Somebody once defined a children’s book as “any book that a child will read.” Which could be nearly anything–some children will read very strange and unexpected things, while other books earmarked for children languish on the shelf. I think our usual definitions have to do more with what adults think children will read, or more typically, what they think children should be reading.
I started thinking about this question because I just reread The Owl Service, which won the Carnegie Medal, the British prize honoring children’s literature, upon its publication in 1967. It would certainly be considered YA today, but I see no reason to define it even in this way. With its complex, subtle treatment of themes of sexuality and class, within a masterfully imagined framework of mythological recurrence, and written in an oblique style that demands a high level of sophistication from the reader, this has much in common with books we would certainly consider “adult.” Just because it’s about teenagers does not mean only teenagers will want to read it, nor that it’s necessarily suitable for them.
It’s a pity when such books are pushed onto young readers who maybe are not ready for them, and segregated from the adult fiction with which they could just as easily belong. But nor do I think any child who wants and need such a book should be deprived of that experience. It’s hard to know how to create definitions that do not also become limitations.
There are at least three interrelated factors to consider: subject matter, style, and complexity of narrative. What subjects are children interested in, and what should they be shielded from? Sex and violence are the usual taboos, although I’ve been surprised on rereading some childhood favorites at how much violence they contain. Children are generally just not interested in adult relationship problems, at least in the most naturalistic way. These can be conveyed symbolically in fantasy and fairy tales, in a form suitable for slow digestion into adulthood.
As for style, it’s repugnant to me when a children’s book is written in a twee, simplistic, or sentimental style for the wee ones, or in a lazy, cliche-ridden way because they’re thought to be too unsophisticated to notice. Language in a book for children should be crafted with great beauty and care. It goes deeply into a child reader and becomes a formative force. It does not have to have lots of big words or convoluted sentence structure in order to be thoughtful, artistic, and intellectually nourishing. But this is not an issue limited to books for young readers. I wish many adult books would pay more attention to this principle as well.
Complexity, the difficulty of following what is going on, is the main factor that struck me with The Owl Service. This is not a straightforward tale; there are lots of gaps and implications for the reader to wake up to in order to make sense of the narrative. This is part of what makes it such a potentially exciting and rewarding reading experience, but for a reader unprepared for such heavy lifting it could be just confusing and opaque. I think that’s why I didn’t like it at all when I first read it as a teen myself, along with the adult subject matter to which I could not relate.
A book like The Blue Sword, which I also reread recently, was just my cup of tea, on the other hand. Reading it now, I’m more impressed than I was back then by Robin McKinley’s dignified, lucid style (especially since her later books became tangled up in increasingly convoluted sentences). The general subject is that of innumerable adventure stories and folktales: the training and testing of a hero, who must depart from her own land in order to find her true self, ending with reconciliation of the two worlds. From that point of view, it could be for readers of any age.
But the story upon adult reading is so straightforward as to be almost boring. Where are the challenges, the surprises, the conflict and ambiguity? The writing is so fluent and the imaginative world so attractive that it carries you along, but what’s underneath is surprisingly thin.
Such lack of layering and complexity is not unique to children’s literature, though. There are plenty of adult books that don’t demand much of the reader other than to follow along where the author leads — and there’s nothing wrong with that. There can be different kinds of books for different moods or reading preferences, and an undemanding story can at times be a great gift. At other times, we might appreciate being challenged and woken up more. This is as true for children as for adults, I believe.
So my question remains unanswered, except to say that the definition above might be the best one. What do you think? Can you say what makes a book “for children”?