The urge for the classic : on children’s books and those eternal surveys

Another day, another survey that says what children can and should read. The click bait nature of most of these articles aside (and note, I say most and not all), there’s something interesting here worth teasing out. I suspect that something might centre on the historic constructions of children’s literature itself; the nature of age and growth for our interpretation of the sector, and the nature of the adult within that construction and interpretation. That’s a horrible sentence, but I hope it implies one key thing amidst the grammatical morass : children’s literature is complicated.

So, she says nonchalantly, just what is children’s literature? It’s a question that devours great swathes of research and one that bears particular weight to this blog. I focus on children’s literature. I broaden that to include young adult and picture books, but I do not review or talk about works for adults. So maybe we can start there; children’s literature is a space that exists in opposition to adult literature? And yet, even there, in that trembling starter, I find myself arguing with myself. Children’s literature thrives on the adult; they are vital within picture books, they’re vital in the purchase of literature (kids get money from somewhere, right? they don’t get to the library by themselves…). The adult is the silent presence within children’s books; the child themselves is defined by otherness from the adult. The Victorians had a field day (Arcadian pun intended) with the idea of the precious child; the cult of the child saw the great purity of the child fixated upon and maintained. The child as child as child. 

Maybe then we argue for children’s literature to exist not in opposition but in phase; in sequential space within each adults journey towards literacy, but transforming for each and every adult. Children are the great unknowable; we are not children, though we once were. Our childhood is past, but it was there; it was experienced, and now we are through it. We are grown, we are adult (excuse me whilst I go and panic fly a kite and contemplate my aged existence). We look back on childhood. We don’t look on or in. Childhood, our state as child, exists in a backwards, historic state. We have travelled through it.

So, surveys, I suspect, about what children read, will always be historically tinged and somewhat retrospective precisely because of our distance from childhood. We are people who read backwards, and who drive the demand for literature backwards. Of course we read contemporary fiction and we yearn for the new, sharp hit of wonder, but we yearn for stability. Like I said, children’s literature – it’s not simple. There’s a reason that Enid Blyton is one of the fifth most translated authors in the world, and it hinges on that idea of stability. Our childhoods are safe, golden spaces. We are trained to see them as that, regardless of the truth. School is the best time of your life. Holidays become golden tinged. We remember the good. We choose books which will construct that idyll and transfer it onto a new generation.

Sometimes I think these surveys don’t reflect the books at all.

Sometimes I think these surveys reflect the ideologies around these books.


Further reading:

Read Samantha Shannon’s lovely piece in the Guardian on this topic.

Non Pratt’s series of gorgeous tweets  delivers a list of reccomendations I’d be thrusting into the hand of every person ever.

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