What is a children’s book?

Posted December 9, 2018 by Lory in discussions / 29 Comments

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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”?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

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29 responses to “What is a children’s book?

  1. I think nowadays that our pigeonholing of children’s books into age banding, which after all, is purely for marketing, does literature a great disservice. So I totally agree with the definition you start your post off with! 🙂

    • I believe that banding you mention, Annabel, is especially prevalent in the US, partly from the efforts of children’s librarians, and I see it in many blog reviewer posts where the writer is keen to specify the age range a title is supposed to be aimed at. In UK libraries ‘teen reads’ are usually hived off onto YA shelves and picture books into toddler-height-friendly book boxes, leaving everything else for those in-betweeners of varying degrees of maturity. Difficult.

      • An American library’s children’s room is pretty similar. YA gets its own area, picture books on low shelves, and most other fiction in a large section. We do usually have easy readers and easy chapter books separated out. A new reader goes through a LOT of easy chapter books.

        • I guess easy readers are pretty obviously children’s books. Even there though I see no reason why adults shouldn’t enjoy them too, if they’re well done. They have a kind of gnomic poetic charm.

  2. I heartily agree with all you say here, Lory, from the complexities of The Owl Service which even as a 20-something (and one with a little previous grounding in Welsh mythology) left me confused, to the inherent problems of categorising children’s fiction given the range of maturity and capacity for emotional intelligence they have at any specified age.

    For these reasons and others I never ever tag my reviews ‘children’s’, ‘YA’ or ‘teen’ as I believe a book should be judged on its own merits as a narrative. Sure, I may comment on its effectiveness for a presumed target audience, but since most children’s literature is written by adults I as another adult have to judge their works on that basis, if you see what I mean.

    Thanks for another stimulating discussion post!

    • I have tagged my reviews as “children’s” or “YA” as a guide to those who may be looking for that content, but as I generally do not write about books I don’t think are worth reading, it always means I find them worthwhile for adults as well.

      If you read The Owl Service again and can explain the last chapter to me, I would love to hear your thoughts. I know I got a lot more out of it this time but that part was still confusing to me.

  3. I’ll have to read The Owl Service and see what I think.
    As a child, I was angry that my public library wouldn’t let me check out books from the adult section, mostly because I’d read all the books in the children’s section. Also they had a limit of 10 books per week, and the children’s books weren’t as fat. I actually went on the rampage about this as a parent, when the school librarian at my daughter’s school denied her the privilege of checking out a Ramona the Pest book when she was in kindergarten, claiming that she wouldn’t “really read it.”
    C.S. Lewis has said what I most believe about children’s books. My husband and I have an extensive children’s library, and we reread those books as much as we reread any of our other books.
    Here’s Lewis, from On Three Ways of Writing For Children:
    “Where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that, will read the story or re-read it, any any age. I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”

    • I completely agree with C.S. Lewis. There are some children’s books I wouldn’t reread any more, but I put that down more to changes in my tastes and interests than to the quality of the book as such. And the very best ones only unfold and reveal more upon repeated reading.

    • I, too, reread my favorite children’s books, some out of nostalgia but others because they really do hold up as good books. And I agree with Lewis on this. There are many wonderful children’s and teen/YA books I discovered only as an adult, either because I didn’t encounter them when I was young or because they weren’t written yet.

  4. Wonderful post, Lory! I have to agree — a children’s book is a book children (or A child) will read.

    The first time I read The Owl Service I could barely make sense of it. I just re-read it a month or so ago (I discovered that my local library had weeded all the Garner, so I bought copies from AbeBooks) and it was a much better experience. That is one complex book. I’ll have to read my old copy of The Blue Sword again; it’s been years. I spent my teen years reading that and its companion over and over again.

    Librarians on the whole, I think, dislike age banding, but there’s no denying that modern children’s books are shoved into distinct age groups and sort of homogenized to fit. Reading older books (say, from the 70s) is an almost surreal experience if you’re used to that. Schools do a lot of testing on reading, and use programs like AR which have a specific list of books that are pegged to a grade level (and not just 3 for 3rd grade, but 3.1, 3.2, etc.). The child is then supposed to choose (“choose”) a book at or above the correct level, read it, and take a quiz to prove it happened. It’s an ideal system IMO for crushing the love of reading out of almost any child. When I worked as a public librarian, it was very depressing indeed to have a kid come in needing to choose a book off the AR list. The list books were never there, or weren’t attractive, and the parents often wouldn’t let the kid pick the neat-looking books that weren’t on the list.

    There are a lot of great things about modern children’s literature: the invention of easy chapter books that make an excellent bridge into more sophisticated reading, the permissibility of chunksters for children, the tsunami of pretty good fantasy. Age banding, homogeneity and a good deal of dreck, marketing and series above all, and the exclusion of really weirdo stuff are real problems.

    • Your library weeded all the Garner! I guess he’s gone thoroughly out of fashion, just when I’m starting to rediscover him. That’s funny that you just re-read The Owl Service too.

      Geez, what an awful system of enforcing reading levels. Books are not quantifiable entities, nor is the human soul. People are not mechanisms. But the effort to push us in that direction continues.

  5. I love, love, love your Charlotte Mason-style thoughts on style! I hate children’s literature that feels like it’s reaching down to kids because when authors do that, they usually reach far below what kids can actually take in.

    • Kids are not just unintelligent adults! They don’t have much experience, but they’re learning all the time, making connections, grasping new concepts. That’s why we need to give them the very best material to work on.

  6. What a thoughtful, thought-provoking, and insightful post and comments!

    I’m often frustrated with adults who dismiss children’s books out of hand as “just for children,” without recognizing that good children’s books often retain their appeal into adulthood… and, as you say, can reveal aspects that the younger reader misses.

    A children’s book may be aimed at children, or it may be whatever the child wants to read. Given the freedom to choose, I find that children will read above their age and grade level when the book interests them enough. I was 10 when I fell in love with Shakespeare through seeing Romeo and Juliet at Stratford-on-Avon. I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time at 10 or 11. I’m certain that large portions of each went right over my head the first time I encountered them (and for some time afterward.) Yet something in each work spoke to my heart, my spirit, in ways I couldn’t then articulate but could only feel. I devoured them; in the case of Tolkien, I reread the book several times a year for well over a decade, and once a year for a decade or so after that. (My love for Shakespeare blossomed more slowly, primarily because no one in my family thought of giving Shakespeare to a middle-schooler.) Yet at the same time, I was also happily reading and rereading The Secret Garden, Louisa May Alcott, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, Elizabeth Enright, Madeleine L’Engle, and a host of other “age-appropriate” books. The easier books still fed my imagination and my craving for stories and words; the more challenging books stretched my reading muscles and expanded my horizons. I needed both.

    I agree with you, too, that children’s books should be written with as much attention to good writing as adult books, with all that implies: not only in terms of plot, structure, and characterization, but language and imagery as well. Madeleine L’Engle, reflecting on children’s books and controlled vocabulary (which she abhorred), points out that Beatrix Potter uses the word “soporific” to describe the effect lettuce has upon Peter Rabbit. It is, she says (I’m paraphrasing here), the right word in the right place; to have said instead that lettuce made him sleepy would be to lose the flavor and precision of Potter’s original prose. (Forgive me if I don’t remember the passage perfectly; my copies of the Crosswicks Journals are about 2000 miles away.)

    When an author chooses the perfect word, writes a beautiful or powerful phrase, uses imagery that surprises or enriches the reader, the reader’s sensitivity to and appreciation of language and good writing grows. It may be more obvious in young readers, whose grasp of language is still maturing, but it happens even for older readers. I find that to be one of the joys of reading really well-written prose and poetry, regardless of the age group the author is (or thinks s/he is) writing for.

    • A good children’s book is a good book, period. I get very impatient with the attitude that they are a lesser category of literature. If anything, it’s more difficult to write for children than for adults, because children don’t read in the lazy, inattentive way we often do. Every word really counts!

  7. I think the problem with designating a book as being “for children” is the same as with designating a book as being “for women” – it’s such a heterogeneous and varied group that the notion a single book is going to be right for all of them is laughable. I was an early and avid reader, and found myself continually frustrated with being banished to the “children’s” section, when there were books more appropriate in other categories. Similarly, in retrospect, I now feel badly for those who struggled with reading and didn’t enjoy it, constantly poked and prodded towards books that weren’t right for them, because they were labelled with a particular age. Also, having recently read Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and The Wind In The Willows – both classic “children’s books” – I’m astounded at how much adults could get out of them, and yet I struggle to convince any Serious Grown Up(TM) readers that they’re worth a revisit (because, y’know, they’re “for kids”). So, on the whole, I’d say I’m opposed to sweeping generalisations about the market for a book in any form; I’d much rather see books categorised some other way!

    • The good thing about categories is being pointed towards other books similar to ones you like. The bad thing is being excluded or discouraged from reading other books you might enjoy. Life is unpredictable! That’s what the Serious Grown Ups don’t want to admit.

  8. Great post! I think I like the initial definition you quoted pretty well, although I might change it to ‘whatever an adult will let their child read’ – I think it needs to be decided on a case by case basis and we shouldn’t let the common genre labels prevent kids from reading ‘adult’ books or adults from reading ‘kid’ books.

    • The world would be a better place if people would consider more things individually on a case by case basis and not in terms of labels. I guess that’s why I feel this question is important — especially with kids, who are learning how the world works.

  9. What a great discussion topic!! You make many wonderful points here! When I first saw your title, I immediately thought that a Children’s book was any book that a child would like to read that is appropriate for that specific child. But of course that can get a bit dicey. As a kid, I was always reading well above my age’s reading level, but I was always a bit more mature than other kids. However, I do remember reading one specific Stephen King book before I was mature enough and it was quite daunting. I wasn’t scarred or anything, but I did read a certain scene and then put the book down, telling my mom I wasn’t ready.

    • In reading there is a certain degree of freedom from the content. With movies, for example, the content comes so fast and so unconsciously that we can easily be overwhelmed by images we’re not ready for. But with reading we have to be more active, and therefore we can more easily stop when something is distasteful.

      That said, young readers can get attracted to content they are not really mature enough to handle, and it is something to be a bit cautious about. I certainly have books on my shelves I would not want my son to read, but mostly he is sensible about choosing what is appropriate for him.

        • I recently had a conversation with my daughter about this. She’s a bit more sensitive to darker topics or violence than a lot of kids her age. I mentioned that she’s pretty good about knowing her limits and putting down a book if it’s too much for her, and she said, “Yeah, but sometimes that can be hard to do.” Gave me some food for thought. She’s a pretty responsible, level-headed girl, so it’s interesting to hear her thoughts on that—my youngest wouldn’t be nearly as good at self-monitoring his reading, I can pretty much guarantee.

          • The pull of story can be very strong and drag us into places we didn’t really want to go, it’s true. So some care is needed, while respecting teen readers’ autonomy. My son is not quite a teenager yet, but I will need to keep an eye on this issue.

  10. It’s interesting that you use The Owl Service as an exemplar here, as I chose it as one of my ‘classic’ options for a young adult literature course earlier this year. But I had had it on my TBR as a middle grade book – which I now think is an inappropriate label. My definition of a book for children is pretty mundane – a book written for children about children’s concerns. What’s important to remember, as I think you make clear, that just because a book is ‘for children’ doesn’t mean it has to be ‘dumbed down’.

    • I suppose I chose it because having won a prominent children’s book award labels it as a children’s book. But it’s certainly not what I would call “a book about children’s concerns.” Probably because definition of the line between child and adult has shifted downward in recent years; teenagers used to be children, now they are young adults.

      Perhaps one could say a book for children does need to be simplified — in language and complexity of narrative, at least. But it’s to our discredit if we consider simplification to be stupidification. There is tremendous art involved in paring down something to its essence.

      • Yes, that’s a good way to put it – simplification does not equal stupidification. A difficult or complex theme may be simplified without being watered down, allowing a child to grapple with that theme. Writing a good book for children certainly requires a lot of skill.

  11. During a book tour for her Middle Grade book, YA author Alexandra Bracken was asked what she thought was the difference between YA and MG: and she said that in YA the main character is finding their place in the world, or things outside their family and group of friends, and in Middle Grade the MC is finding their place in the family and with their peers. Too many authors think MG is just simplified YA. Also, MG aged children are champion worriers, especially about the safety of their family and friends, so some of the more violent, and adult problem aspects of MG books I have come across recently have really bothered me. On PBS they have child psychologists on staff to make sure the content of their children’s programming is on par with normal the emotional maturity of the viewership age. I think publishers should do the same. 👍

    • Interesting points. It makes sense that a child’s sphere of interest gradually enlarges, growing beyond the immediate surroundings. However, what about all those books that involve a kid saving the world? A sense of the larger wholeness (and also how it can be broken) is already present quite early on, though putting too much weight on the problems can cause undue stress.

      How an author treats difficult topics is a huge part of the art of writing for children; I think the masters are able to do it, without disturbing, overly graphic images, but rather with a kind of lightness that balances out the depths. They can go into issues of real moral weight without burdening the reader.

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