Darkness Redux: Has the Children’s Novel Lost Its Way?
Oh, heavens above, didn’t we just cover this earlier this year?
It seems a recent article in The Times has everybody buzzing like a little hive o’ bees. The piece is No More Adventures in Wonderland by Harvard folklore professor Maria Tatar and in it she discusses darkness in contemporary children’s books versus books for kids in the past. It’s essentially a better written version of that Wall Street Journal piece from a couple months ago but with a different focus. For example, in this article the author laments the rise of dark material in books for kids saying at one point, “. . . it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie, for they also bridged generational divides. No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page.”
As you might imagine everybody just loved that line.
I haven’t read all the responses to this piece yet, but I have heard a couple discussions of it. Nina Lindsay at Heavy Medal brings up something that I wondered myself. Tatar at one point quotes the first line from Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Says Nina, “I have to wonder if she really read The Graveyard Book, which I found to be much more in tone with the books-of-yore she misses, ones in which ‘danger is balanced by enchantment’.” Agreed. In the comments Jonathan Hunt wonders if Ms. Tatar has read enough contemporary children’s fiction to speak of the trends in the field. Then over at Educating Alice Monica offers a more supportive take on the piece and commenter Judith Ridge speaks out against the knee-jerk reactions that come when YA literature is criticized in any manner.
Actually, it was the YA nature of the piece that bugged me more than anything else. To my mind the piece suffers, in part, because its author is lumping YA literature in with children’s literature. I think that when examining books for children you should stick to books for kids and not teens. I would acknowledge that since “YA” is a new term, Ms. Tatar is probably lumping all books for youth in the past with all books for youth in the present together, but I would have preferred that she mention that fact somewhere along the line.
But let’s unpack this a little. Ms. Tatar says at one point, “the savagery we offer children today is more unforgiving than it once was, and the shadows are rarely banished by comic relief.” Harry Potter not counting, apparently, the idea that the books today are more unforgiving is interesting. Recently the blog The Little Professor located a best books for children list from a January 25, 1900 edition of The Daily Mail. It reads:
1. Robinson Crusoe
2. Andersen’s Fairy Tales
3. Alice in Wonderland
4. Tom Brown’s Schooldays
5. Pilgrim’s Progress
6. Grimm’s Fairy Tales
7. Little Women
8. Arabian Nights
9. Little Lord Fauntleroy
10. Alice through the Looking-Glass
First off, impressive that almost all these books are still household names (and we’ll make allowances for Tom Brown’s Schooldays since it’s likely that books like Harry Potter couldn’t exist without it). Are contemporary books for children (not teens) titles that contain a “more unforgiving” savagery than these titles? Well, assuming that Ms. Tatar, a professor of folklore mind, is not counting the Grimm stories because they were written earlier than the era she is talking about, I would point out that they still made the top ten list in 1900. And if you want to talk about humorless savagery, the Grimms fairly invented the idea. All this goes for some of the tales in Arabian Nights and Andersen’s fairy tales as well. And don’t even get me started on old Tom Brown.
Maybe my favorite reaction came from Alison Morris, former Shelftalker blogger, who emailed me about the piece and pointed out that this conversation has been done to death. Said she:
“I want to tell authors like Ms. Tatar that if you want to write an interesting article along these lines, write about the way we raise our kids today, the way we socialize and sexualize them younger and younger and make them into miniature adults, and then look at how THAT has impacted the changes (if you can claim they exist) in the types of reading material that today’s kids are reading for. Or write about the rise of dystopian fiction on YA shelves and ask why this is happening during a recession. What does it say that kids are going after these books these days? Or look at what fantasy means NOW to your average reader. What types of fantasies are teen girls going for these days – the ones where the girl falls for the vampire/werewolf/fallen angel/insert-paranormal-here down the street. Write about the fact that girls in gowns are appearing on book jackets everywhere. ”
Better than that, I could not put it.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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