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In our own likeness

Creative authors still cannot create a different human nature

THE CONTRAST COULD NOT BE MORE OBVIOUS: "When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God." So reads Genesis 5:1, which then continues, "When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth."

Theologically we know what this means. Adam's likeness and image is a perverted nature that inclines all his children away from God and dooms them to perdition unless divine mercy intervenes. Other ramifications of image-casting are less tragic, ranging from Grandpa's red hair to character traits that might lead Mom to sigh, "You're just like your father." Even when adults speak of children not their own, what they often have in mind are unpolished reflections of themselves.

I recently returned from a convention of children's book writers, a gathering of nice people who think they know what kids are like. Since many of them have mined a decent living out of writing for kids, they have some reason for confidence. Yet their various views of children recall the blind men and the elephant, each visually challenged individual coming up with a different interpretation of the beast according to his own perspective.

For instance: Our featured speaker was a grand old man in the field, even though his reputation rests on only one book, a classic still in print after 40 years. The gentleman espoused some grand old views of childhood, which I call the Mary Poppins tradition: that children are born with one foot in the land of imagination where birds talk and stars dance, from which the adult world of number-crunching and bean-counting gradually pries them loose. According to this view the privilege of a children's book author is to remind his readers of what they've lost and perhaps even restore a small part of it. Those adults who retain a child's delight in wordplay, soap bubbles, and silly hats are uniquely suited to the work.

Another example: a young writer with two acclaimed young-adult novels to her credit, both containing elements of fantasy. Her talk explored the intersection of character and plot, with special emphasis on how the protagonist is supposed to change in the course of the story. The speaker's view of character (and, by extension, that of her readers) veers toward dualism: Elements of good and evil war within each individual, and as a child grows she is tempted to grab for anything that increases her sense of power and diminishes her sense of helplessness. The writer's own heroine grabs for magical gifts, but in a heedless pursuit of power she "blinds herself to her own possibilities"-such as, one presumes, a generous and caring spirit. By letting go of her lusts and embracing her virtues, the character becomes a fully integrated person (and so can you, boys and girls).

Finally, we heard from a new author who made his name first as a TV star, then as a director and producer, and now as co-writer of a middle-grade series about "the world's greatest underachiever." The main character is modeled on himself: dyslexic before anyone knew that word, ridiculed by his parents, the object of much teacherly head-shaking. A victim, in short, though a likeable and humorous one. The speaker's passion is to reassure kids that they're not dumb, no matter what insensitive adults say, and it's OK to underachieve if you can't help it. And it's especially nice if you turn out to be a late bloomer who blooms big on TV.

The truth is that the child population is every bit as diverse as the adult. Some are born bean counters, or power-grabbers, or classroom daydreamers, and to some extent they always will be. The one thing all children have in common is the same thing that sets them apart from adults: lack of knowledge and experience. Some children's authors-perhaps most of them-are content to address the knowledge gap by writing fun stories to encourage reading or communicate information.

But others want to shape experience, and perhaps even redeem the child from a world that doesn't understand him. I'll preserve the magic in you, promises one; I'll help you explore your possibilities and make right choices, says another; I'll reassure you that you're not alone, puts in a third. The goals are worthy if the aims are modest instead of messianic. There is only one Messiah, and one true image. Substituting another is like trapping the child in a hall of mirrors: The only view is reflections of the same limited individual from different angles. No one was ever redeemed by Poppins or Pooh.