I'll start with a quote from Peter Hunt’s essay, “Children’s Literature”:
“Children’s literature” is a term used to describe both a set of texts and an academic discipline—and it is often regarded as an oxymoron. If “children” commonly connotes immaturity, and “literature” commonly connotes sophistication in texts and reading, then the two terms may seem to be incompatible.” (42)
Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the line drawn by academics between “adult” literature and “children’s” literature. I’m a bit perplexed by the idea that one of the reason children’s literature is considered inferior by some is because they believe that it’s pedagogical nature trumps all, if any, aesthetic qualities it may hold.
I started thinking more in depth about this the last few days because I’ve been reading essays in Phil Nel and Lissa Paul’s “Keywords for Children’s Literature”, in this post I’ll mostly be addressing issues that were raised in Peter Hunt’s essay.
“A defining characteristic of children’s literature is that it intends to teach what it means for girls to be girls and boys to be boys,” Hunt writes, quoting Perry Nodelman. This implies that all texts written for children have the intention of serving as pedagogical texts for children, that their main intent is to teach children how to be children. And perhaps this was so in the past; but does this statement really still hold today?
Moreover, in the “sophisticated” world of so-called adult literature (the stuff you study in English classes in college for, example) are we as adults so past learning and simply perfect that we can merely view these texts as objects of pleasure and aestheticism? I would say no, since life is a journey of continual learning and so even in this sophisticated literature we are still learning, we are sill being exposed to different perspectives and broadening our understanding of who we are as individuals and of the world we view through the lens of the novel; we are learning how to be people.
However, it is evident that in this literature aimed at adults, the learning that inherently comes from reading does not negate the pleasure of living in the written word, the aesthetic nature of the work. So why is it that in children’s literature, the fact that children are learning something seems to overpower the aesthetics of the written word?
Is it perhaps that we still believe that authors who write for children are intentionally intending to “teach” children and impart lessons to them? I would think that most authors of children’s or young adult books, if asked, would say that there were no specific lessons they were try to teach to their readers, they were just writing a story just like any author and their story happened to appeal to younger readers, perhaps because their main character was also a young person.
I’m also interested in this idea of the “hidden adult” that thus makes children’s literature lesser or perhaps incapable of truly existing according to Nodelman and Jacqueline Rose among others… Don’t almost all children have adults in their lives? Does this fact make their lives any less theirs? I think this idea that the “hidden adult” found in most children’s books makes them “belong” to children less, whether it’s actual adult characters or the narrator or the author, is odd. Moreover, it seems this stems from the stereotype that has thrived especially in American and perhaps Western culture more generally, that children dislike authority figures, especially their parents. Thus this feeds the idea that since children’s books feature this “hidden adult”, children are not able to own the literature they’re reading, that they are dependent on these adults. Especially in terms of the child reader’s dependence on their adult author, aren’t all of us as readers dependent on our authors, whatever age they or we are? Yet adult books are not accused of not belonging to their readers.
ALL literature is trying to teach and enlighten; however this is equal to its stylistic qualities and aesthetics. Aren’t all those “classics” we read throughout high school and college conveying themes/lessons, at least one? And yet we don’t question their artistic sophistication. However in children’s books where authors and illustrators are testing the limits of their craft, where they are experimenting, where they are also imparting universal themes (although the term theme is usually replaced with didactic lessons), many throw out any artistic merit and focus on the fact that they unfortunately supposedly “carry a burden of perceived simplicity that sets them outside the complexities we associate with literature for adults” (Hunt quoting Roderick McGillis, 42).
Literature is literature. There is good literature and bad literature. However why build more barriers, why refute a work’s merit simply because it’s audience happens to be children…children who happen to, at times, perceive literature better than we “adults” can.
"I have written eleven books for grownups and ten for children. I like to write for children. I think they are the best readers."
~Isaac Bashevis Singer
(And I won’t even delve into the phenomena of so many adults choosing to read children’s books, not for their children, not for didactic purposes but in order to find pleasure in it for themselves)
Also, would love to hear others thoughts on this...
Also, would love to hear others thoughts on this...