Children's Literature and Kids Underestimated Again
I have been an unabashed lover, nay, worshipper of children's literature since I was a child myself. Never did Max and his Wild Things seem childish, never did Ira's apprehension at his first sleepover feel like it didn't apply to my life, and not until I was 18 did I remove Knight's Castle and Anne of Green Gables from my bookshelf, but only to relocate them to my dorm room. Other than a brief stint around age 13 when I was sure that by reading the entirety of John Steinbeck's publications (yes, even that horrible one about Pippin) I could truly digest and analyze any piece of fiction ever written, I have tended to prefer those books written with the 9-13 year-old audience in mind.
I bristle when people malign or underestimate children's literature, and become downright hostile when its value is questioned. A college friend found himself the victim of such hostility when he defensively described Roald Dahl's Danny, the Champion of the World as "having meaning" despite its sad status as a children's novel. He's lucky we were hiking a very narrow trail at the time, otherwise a comment as ignorant and offensive as that might have met with fisticuffs.
I spent a year working at an independent children's bookstore, the same year that I dabbled in graduate work in children's literature. It was an immersive experience: being surrounded by children's books all day long, reading those with which I was unfamiliar, experiencing the nerdfest exhilaration of being given an advance reader of a new Lois Lowry or Andrew Clements, and then listening to an -- albeit dry and oft-boring -- lecture on the history of children's literature once a week. It was a fantastic and instructive way to spend a year, not to mention fulfilling. It went a long way towards altering what felt like a hobby to something that felt more like a profession. (Of course, things have changed since then, but that's beside the point. Bygones.)
And so, when I come across articles like "What Grown-Ups Can Learn from Kids' Books" in The Atlantic, I get super irritated. And what's most irritating about this article is that the author claims to love kiddy lit. She waxes poetic about the dog-eared status of her copy of Le Petit Prince, but is sure to point out that this is a result of her poring over it as an adult, not a child. She refers to the designation of children's book as a "horrible fate", noting that many such titles are "far more worthy of an adult designation." What is it that makes a piece of literature intended for adults any more "worthy" than that intended for children? Other than the misguided and ignorant opinions of immature fully-grown people, I cannot think of a single thing.
All that said, the author of this article in The Atlantic and I share a common goal: encouraging adults to revisit children's literature, to see how their perspective has shifted over time. So how is it that she makes me so mad and so offended, despite our similarities? Beyond her obvious lack of respect for the minds of children, the three classics she chooses to illustrate her point >The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, and Winnie the Pooh are just the kinds of books that adults love to gush over, but that make children yawn. Well, many children. And me. I have never been a fan of any of those three works, although while I can take classic Winnie in small doses, I'd rather never read any of The Little Prince or the Alice stories ever again. They're boring. They're didactic. They're really written for adults far more than they are for children. I didn't like them when I was a kid, and I don't like them now. Because they're boring.
Now, I know that what's boring to one is fascinating to another, so I tried really quite hard to disregard her choices for her article and instead focus on what it was that she was trying to say in the piece. It's kind of a long piece, so I'll do my best to distill it down for you. First of all, the reader is met with a five year-old image of Keri Russell at the Sundance Film Festival, reading Where the Wild Things Are, presumably to a group of children. Why Keri Russell? Why Maurice Sendak? Neither Ms. Russell nor Mr. Sendak are mentioned in the entire article, not even to discuss her hair (why must curly girls go straight?) or his passing (a huge loss to the world). It's just a stupid picture to have at the top of the article, and while I'm fairly certain it wasn't chosen by the author thereof, it is a perfect illustration of how kiddy lit gets the shaft, time and again. If it were an article discussing Toni Morrison's works, would there be a picture of Rick Schroeder reading from The Red Badge of Courage at the Phoenix, AZ Barnes and Noble? Please.
But let me get to the content of the piece. The author describes her love of children's literature, and how important it is that adults recognize the value of those books designated as such. That reading such works as an adult gives one an opportunity to find out "what they're all about." She describes how a child's perspective of these three classics is basically superficial and without emotion, while reading these books as an adult allows one to uncover "insights that are lost on a child." Yes, adults can understand things that children can't. And yes, adults will make conclusions that children wouldn't. But in my opinion, the author of this piece has no idea how much children can and do understand about the world around them, nor how strongly stories affect their thinking.
Let me say here that I do not think that the author of this piece intends to condescend to children and their ability to understand complex ideas. Her goal, summed up in the title of the piece, appears to be to illustrate how adults, too, can learn from children's books. She then goes through the social satire of The Little Prince, the existential and philosophical conflicts of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and the basic characters present in almost every story, perfectly depicted in Winnie the Pooh. The author is doing her best to encourage adults to take another look at some of their childhood literary friends to see how their different perspective in life allows for a different perspective on these children's books. That's a wonderful intention, one that I subscribe to wholeheartedly. I just do so without making children out to be idiots. I also do so with the understanding that the same is true for adults of all ages. The perspective you have reading a book at 28 will be different from your very own perspective reading the very same book at 58, or 78, or 98, just how your perspective was different when you were 8. Duh.
It all boils down to grownups underestimating children, yet again. No, children are not miniature adults. Thank goodness. They are so very much more than that. And if you don't get that, you don't have any business writing about what they can and cannot understand in a boring, 100 year-old piece of literature.