I’m borrowing from Merrian-Webster a definition of juvenilia: “compositions produced in the artist’s or author’s youth.” As you can see, problems begin at once, as juvenilia tends to include childhood and our current conception of youth seems to extend to 40. Then, authors who start ‘composing’ as children, may actually do so before they know how to read: pre-literate, precocious R.L. Stevenson dictated his early tales to his mother. For the sake of mutual understanding with my reader, I’ll consider as juvenilia whatever budding authors and artists produce between 5 and 20, which would exclude young prodigies publishing significant work in their twenties–like Leo Tolstoy, who published his autobiography then, starting with Childhood, when he was only 22.
I have learned all this in the course of attending some sessions of the meeting organized by my colleague, David Owen, the Fourth International Conference on Literary Juvenilia (https://barcelonajuveniliaconference2015.wordpress.com/). I tried to submit a presentation, focused on a fantasy or science-fiction writer and I did find a most interesting case–Marion Zimmer Bradley–and a thrilling anthology: First Words: Earliest Writing from Favorite Contemporary Authors, edited by Paul Mandelbaum. I did not find, however, the time to enter a completely new territory, which is even new to specialists if I take into account that my choices were contemporary and within the fantastic.
I asked David, who has edited Jane Austen’s Lady Susan for the Juvenilia Press, why so much work is focused on the past, as the title of Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster’s book The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf (2005) suggests. David answered that interest in juvenilia simply started with canonical authors like Austen but need not be at all confined to them. Christine Alexander, who attended the conference, and gave a wonderful presentation on Stevenson, is General Editor of the Juvenilia Press (https://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/juvenilia/about/). This is a university press, supported by the University of South Wales in Australia, “originally conceived as a university/classroom project.” Indeed, David, who published Lady Susan with this Australian press, presented the volume on Hannah More’s juvenilia, edited by his three doctoral students: Noelia Sanchez, Alexandra Prunean and Reyhane Vadidar. It was beautiful to see two of these aspiring scholars presenting already very solid scholarly work. Incidentally, checking the website of the Juvenilia Press, I realize that my first impression was, nonetheless, misguided and that the list of 20th century authors whose juvenilia has been published (or is going to be) extends to 16, among them Margaret Atwood and Harold Pinter.
In her delicious presentation on Stevenson, Christine Alexander showed us work autographed by the very young R.L. Stevenson, including a re-telling of Exodus, produced age 7, with the wandering Jews dressed like his contemporary Victorians, tall hats and all. She told us the very cruel story of how Thomas Stevenson paid of his own pocket the publication of his son’s The Pentland Rising only to soon destroy all copies, finding it a fanciful poem rather than the historical study he expected. Stevenson was then 16, and the shock must have been immense, poor thing. This reminded me of the sentence that American novelist Christopher Bram puts in the mouth of his fictional version of British director James Whale in his beautiful novel, Father of Frankenstein. Whale tells a young friend about his working-class family’s unease with their artistic child: “I forgave and forgot my parents long ago. They meant no harm. They thought I was just like them. They were like a family of farmers who’ve been given a giraffe, and don’t know what to do with the creature except harness it to a plow.” (105)
I did not attend, regrettably, all the conference presentations and I cannot say whether the study of juvenilia is leading towards an individual or a collective understanding of how the future writer progresses. My own childhood productions suggest, besides, that not only future poets and storytellers produce juvenilia–I produced essays non-stop, both of the short variety we wrote in class (‘redacciones’) and longer works. I’m sure many other academics (or journalists) must follow the same pattern, funny as this may sound. Precisely, the ‘patterns’ are what concerns me: I don’t know whether the juvenilia specialists consider primarily how in each case the adult author is already visible in the young author, or whether there is a significantly similar pattern linking all their juvenilia. If so, a well-trained specialist should be able to see by glancing at the scribblings of a six-year-old whether there is something worth cultivating in them, or just the kind of effort that most children seem to enjoy producing spontaneously–until a mysterious x-factor makes them lose interest and stop.
As happened to Whale, most working-class families have no idea about how to deal with their ‘giraffes’, except asking a teacher when the giraffe’s eccentricities become a little too much to handle (or even a social impediment–is this where so much talk about exceptionally gifted children comes from?). The ‘problem’ are middle-class families, educated enough to notice the beauty of their giraffe patterns but unable to say whether s/he’ll grow into a graceful artist. You have two syndromes here: the doting parents, who think their child is an absolute prodigy, and the over-cautious parents, who may downplay talents obvious to everyone else. The middle-ground seems most desirable: encourage, teach, help but don’t overdue it. Obviously, Thomas Stevenson is not the example to follow.
Above all, treasure your children’s juvenilia. If you’re an adult connected with a scribbling, daubing child, keep their work–particularly away from their own hands, which are most likely to accomplish the mischief of destroying their own work as they grow older. In this time and age in which we document our children’s lives to exhaustion, I’m sure someone will soon come up with the idea of some social network to share early artistic work, as kids share pics on Instagram… But, above all, keep in a safe place the cardboard folder with their compositions until they’re old enough to overcome their embarrassment and can rationally decide what to do with those. Stevenson’s mother was that kind of committed custodian and we have, apart from exhaustive records on his progress, his actual juvenilia; in contrast, it seems that Dickens burnt all the early texts he could lay his hands on. Horror and consternation!!
If you Google images of ‘child writing’ you’ll see something else which is quite pleasing: whether little boys or, more frequently little girls, all the kids are shown using pen and paper, not a computer. I have edited as computer files my nieces’ own juvenilia to better preserve it (from their little destructive hands…) but there is a singular pleasure in reading from the original handwritten texts that is lost in its electronic version, no matter how prettified. It was the same with Stevenson’s originals: the evolving hand-writing gives a charming impression not only of the little kid behind it but of the brain at work fast overcoming obstacles. I don’t know whether the Juvenilia Press includes facsimile versions in their editions, but it would make sense.
So, yes, pester the kids in your family or friends circle for drawings, poems and stories. Give them crayons and notebooks as presents and encourage them to stay away from computers. Don’t forget to give them as well good books to get their inspiration from, and tell them stories, they love it. Anything they produce, keep it, cherish it, for it is precious. Even if they turn out to be as adults boring accountants rather than accomplished artists. For producing juvenilia, this I my final thought, is, happily, not limited to a small number of artists, but a central part of all children’s lives. Or it should be.
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