Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. . . . Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and . . . bores the reader. . . . Children love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. – E. B. White
It might be said that a child’s book is a book a child is reading, and an adult book is a book occupying the attention of an adult, writes Barbara Kiefer is the Charlotte S. Huck Professor of Children’s Literature at The Ohio State University. Before the nineteenth century only a few books were written specifically for the enjoyment of children. Children read books written for adults, taking from them what they could understand, she said.
Today, children continue to read some books intended for adults, such as the works of Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark. And yet some books first written for children—such as Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories—have been claimed as their own by adults.
Defining children’s literature is unexpectedly tricky. “To begin with, what is a children’s book?” asks F. Gordon Roe. It is not, it seems, simply a book written for children. Talking of childhood reading in Victorian times, Roe continues:
Some of the works I shall mention were not primarily written for children at all. So far from the works of Scott and Dickens being looked upon as impositions, they were read eagerly by many juveniles, though some of their elders were doubtful about Mr Dickens, who wrote about quite vulgar folk — even pickpockets!
Children’s literature or juvenile literature includes stories, books, and poems that are enjoyed by children. Modern children’s literature is classified in two different ways: genre or the intended age of the reader.
Children’s literature can be traced to stories and songs, part of a wider oral tradition, that adults shared with children before publishing existed. The development of early children’s literature, before printing was invented, is difficult to trace. Even after printing became widespread, many classic “children’s” tales were originally created for adults and later adapted for a younger audience. Since the 1400s, a large quantity of literature, often with a moral or religious message, has been aimed specifically at children. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became known as the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” as this period included the publication of many books acknowledged today as classics.
Books about children might not necessarily be for them. Richard Hughes’s adult classic A High Wind in Jamaica shows the “innocent” depravity of children in contrast to the group of pirates who had captured them. Yet in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, also written for adults, 8-year-old Scout Finch reveals a more finely developed conscience than is common in the small southern town in which she is raised. The presence of a child protagonist, then, does not ensure that the book is for children. Obviously, the line between children’s literature and adult literature is blurred.
Children today appear to be more sophisticated and knowledgeable about certain life experiences than children of any previous generation were. They spend a great deal of time within view of an operating television or other electronic media. According to studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children spend eight and a half hours per day consuming media content, often engaged with more than one type of media at a time. Although 73% of those from 8 to 18 years old continue to read for pleasure, the time they spend on reading is only about three quarters of an hour per day.4 Their exposure to broad media content is therefore significant. News broadcasts show them scenes of war or natural disasters while they eat their dinners. They have witnessed acts of terror, air strikes, assassinations, and starvation. Although many modern children are separated from firsthand knowledge of birth, death, and aging, the mass media bring vicarious and daily experiences of crime, poverty, war, and depravity into the living rooms of virtually all American homes. … In addition, today’s children are exposed to violence purely in the name of entertainment.
Such exposure has forced adults to reconsider what seems appropriate for children’s literature. It seems un believable that Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins was rejected by several publishers because it began with a death, or that some reviewers were shocked by a mild “damn” in Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Such publishing taboos have long since disappeared. Children’s books are generally less frank than adult books, but contemporary children’s literature does reflect the problems of today, the ones children read about in the newspapers, see on television and in the movies, and experience at home.
However, the content of children’s literature is limited by children’s experience and understanding.Kiefer talks about how certain emotional and psychological responses seem outside the realms of childhood. For example, nostalgia is an adult emotion that is foreign to most boys and girls.
Children seldom look back on their childhood, but always forward. Stories that portray children as “sweet” or that romanticize childhood, like the Holly Hobbie books that go with cards and gift products, have more appeal for adults than for children.
There is no single or widely used definition of children’s literature. It can be broadly defined as anything that children read or more specifically defined as fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or drama intended for and used by children and young people. Nancy Anderson, of the College of Education at the University of South Florida, defines children’s literature as “all books written for children, excluding works such as comic books, joke books, cartoon books, and non-fiction works that are not intended to be read from front to back, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference materials”.
The International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature notes that “the boundaries of genre… are not fixed but blurred”. Sometimes, no agreement can be reached about whether a given work is best categorized as literature for adults or children. Some works defy easy categorization. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was written and marketed for children, but it is also popular among adults. The series’ extreme popularity led The New York Times to create a separate best-seller list for children’s books.
Despite the widespread association of children’s literature with picture books, spoken narratives existed before printing, and the root of many children’s tales go back to ancient storytellers. Seth Lerer, in the opening of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter, says, “This book presents a history of what children have heard and read… The history I write of is a history of reception.”
Editor William Zinsser says:
No kind of writing lodges itself so deeply in our memory, echoing there for the rest of our lives, as the books that we met in our childhood. . . . To enter and hold the mind of a child or a young person is one of the hardest of all writers’ tasks. The skilled author does not write differently or less carefully for children just because she thinks they will not be aware of style or language.
What is your definition of children’s literature?