Some Children's Fiction is Great Literature
Perhaps it will seem strange for this to be my first blog post, but this morning I came across an article in The Guardian that simply demanded a response and - Voila! The birth of a blog. The article in question was Children's Fiction is Not Great Literature, in which Jonathan Myerson weighed in unambiguously on an age old debate that recently resurfaced at Kent University. Thanks in no small part to my mother, a great woman and for many years an extraordinary elementary school teacher, I would like to offer a different opinion.
Children’s literature has long gotten short shrift in some literary circles, mostly from people not especially well read in the category. The overall simplicity of some young adult fiction vs. adult fiction cannot be the sole consideration when determining its greatness. It is like comparing a Shakespearean sonnet to the Chinese Zen poetry of Lin Chi Chung or Wang Wei. From as far back as Perrault’s fairy tales and William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, outstanding literature has been written for young people, and despite Mr. Myerson’s assertion, much of it tackles the same big questions its adult counterparts do. Likewise, a novel’s containing fantastical elements does not inherently indicate an inability to address those issues. Anyone in doubt of this, might ask Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Barbara Kingsolver.
I am certain that many children’s authors appreciate Mr. Myerson’s praise of their novels’ structures and “the quality of the prose,” but there are surely as many poorly written novels intended for young people as there are for adults. My children have read many of them, much to my chagrin. Similarly, no one could deny that there are many beautifully written novels intended for adults, just as there are for children. In attempting to address the form of children’s literature vs. the content of adult literature Mr. Myerson presents a flawed argument along with his backhanded compliment.
The list of extraordinary literature written for young people is long and distinguished, but I can’t resist mentioning a few, just to exhibit the breadth of the work. All of the following novels address social, philosophical or ethical issues. To address Mr. Myerson’s concerns, some have protagonists who “reject compromise.” Some address the “complexity and banality of evil.” Many deal in emotional, practical and moral ambiguities and have characters who do not “wear the same black or white hat every day.” If Mr. Myerson is unfamiliar with any of these titles, he may want to take a look, or perhaps examine any of the Newberry Award Winners, which date back as far as 1922.
Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Robert Newton Peck's A Day No Pigs Would Die, Richard Adams’ Watership Down, Katherine Paterson's Bridge To Terabithia, Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting, Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Just last month an article in the New York Times addressed a study published in the Journal of Science indicating that reading literary fiction increases people’s empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. Now, more than ever, there is mounting evidence that introducing the larger issues and ambiguities to young people via great children’s literature cannot be undervalued. Perhaps the first step in doing so would be in acknowledging that there is such a thing.