I start this morning with a heartfelt sigh. It’s not because the day outside is so dark it looks as if the sun has been switched off, or there is a high and wuthering wind tickling the eaves of my house, or because I’ve only barely got enough decaf left for one more cup, but because a friend shared this article with me.
If you’re not the ‘clicking on links’ type (and to be honest, I can hardly blame you), this is the title of the offending piece: ‘Children’s fiction is not great literature.’
Well, now. Let’s just think about that one for a minute.
My first issue with the piece is this: I have no time for articles about children’s literature and/or YA literature which rely on the work of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer as their sole examples of the genre. This article mentions both these authors in its first paragraph, and doesn’t trouble itself to examine any other works of children’s fiction. Newsflash: there are far more books in the children’s lit. firmament than Harry Potter and Twilight. Honestly! To begin with, while I loathe the Twilight books with a passion, Meyer has also written a wonderful SF-themed, philosophical book titled ‘The Host’ which, despite being made into a movie, doesn’t seem to get enough credit – and which certainly isn’t mentioned in the article. ‘The Host’ deals with the idea of what makes a human being ‘human’, what it means to have a soul, how far one is willing to go for the people one loves, self-sacrifice, courage, and commitment. It is a book for teenagers which needs a large canvas; it examines everything an adult novel does, and more.
The author of the article does, to his credit, admit that some children’s books are better written, and more creatively structured, than adult books – this is undeniably true, though that’s not to say adult books are all bland, vanilla copies of one another. There are adult books which are intense flights of fantasy, or which are structured (‘Cloud Atlas’, anyone?) in wonderfully arresting ways. There are also a lot of bad, boring, irritatingly simplistic children’s books – I am not trying to deny that. However, when a children’s book is excellent, it really shines. I think the transformative power of a children’s book, the potential a good children’s book has to change a whole life, affect the reader’s entire way of thinking, is much stronger than an adult book. This numinous power is even felt by adult readers – I know I often find myself far more deeply moved by the emotional range and weight of children’s books than those written for adults. The issues in children’s books – loneliness, abandonment, powerlessness, love, bone-shattering hate, fear, adventure, injustice, bewilderment, identity, forging one’s place in the world – can be raw, and vital, and wounding, and just as relevant to an adult reader as to a child. Despite this, the author seems to take greatest issue with the ‘fact’ that children’s books just don’t tackle the same issues that adult books do, such as the grey areas of life, or the moral challenges of modernity, or the huge existential questions posed by writers like Joyce and Kafka.
In answer to that, I say: clearly, sir, you have not read very many children’s books.
For life’s grey areas, I direct you to the work of the current UK Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, or the moral ambiguity at the heart of Cal, the central character in Catherine Fisher’s magnificent ‘Corbenic’, or the ideas around fatherhood in Gillian Cross’ novel ‘Wolf.’ Can you be a good person while doing bad things? These books will tell you that. So many children’s books deal with existential questions like ‘why am I here?’ ‘why was I born?’ ‘what happens when we die?’ – a few that spring to mind are Terry Pratchett’s ‘Tiffany Aching’ series, in which Tiffany’s deceased grandmother is as important a character as any of the living people in her world, and the timeless ‘The Little Prince,’ a book which teaches me something new every time I read it. Sally Nicholls’ amazing ‘All Fall Down,’ a book set during the time of the Black Death in England, is an unflinching look at mortality and loss and a powerful story about how it is possible to pick oneself up and carry on after suffering more than anyone should have to. It is aimed at young teenagers, but speaks to all ages. A recent children’s book which made no effort to shy away from the brutality of life was Sally Gardner’s ‘Maggot Moon’, a book which examines the horror of fascism and oppression and pulls no punches about doing it. If you want a story about political intrigue, ways to rule a kingdom, justice and injustice, how to distinguish between good and evil, and the terrible necessity – sometimes – to mask your true self in order to live in peace, then look no further than Kristin Cashore’s trilogy of ‘Graceling,’ ‘Fire’ and ‘Bitterblue,’ all aimed at the 12+ market.
One of the lines from the article which really irritated me was this: ‘Life is messy, life is surprising and, most of all, life is full of compromises.’ The article’s author means that only adult books are large enough to encompass themes like this, and that children’s books are reductive, black and white, and too simplistic to engage with wider themes like the chaotic nature of reality. But that’s exactly what children’s books are best at – dealing with a world which is frightening, unknowable, utterly surprising, sometimes a total and inexplicable mess, and where a child’s will often has to take second place to that of an adult. Mess, surprise and compromise are three of the central props of children’s literature. What could be more chaotic, or surprising, or fraught with compromise, than having your home life devastated, or war destroy your country, or being thrust into a new family with little or no warning, or having a parent fall ill, or being made homeless, or stateless, or being forced to face up to a changed reality: ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’? ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’? ‘Code Name Verity’? ‘The Silver Sword’? ‘I Am David’? ‘Elidor’? The ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy? ‘A Monster Calls’? ‘Bog Child’? There are so many books about themes like this.
I could go on, but I’ve gone on long enough. Let me just finish by saying that I am the first to admit there are a lot of silly, overwritten, copycat books aimed at children and young adult readers – they are not all masterpieces of modern literature. As well as that, of course there are things children’s books (as distinct from YA books) won’t deal with, such as sexual relationships, or marriage, or anything in that realm, and that’s perfectly appropriate. However, if you’re willing to look for them, you’ll find children’s books – good ones – are just as profound, life-changing, meaningful, brave and beautiful as the best of literature written for adults; they pitch their ideas just as widely, and they deal with as full a range of human emotions, fears and needs.
And I won’t let anyone say otherwise.