When I Grow Up…



Goody, we’re doing this again.

An article by Jonathan Myerson (from City University’s creative writing program) has popped up on the Guardian comment blog to proclaim that ‘Children’s fiction is not Great Literature’, and to castigate the University of Kent for retracting the statement on their website saying the same.

Okay, so I’m pretty dumb, I put the remote control in the fridge about 3 times a week, but I’m not so dumb that I don’t know when I’m being baited. I’m like Roger Rabbit listening to ‘shave and a haircut’ being tapped out on the radiator next to my secret compartment, it’s just so *hard* not burst forth and fill in my bit of the song.

Still, rather than dwelling on the manifold and manifest aspects of the article’s wrongheadedness, I want to ask a question: why do we get pieces like this so eye-bleedingly often?

The more I think about this, the more I’m convinced it’s not because the people who write this stuff lack respect for kid’s literature, it’s because they lack respect for kids. Not that they don’t like kids, you understand, they just fundamentally underestimate what it takes to be one. Even the ways in which they cede ground to children’s writing are veiled digs at its readership: ‘ the best children’s books are better structured and written than many adult works’, Myerson admits. Am I crazy, or is he implying that they have to be, because otherwise the fickle infants will get bored and switch to Angry Birds?

Charitably, we might characterize their argument like this: kids are still growing, they’ve only been around for a handful of years, they don’t have the experience, either as readers or human beings, to fully grasp the things adults can. As Myerson puts it, he would not have wanted his own children ‘at 11, 12 or 13 – to confront the complexity and banality of evil’.

On the surface, this looks reasonable, because after all, kids are still growing. But look at it another way, kids are still growing. They’re learning more and faster than adults do, and what they think and who they are is changing at a terrifying rate. Stories speak to who we are, and kids writers have to find a way to be relevant to identities that are constantly in flux. It’s like trying to crack a safe that’s constantly spinning its own tumblers.

And maybe eleven and twelve and thirteen year olds are ready to learn about the complexity and banality of evil, and maybe they aren’t. But here’s the thing, evil is just going to keep being complex and banal, whether they’re ready for it or not, and kids are going to see that evil on the news and in the playground, and if they’re unlucky they’ll see it in their own damn homes. Great children’s stories, the kind written by Ness and Hardinge and Peet, don’t try and hide that from their readers, they just offer to hold their hands while they face it, and let them know they aren’t alone.

The irony is that there’s a children’s series that’s explicitly about all this: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. (It’s also a series where questions of good and evil, freedom and safety and control are far from black and white.)

What Pullman and all the best writers of children’s literature know, is that kids aren’t just adults in training, they aren’t waiting to become people when they grow up, they’re people right now.

6 thoughts on “When I Grow Up…

  1. I just want to hug you for this enlightened look into kidlit! One of the simplest picture books “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus” by Mo Williams, deals with the real issues of peer pressure and having someone try to force you to do what you don’t want to do. And it is told in about 100 words! I want to give in and let the pigeon drive the bus- I’m still learning what my 6 year old already knows.

  2. I think you’re right. And I think it’s not very far from people like VS Naipaul and Martin Amis (who links the two bigotries nicely) who say that books written by women (and, by implication, for women, since clever men like them don’t read women’s books) are inferior by necessity to their books. Which, if I was being childish and womanishly-petty, I would say were really, really, wrist-chewingly boring.

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