To Think Like A Child

Coping with a particularly difficult child. This edition published by Penguin Books 1973. Cover design by Harry Willock.

Children are vulnerable.  Well, not all of them – many seem entirely capable of looking after themselves – but our general image is of a child as innocent and trusting, which makes it all the more distressing to see them subject to forces which can harm them.  Or which can harm others.

The horror writer Stephen King is a master at knowing how to develop this theme in his stories.  In books such as The Shining and It, he focused on the experiences of children in a world where supernatural powers dominate their lives, though it is probably his first novel Carrie from 1974, so memorably filmed in 1976, that stays in the mind as the archetypal tale of a teenager with psychic powers who causes havoc amongst those around her, and particularly those who have previously given her grief.  A child with paranormal abilities, yet subject to child-like passions, is frightening.

Jerome Bixby’s 1953 short story It’s A Good Life, which was adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1961 and a segment of the 1983 film Twilight Zone: The Movie, is a prime example.  Young Anthony has powers of telepathy, psychokinesis and teleportation that make him the object of total fear to everyone else, who dare not set a foot wrong at the risk of antagonising him.  Since the rest of the world outside his home town vanished at the moment of his birth, they have nowhere to run.

The science fiction writer Zenna Henderson often featured children in her books, including her series of stories on ‘The People’ who come to Earth from another planet and try to co-exist with humanity despite their extraordinary abilities.  Her 1958 novelette Captivity was nominated for a Hugo Award, and described a teenager who seems “not of this world” and doesn’t fit in with others.  A teacher observes that “there’s some way to reach every child…all but the Francher kid.  I can’t reach him at all.”  Such alienation is common to many teenagers, but the Francher kid takes it to a whole new level, not least because of the powers he has which give him an entirely different perspective on life.

Needless to say, not all extraterrestrial incursions might be quite so amicable and low-key.  John Wyndham’s 1957 classic The Midwich Cuckoos describes a village where women become pregnant through alien intervention during a period of unconsciousness subsequently referred to as the “Dayout”.  When the children are born, they have distinctly unhuman characteristics, and later develop telepathic and coercive abilities which pose a serious threat to all the “normal” people – who, in turn, have to do something to protect themselves, though options are somewhat limited.

Wyndham’s 1968 novel Chocky takes a different slant on first contact with aliens.  Eleven-year-old Matthew starts one-sided conversations with someone who doesn’t seem to be there.  It is hardly an imaginary friend at his age, and the discussions become increasingly complex.  He begins counting in binary code, and then asks his parents sophisticated questions about why spaceflight is based on launching rockets by means of explosives when screening off gravity would be so much effective.

Chocky, his invisible contact, turns out to be anything but imaginary, and not a little frightening.  As with many of Wyndham’s stories, what starts in a cosy environment in 1960s Britain gradually enters an ever more strange and alien existence as the reality of what Chocky really is becomes clearer.

So what to do about a particularly scary child remains a problem.  In And the Children Shall Lead, a 1968 episode of the original Star Trek series, a group of children, again with exceptional powers and under the control of a powerful alien, takes over the USS Enterprise.  Emotional reasoning with the youngsters on the part of the adults saves the day, but we can’t help feeling that the outcome is a bit precarious.  And that’s the trouble with difficult kids – can’t live with them, can’t shoot them.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Education, Education, Education | Family Connections

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