Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built (among many others), recently spoke with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand. Here are some notes I took after listening to the podcast.

ON NARNIA

Spufford considers the Chronicles of Narnia as being the ‘essence of book’. (He then went on to write Unapologetic.) But as a child the Christian bits meant least to him. What he loved about Narnia was the sensuousness of it. Looking at it critically from an adult point of view it’s easy to criticise it as a ‘dog’s breakfast’. (After all, it has water nymphs and Father Christmas in the same world.) But what those elements have in common is that Lewis loved all of them and he had the ability to bring his passions to life. No other series delivered a world like those ones did. The allegories weren’t mysterious to a church-going boy.

Reading as an adult, he found misogyny and racism. The racist elements he got from other books — he was reading Arabian Nights and other things. The author’s feelings about women, on the other hand, are harder to figure out. There are a lot of dangerous snake women who keep popping up in the different chronicles and there are no women (apart from mothers) who are safe, at all. Fantasy is a horribly revealing form. People make fantasy out of the deep material of their imaginatinon. C.S. Lewis’ mother died when he was very young. It now seems unfair to ask the past to know what the present knows.

ON ADULT CURATION

A new wave of book curators are deeming such books, with all of their outdated ideas, as unsuitable for modern children. But Spufford describes children as agents, not just passive creatures, so they don’t need to be protected from adventure or discovery. There is a greater danger in rendering the world bland and pre-chewed and only filled with the things adults would approve of. That way you develop antibodies to the world. That said he wouldn’t let his children read stuff that is cruel for the sake of it.

ON TRACY BEAKER BY JACQUELINE WILSON

Spufford isn’t a fan of this hugely popular series because he’d rather there wasn’t an ongoing series devoted to the continuing uselessness of adults. Uselessness should be leavened with a bit of helpfulness here and there.

ON ADULTS IN MODERN KIDLIT

Kim points out that a few generations ago there was a general absence of parental figures in children’s stories but now the adults are often present, and psychotic a lot of the time. Spufford says that there used to be plot contrivances to get parents out of the way. Now the adults are the problem. Every age has its conventions and adult depravity is presently one of the conventions. Spufford doesn’t like it because it’s unrealistic in the opposite direction. A world in which a child only knows about ‘stranger danger’ is bad.