Do we take children’s literature seriously?

book for childrenLast night I attended a lecture on this topic, which was organised as part of the Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival. I was unsure what to expect. My own opinion is that all literature should be taken seriously, including books written for children. At the age of ten I was regularly reading adult books and yet as an adult I am happy to re-read the books of my childhood. I even organised a Roald Dahl themed party for my thirtieth birthday. So what’s the problem?   

Dr Catherine Butler is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English at Cardiff University. She specialises in children’s literature and has written a number of novels for children and young adults herself. I had expected more of a straightforward argument in favour of taking children’s literature seriously. Instead, the majority of the lecture focused on how adults in general, and the literary world in particular, don’t take it seriously enough. Perhaps the very fact that the room was far from full (with no more than 20 people in the audience) indicates that this is a real issue.

She began with the contradictory demands placed on children’s authors and teachers, of how to get the balance right between warning children that the world is a dangerous and frightening place whilst also trying to protect their innocence. She then described some of the changing attitudes over recent years, as well-known authors such as Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling managed to set new trends. But the thrust of her argument was that these are nothing more than trends. The pattern asserts itself over and over again. There is a renewed interest which eventually fades to leave the “inevitable reaction of neglect tinged with contempt”.

harry potter adult coverThe fact that the Harry Potter books were re-issued in new adult-friendly covers, lends strength to this idea. “Some adults,” explained Butler, “are prepared to pay an extra £1 to avoid being seen reading a children’s book on the tube.”

“Disdain for children’s literature,” Butler argued, “is about how we feel about children and childhood, not about the quality of writing”. She presented two contradictory views of childhood that dominate western thinking. The first of these she described as the “Hellenic view” expressed by Aristotle, who saw children as nothing more than incomplete adults. The alternative, she argued, is the “Wordsworthian view” – a kind of opposite viewpoint which glorifies children’s innocence in the Romantic tradition.

Our developing language, Butler argued, can also help us to see these contradictions. The words ‘silly’ and ‘simple’ began as positive descriptions of people who were untainted by sin. These now have much more negative associations. The word ‘innocent’, she added, has also had “a similar historical shift”, so that now it is a word with “both positive and negative connotations”.

Book - I want my pottyButler finished the lecture by suggesting that we will always have an ongoing battle with the world to take children’s literature seriously because so many adults are against it. “We are doomed,” she said, “to explain again and again why they are wrong”.

I would have been interested to hear more about why we should take children’s literature seriously. According to my parents I struggled to learn to read as a child. I don’t really remember this experience, but I do remember the first book I read properly by myself. It was I want my Potty! – A little princess story by Tony Ross – perhaps not the greatest work of literature ever written, but I enjoyed it and, by reading it, a whole new world of opportunity and interest was opened up to me.

There were some interesting questions from the audience, focusing on why certain authors such as Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton have stayed popular over the years. Butler suggested that this was due to the child readers, not the publishing industry. There were simply enough people out there buying the books. “If you can keep your books in print for 25 years,” she suggested, “then the children who originally read your books will have grown up and had children of their own”. She also pointed out that getting your book turned into a feature film helps.

One thought on “Do we take children’s literature seriously?

  1. An interesting post – and yes, kids books are just as relevant and important as YA, NA, or Adult books. True, most adults won’t enjoy ‘I want my potty’ but there should be no shame or embarrassment in adults enjoying the kids books that they *do* like.

    I don’t let age ranges bother me – if I like something, I like it. Because people who claim kids books are *just* for kids are letting an arbitrary categorisation make them miss out on enjoyment and value.

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