An Indigestible Childhood

If our theme is Writing from the Outside, I’m your poster child. My first book novelized my escape from Hitler’s Vienna and a childhood in England, living in, as the title had it. Other People’s Houses. An Austrian reader guiltily confessed to me that she had caught herself laughing at the funny parts.

Most of my writing returns, willy-nilly, to that old history. Why doesn’t it turn up in my children’s books?

I was surprised to learn that my book, Tell Me a Mitzi, written in 1970 for my own children—was understood to have a political element. Little Mitzi’s enterprise in getting her baby brother, Jacob, out of his crib, changed, fed, and into a taxi to visit the grandparents, got her invited for inclusion in Free to Be…You and Me if I could advance her traditionally feminine skills to, say, fixing a wheel on the stroller. I couldn’t, wouldn’t—a decision that seems to me, at this remove, at once principled and silly.

We don’t choose the plots of our stories, just as we don’t choose our dreams. So what does it mean when Mitzi, sitting in that taxi, doesn’t know the grandparents’ address? In another story Mitzi brings the presidential motorcade to full stop, but it has, eventually, to move on, move out of sight. The book’s last words are Jacob saying, “All gone.” In the sequel. Tell Me a Trudy, Superman, having decimated the robbers behind the bathroom curtain, flies out the window, and Trudy’s last words, too, are “All gone.”

Am I telling the children something learned in my old, indigestible childhood?—that things don’t work out the way you think; that some of our enterprises end on a falling note; all of them end, but there are the funny parts to make you laugh? And I would defend telling children that the world is full of disasters and funny parts.

Lore Segal is a novelist, translator and essayist, and writes books for children. The latest are Morris the Artist (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux 2003) and Why Mole Shouted (2004).