WHEN REPORTERS from Children's Expresss scooped their elders on Jimmy Carter's choice of Walter Mondale as a running mate at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, the grizzled veterans watching that smoke-filled trailer must have been a bit irked -- before duciding to regard the affair as a cute fluke. But Children's Express , a journal with reporters 13 and under (and no editors over 17), didn't stop with one precocious success: the staffers went on to get important interviews with Richard Daley and with Nelson Rockefeller and to gain national attention last year with hearings held in Washington on the subject of incarcerated children.Now, with this fascinating compendium of kids speaking out to each other and to us, Children's Express has managed to scoop a different set of writers: those who grind out books with the word "parent" in the title.
Such phrases as "there are a lot of stories in the naked city" take on new meaning once Listen to Us is read and put down. Somehow -- even though our childhoods inform the rest of out lives -- it's hard, after passing forecer out of out teens, to avoid partiality to the adult point of view. But, as Listen to Us ! shows, for every dozen grown-up "stories," there are the nonadult versions. Kids are not just, as one contributor puts it, "pets for adults"; they watch and listen and, most significantly, they think . Those "little pitchers" (and what are they, anyway?) have acuted and sensitive ears, ones that are able to interpret events and passages; they can assess situations -- their own, their family's, their friends', their teachers' -- using criteria distinct from that of older people. These criterial are responses to adult behavior and are reflections of adult thinking, but have a quality entirely their own. Children's and adolescents' fears and certainties, hatreds and affections, and the language used to express these, though, are not so very different from adults'; quite clearly, they're the flip side, but at the same time they're budding into mature, established emotions and impressions. After all -- and it is the central paradox of the book -- growing up has a lot to do with forgetting, and with freshness and originality being transmuted into the old familiar patterns.
It shouldn't be hard for grownups to talk to children, to re-learn firsthand the feelings a younger person has, but it is -- for a lot of adults, both those with kids and without. According to the hundreds of children whose voices are heard in Listen to Us !, most parents and teachers are patronizing, misguided failures when it comes to communication and intuitive understanding of a child's personal roadmap. To carry the metaphor a bit further, adults careen thoughtlessly over the sensitive surface, screeching to a halt when the signals say "go," and driving ahead when the entries are closed. Thus, the simpsle key to the achievement of this remarkably revelatory book is that children have talked to their peers, eliciting through empathetic reporting what amounts practically to (heretofore) "classified" information.
There are three formats interwoven throughout the text: monologues, discussions, and interviews. (From their conversations, the children appear to be from a variety of classes, races, and creeds.) So many aspects of so many topics -- school, sex, siblings, adoption, divorce, handicaps, television, religion, money, ect. -- are raised that one can only marvel at the smooth, intelligent organization of the material, which keeps it from being either repetitive or overpowering. Some standouts: the 12-year-old girl who tells about having deaf parents; the expressive poetry throughout by under-10s; the 12-year-old handicapped boy who regards his future prospects as "VERY GOOD"; the 13-year-old California entrepreneur whose business is incorporated in the Cayman Islands for tax purposes; the moving, often painful sections on children viewing their parents in situations ranging from the embarassing things mothers and fathers do, to the adjustments of divorce, on to abuse and incest.For a lighter mood, the religion chapter, in particular, proves that kids still say the darndest things: Rachel, 6, answers a question about God's gender by saying that she believes God is a man. When asked to explain, she replies, "Because God isn't a woman's name."
Not surprisingly, one boy speculates that "maybe the kids will someday take over the world.outhe's right, of course, but it won't happen (it never does) in just the way he's thinking of. Still, the experience of the Children's Express participants, along with that of receptive adults who are exposed to it, could go a long way towards a new, fresh-spirited direction. Building on such eloquence as Listen to Us ! displays, Children's Liberation is far from a meaningless demand.