just pretended she didn’t know what they were talking about, everyone would forget all about it in a week. It got me through that terrible time. I wanted to thank you for that.”
That wonderful young woman reminded me once again that there are a lot of children in our midst, locked up in all sorts of frightening or lonely attics. I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that books can be a key to that locked door.
A Little Princess is a realistic book, and though it may feel magical to us, it is not fantasy. But fantasy has its own attic children, and none quite so charming as a boy named Harry about whom much of the known world has gone absolutely wild.
I have long ago learned not to take anything for granted. I mean, when I wrote Jacob Have I Loved, I assumed educated adults would immediately catch on to the biblical allusion in the title and not complain that there was no character named Jacob in the novel.
But I’ve learned better. Not everyone has read the Bible. But surely by now everyone has read all about Harry Potter. No? Then you’ are undoubtedly a Muggle. What, you ask, is a Muggle?
Time magazine last September offered three clinically tested signs of Muggledom:
1) You spot a boy or girl whose forehead is emblazoned with a paste-on tattoo in the shape of a purple lightning bolt and have no idea what you are seeing.
2) You still believe reading is a lost art, especially among the young, and books have been rendered obsolete in our electronic, hot-wired age.
3) You don’t know what a Muggle is.
I’m not known to be in the vanguard of current trends, but I know what a Muggle is. And as Muggley as I may look to you, I had read all three Harry Potter books before the middle of last summer, which, you will note, was before volume three had even been published in this country. And how is it, you may well ask, that you were able to read them before most of the rest of us could get our hands on them? Because, I say smugly, my neighbor Kevin at Lake George, a non-reading, computer-crazy, eleven-year-old boy, was so enamored of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that he nagged his mother (who had the credit card) into getting on the Internet and ordering volumes two and three from England for him. When he learned I was also a fan, he kindly loaned them to me. I gobbled them down in a two-day orgy.
Later that week, surrounded by his buddies, he came sauntering up to me on the swimming dock and, in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone around, proceeded to ask me a few key questions about Harry Potter, glancing back at his friends to make sure they were getting the point that he and I were having a literary discussion.
Exactly one year before, his very literate mother had been moaning to me about the fact that her son just wouldn’t read anything. Now he was gulping down 300-page hardback books and bragging about it in front of his friends.
To those of you literalists out there who are mumbling under your breaths that the place of Harry’s confinement wasn’t an attic, it was a cupboard under the stairs, I will say, merely, that it had spiders. That qualifies it surely as a metaphorical attic. The attic – or, if you insist, cupboard under the stairs – in which Harry Potter finds himself is in the home of his Muggle relatives, the Dursleys. What Harry doesn’t know, and what his wretched aunt and uncle are terrified might come out, is that Harry is actually a wizard. And not just any old run-of-the-mill trickster, either. In the world of Witchcraft and Wizardry he is a very famous, if missing, wizard, the infant who survived an assault by the arch-evildoer Voldemort – the proof is that strange, lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. We all know, or certainly should know by now, what happens, so I’ll spare you a page-by-page retelling, though I doubt any of your children would.
The point I want to make in the context of this speech is why this particular attic child has conquered the reading world, as well as many whom we would have thought of as citizens of the non-reading world. J. K. Rowling has tapped into the secret heart of us all. Just as Cinderella, despised and unrecognized amongst the ashes, made us all hope that someday our prince would come and reveal us for the princesses we were in truth, so Harry Potter fulfills our dream that we are in truth magical and powerful, and if only we could wrench ourselves free of the Muggles of the mundane world who drag us down and lock us in cupboards, we would flyaway on magic broomsticks and amaze even the denizens of enchanted lands.
I hurry on to say that J. K. Rowling has done far more than simply tap into our unconscious longings. She has created a marvelous, delightful, and deliciously scary parallel world. I think Time magazine is right when it compares her books with the classic fantasies of Tolkien, Baum, Carroll, and Lewis. I think Rowling’s writing will also endure and will deserve to. The adventures of Harry Potter, which have pulled a generation of computer-crazed children away from the keyboard and into a series of great fat books – these adventures will enchant children for many generations to come.
As I was thinking about the differences between Sara Crewe and Harry Potter, it occurred to me that they exemplify for me the principal difference between fantasy and realistic fiction. It is not that one genre is intrinsically better than the other, either as literature or as food for the emotions. It is, instead, a matter of where the imaginative action of the book takes place and, therefore, what we take away from the book, what we remember.
In A Little Princess, as in most serious realistic fiction, the imaginative world is inside the central character’s head. In fantasy, the imaginative world is outside the main character. So, although you can perhaps think of notable exceptions, it seems to me that what we remember most about strong realistic fiction is character, while what we recall most readily about fantasy is story. Thus what we take away from A Little Princess is Sara Crewe herself; what we remember most about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban are Quidditch, Botts Every Flavor Beans, Hogwarts Express, and all the amazing adventures that Harry encounters. The magic is on the outside rather than the inside.
Any adequate literary diet for growing children would contain both realistic fiction and fantasy, not to speak of books of biography and nonfiction, but it would be natural for readers to have different tastes and so generally prefer one genre over another. Which is simply to say that we need more good books, not fewer, and if a non-reading child like my neighbor has discovered the magic of books through J. K. Rowling, we may hope that he will go on to other books by other writers. Maybe, she says hopefully, maybe even to one of mine. But for this to happen, this child has to first discover what books can do that nothing else does quite as well.
I promised you at the beginning of this talk to tell you what happened to Walter, the child we left reading in the attic. During the rest of that otherwise dreadful summer, Walter contrived to get himself punished on a regular basis. But by the next time he was exiled to the attic, he had managed to secure a flashlight for himself, so that his reading would not have to stop when the sun set.
He went back to the city and back to school. School continued to bore him, and he was never more than an indifferent student. Yet at the same time his teachers were writing him off, Walter was hungrily reading everything he could get his hands on. During those nights in that attic, the world had opened up for him. He had learned that books could stretch his mind and heart as nothing else and no one else had ever done before. He could not get enough.
Those in authority were surprised when Walter, who had exhibited no academic ambition in high school, opted to take the SATs. When the scores came out, Walter was called into the office. He must have cheated. There was no other explanation for his phenomenal score. He would have to take the test again, but this time he would be doing so under carefully monitored conditions. Walter repeated the SATs with a teacher standing over his shoulder and again pulled down an astounding score.
Walter graduated from college and took an M.B.A. from Harvard. He became an innovative and successful businessman and, more important, a devoted husband, father, and then grandfather – a man not only of intelligence but of wisdom, compassion, and delightful good humor. Despite a full and busy life, Walter still reads widely and voraciously. “Books saved him,” his wife says simply.
Suppose there had been no books in that attic. What would Walter’s story have become?
I ask this question because in our world, our states, our towns, our schools, there are many children whose young lives are hard, whose spirits are starved, who are isolated, angry, and fearful and whose attics aren’t furnished with books.
There are many both in government and education who feel that the deprivation of these attic children will be alleviated by just getting them wired onto the Internet. But, friends, surfing the Internet does not compare with wrestling with a book.
This past fall I spent an afternoon talking with a group of persons who work with children at risk. The question I had asked them to help me answer was this: Why do our children turn to violence? It was a question many of us have struggled with this past year.
These professionals were very concerned about the Internet. Today, they said, when a child behaves aggressively at school, the routine solution is expulsion. At the very time when a child is most vulnerable, most reachable, he is further isolated. Often he goes home to an empty house and spends time with violent video games or on the Internet, desperately seeking out connections, and whom does he make connections with? All too often with other desperate, isolated, self-hating individuals who confirm his belief that all his hatreds are justified and that violence is the only way to relieve his mortal pain.
Access to the Internet is not the answer for these attic children. They need much more than that. They need much more even than access to good books. Fortunately, what they need is precisely what you can give them-and that is yourself. “Every child,” said the director of the program, “needs a connection with a caring adult.”
Last month I was asked to speak to a group of teachers who would be taking their classes to see a production of the play version of Bridge to Terabithia. I spent more than an hour telling them about how the book came to be written and rewritten and then how Stephanie Tolan and I adapted it into the play their classes would see. There was the usual time of questions, at the end of which a young male teacher thanked me for my time and what I had told them that morning. “But I want to take something special back to my class. Can you give me some word to take back to them?”
I was momentarily silenced. After all, I had been talking continuously for over an hour; surely he could pick out from that outpouring a word or two to take back to his students. Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut long enough to realize what I ought to say – it is what I want to say to all of you.
“I’m very biblically oriented,” I said, “and so for me the most important thing is for the word to become flesh. I can write stories for children, and in that sense I can offer them words, but you are the word become flesh in your classroom. Society has taught our children that they are nobodies unless their faces appear on television. But by your caring, by your showing them how important each one of them is, you become the word that I would like to share with each of them. You are that word become flesh.”
What I want to say to that isolated, angry, fearful child in the attic is this: You are not alone, you are not despised, you are unique and of infinite value in the human family. I can try to say this through the words of a story, but it is up to each of you to embody that hope – you are those words become flesh.