Sunshine Mary wrote an interesting post earlier this week about children’s literature. Her basic thesis is that children’s books are poorer quality than they used to be, as well as being agenda driven and plain old boring. Her commenters agree wholeheartedly. They’re probably not the only ones.
And yet if the literary critics are to be believed, we live in a veritable golden age of children’s literature. Certainly, one of my friends believes so. She has a vested interest, being the managing editor of a major children’s book division, but she tells me that contemporary children are surrounded by literary riches.
First, my own position. Being a proud (and competitive) auntie, who also has friends with children, I find myself shovelling books in the direction of some avid bookworms. In the past few years, I’ve read a lot of kids books, and now I find myself firmly in the Golden Age camp.
For a start, writers for kids and teens concentrate on the story, at a time when ‘story’ in adult novels is now largely reserved for commercial fiction. There are lots of page-turning, ripping yarns to be found out there in children’s land. Chris Priestly’s Tales of Terror, for example, are so terrifying that the mother of the boy I bought them for took them away. The kid himself adored them and wanted more. Me too. I can strike fear into just about anybody, of any age, by reading out the story of the witch and the apple trees.
Also, since Harry Potter and a couple of its contemporaries – such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – exploded on the scene, there has been much more attention paid to this section of the literary world; about ten years ago, the New York Times began a children’s book review section, signalling the new seriousness with which the genre was being taken. As a result, a wealth of literary books are being produced.
But that doesn’t answer the question – why do some of us think there is an avalanche of good books out there, while some think it’s all terrible dross? I think there are several answers. From less serious to more serious:
Firstly, there’s the Old Fogey problem. Just as people get stuck in fashion and music time warps, where they believe all music written after a certain period isn’t really music, people get stuck in literary time warps. Readers feel particularly passionate about the books they loved as children, and so they firmly believe that The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe can never be surpassed, and everything else is Just Rubbish.
A spin-off of that is a problem my publishing friend is constantly up against.
Children who read for pleasure enter the book’s world in a very intense way. They submerge themselves into the story and become part of it. Every parent or teacher knows how hard it is to rouse a child in this state – they literally blink when they come back to reality, as if they’re adjusting to a new world.
This could be something to do with the way a child’s brain develops, because there comes a time when the magical gates close forever, and the way to that kind of experience is shut. After the late teens and early 20s, total immersion in a book becomes much harder to do.
So when bookworms look back, they remember their favourite books opened the door to magic in a way that every book they’ve read since hasn’t. Instead of realising that their immersive experiences belonged to a particular time of their life and can’t be recaptured, they blame contemporary literature for failing them.
My friend is constantly receiving manuscripts written by people rewriting the books they loved as children. She gets endless Narnian talking animal books – none of which are animated by an intellect as serious as C.S. Lewis’s – plenty of warmed-over Enid Blyton, and any number of one-dimensional stories involving unrealistically sweet children who embody an idealised childhood.
Plus, parents have a natural desire to shield their children from unpleasant things. Modern children’s literature, having to compete with video games and blockbuster movies, is getting edgier and edgier. I can see how squeamish this makes parents around me – even though I know for a fact they themselves devoured extremely trashy novels when they were kids (like Flowers in the Attic, the bestseller about incest).
Which brings me to a point about romanticisation of the past: much contemporary writing is actually less tough minded than books from a generation ago. I have on my shelf a book called Brother in the Land, a piece of Cold War literature first issued in 1984 – 30 years ago. It’s a bleak tale of the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, where crops fail, violence ensues and everyone comes to believe that survival is a worse fate than death. In the end, Danny – the protagonist – realises his brother is dying and everyone else is going to starve.
The book was reissued in 2000, but this time with a new ending. In this new book, written for an era of Positive Thinking, a way is found to save humanity. Crops sprout, all is well.
The second problem with children’s/YA literature today – if you can call it a problem - is that publishers want sure things. So if a book becomes a runaway bestseller, they immediately churn out similar books to tap into demand. That’s why it seems like there are nothing but vampire books and dystopias on offer – because there are thousands of imitation books out there, trying to piggyback Twilight and The Hunger Games. I walked into a bookstore in the USA a couple of years ago, and literally half the store was taken up with this stuff. No wonder people think that’s all there is.
At the other end, you get the prize seekers, aimed at impressing other adults. Almost as an antidote to the Twilight imitations, publishers want to be taken seriously, and so out come books like the highly-lauded Wonder, about a badly deformed child. It made every adult who read it weep – but what did the kids think? Who knows? It’s too hard to wade through tens of thousands of adult comments on goodreads.com to find out.
Publishing is going multimedia and the big publishing houses now have links with Hollywood, so many books for children are now created with an eye to the film and video game market. Some of these are very good, because publishers for children have to get their wares past gatekeepers like librarians, so have a vested interest in keeping quality high.
But some of the books that are coming out are (to my mind), cynical. I personally found Michael Grant’s Gone novel series to be offensively violent and manipulative, with characters that were two-dimensional and unrealistically amoral (are young kids really capable of cold blooded violence?). Having said that, I should add that the series has sold like stink, been compared to Lord of the Flies, and has generated rave reviews from teens who might not otherwise be reading.
As to the criticism that modern kids’ lit is agenda driven, there’s some truth to that. It has ever been thus, as well-meaning adults can’t stop themselves pouring lessons into books for children. Many of the books I read as a kid were packed to the gills with obvious lessons about the environment. A generation earlier, Cold War writers were warning children of the hideous immorality of the atom bomb. Children’s literature itself evolved out of the religious and moral tracts aimed at children, so it’s not surprising the genre has never shaken this completely. Indeed, I remember a kindly lady giving me a stack of Christian novels for girls, which hit me over the head with messages about virtue, while failing to offer any story, characters or literary merit of any kind.
And – no offence, American readers, and please note I’m talking about run-of-the-mill books and not the many outstanding ones – I find this much more of a problem in books from North America than from elsewhere. Americans seems much more concerned with political correctness, and strenuously avoid certain subjects. I always wondered whether the giant horses in Harry Potter were still allowed to drink whiskey in the American version, or whether they were put on rations of water.
Fortunately, the books that kids actually like and which do well in the market are rarely the preachy ones.
Now to a more serious problem, which is keeping kids and parents away from the good stuff: parents can’t be expected to keep up with all the ins and outs of contemporary publishing. It’s unrealistic to expect them to subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly in order to find good books for their kids to read. That is the job of librarians and book store owners. But the local book stores have gone, and the librarians are going, which is a tragedy. The worth of a good local librarian can’t be overstated. They don’t just know where the best books are, but they can build a relationship with the children that library serves, and find books specifically for them. Unfortunately, we are undergoing a period of massive library closures: in 2012 alone, the UK lost more than 200 libraries. That’s 200 vital links in the chain of literacy lost.
Amazon and other digital services don’t just fail to pick up the slack – they make the problem worse. If a kid reads Twilight and wants to read something new, Amazon’s algorithms will point them towards Twilight imitations, rather than nudging them towards something more challenging, like a friendly librarian would.
I don’t know what the solution to this incredible loss is, except for people who care about books to keep talking to each other and recommending the many, many great books that are out there. Certainly I don’t think it’s helpful to retreat into giving children nothing but old classics, however beloved. Some of the nineteenth century books can be alienating for young children, as they get harder to read with every year that passes, and should be left until the kid is older. Other books are just dated, however fondly they’re remembered by middle aged people. And while older books have their place, if children read only classics, they’ll miss out on the great books around today.
Of which there are so many.
Anyway, in the next post I’ll discuss some books that have impressed me. They won’t be to everybody’s taste, of course, but don’t take that as an indication that if you don’t like my choices, all modern books are bad.
If anybody is thinking of taking up Sunshine Mary’s challenge to write some better kids’ books, go full steam ahead. The world can never have enough advocates for good kids’ books. Just remember not to fall into the traps listed by my publishing friend, above.