When is a Children’s Book Not a Children’s Book?

The Importance of Taking Children’s Books (& Adults Who Read Them) Seriously

“You blog about children’s books but you don’t have children? Has anyone ever questioned that you’re not qualified to do this?”

” I see you write about children’s books. Do you have your own children? No? Oh, you’re a teacher. So you’re coming from a professional point of view then.”

These are a couple of examples of responses I’ve had in relation to me and my children’s book blog www.booksagogo.co.uk.  Being questioned by strangers about my suitability as a reader of children’s books has always struck me as a bit odd (and a bit rude). I find it embarrassing and uncomfortable and I’m ashamed to say that in order to avoid these sort of comments I find that I self-justify before they can begin.  I get in there first and say that as I teach and am also doing an MA in Children’s Literature it makes a lot of sense for me to be interested in children’s books. The truth is it’s actually the other way round. I’m a teacher because of my love of children’s books. I’m doing the MA because of my love of children’s books.

Children’s Books for Everyone

What if I wasn’t a teacher? What if I had no reason deemed ‘proper’ for writing about children’s books? What if I simply loved to read them- would that not be justification enough?  To be a proper champion of children’s books, I need to be up there waving my copy of Jill’s Gymkhana with pride and claiming children’s books on behalf of everyone. So here I am, waving.

Back Up

C.S. Lewis had it right. He wrote this brilliant piece on writing for children and shared his thoughts on being a reader of children’s books at any age:

(In defending children’s books) “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.”

Also:

“They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two.”

Children’s Literature as a Genre

If we consider children’s literature as a genre open to any age, it begins to make sense. For a start, childhood is not a static state of being. Children (like adults) are all different depending on time and circumstance. Children today read books written for the children of 20, 50, 100 + years ago without any thought to it.  For example, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden might be a ten year old child of The Empire who has never been to school, but she remains credible today because she has a spirit children can identify with.  It works because children recognise the similarities rather than the differences. So should we.

What is children’s literature anyway? Robinson Crusoe was written for adults but has always held a fascination for children. It has been abridged over time and is considered by most now as a children’s book. Tom Sawyer is a children’s book but not one I’ve seen in any of the schools I’ve worked in, which is a shame and a loss. The picture book Rosie’s Walk is one of the most satisfying reads I have had the pleasure to analyse as part of my course. Fairy tales are not always about the happily ever after. Accepting that children’s books are complex is essential. This is something you can remind yourself of every time there’s a controversial winner of a children’s book prize. There is nothing that children’s literature doesn’t deal with: war, poverty, death, cruelty, violence, abandonment, it’s all there. Can you handle it?

 You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Children’s fiction has come a long way from its moralistic and didactic roots. We are in a new golden age and the choice out there is astounding. I can only begin to touch on all the good things going on in the children’s book world. I encourage you to take a look and ask yourself what you expect from a good book. I suspect it will be very similar to what you hope a child will get from reading.

Expectations for All & Some Suggested Reads

  • Expand Horizons. (Rebel of the Sands, Doomspell Trilogy, Bartimaeus Trilogy, Deathscent)
  • Feel Empathy. (Wonder, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, The Incredible Journey, Perijee and Me, The Arrival)
  • Learn new things. (Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm, Voices in the Park, The London Eye Mystery)
  • Be Delighted (The Bell Family, The Little Grey Men, Holiday House, I Capture the Castle)
  • Fire imagination. (The Earthsea Quartet, Strange Star, The Snow Merchant)
  • Have a laugh. (Who Let the Gods Out, Pugs of the Frozen North, I Can Only Draw Worms)
  • Get emotional. (Black Beauty, Skellig, Listen to the Moon)
  • Lose Yourself. (If You Find Me, Five Children on the Western Front, Darkmere)
  • Think. (Tape, Picture Me Gone, Noughts and Crosses, Winter Damage, Wells & Wong Mysteries)

Children’s books are for everyone. Have the hock and the lemon squash. Be enriched.