Well … I’ve gone and done it. I got a nasty email. My somewhat thoughtful comments on Eragon and Inheritance have apparently scraped a few ragged nerves (not mine, thankfully). (Coincidentally, the mysterious letter writer fails to specify as a he, she or it; for sake of argument, let’s go with it.) After making various comments upon my person, upbringing and intellect; the writer comments (letter edited for spelling and grammar):
You’re just a bitter wannabe hack who’s angry and jealous that you don’t have the skill to write your own stories. It’s just a children’s book, can’t you cut it some slack?
Before going further, let’s clarify a few simple things. I am not a nice person. Bitter? Check. Angry? Double check and underline. Petty? Oh, yes. In fact, I have an utterly unique ability to alienate, put-off and offend. As my supervisors, family and co-workers have remarked; I am preternaturally gifted at pissing people off. But Jealous? Of Paolini? Hardly.
I wish Christopher Paolini nothing but happiness, wealth and phenomenal success. May he continue to sell well and single-handedly maintain his publishing company. For, in case you hadn’t heard, they haven’t been doing so well lately. After all, when I finally do get round to writing my own stories, I expect to be cut a six figure advancement check as well.
But that is neither here nor there, I would like to focus on and analyze the last bit of the writer’s comment, “It’s just a children’s book, can’t you cut it some slack?”If I am to understand the point correctly, we can allow some lee-way because it’s a children’s book. After all, most kids aren’t going to catch the inconsistencies or worry too much about the language, or notice that some of the characters largely stand in as blow up dolls, or any one of a dozen other major issues. Right? Am I missing something? We should just let the author off the hook because … well … children are just too stupid to realize that a given book is generally a piece of garbage?
Short answer: no, can’t do that. Ready for the long one?
Let’s start with the intelligence issue first. Kids aren’t stupid. One of the smartest people I know is seven. He can hold his own in a discussion of most subjects. The only person I know who can beat me at chess is twelve. These are anecdotal, let’s look at larger evidence of child intelligence: kids have taste and rebel when given crap to read.
Don’t believe me? Go watch a third grade class. Any third grade class. When told to do their “reading,” some will throw things, others will tantrum, and larger ones may hit their smaller peers. All will hate it. And why? Have you ever looked at the tripe which fills most third grade reading books? If not, just go look.
And yet … that same group will sit transfixed when read to. The difference is in the source. When read to, usually the teacher is participating and teachers also rebel when given crap to read; just like kids. The book read aloud is far more likely to be a staple: Peter Pan, the Secret Garden, the Hobbit, or … something palatable. It’s just like television, children recognize crap TV too.
But that’s not the important reason why we don’t cut authors slack. The important reason is far more simple: unlike adult literature, children’s literature matters. A whole bunch. In a recent interview, Neil Gaiman summarizes it well:
Q: So what do you think about children’s books?
A: They’re terrible; they should be banned. What kind of a question is that? I think they’re wonderful … Children’s fiction … has a holy place and position that adult fiction doesn’t have. Adult fiction is a wonderful thing and enriching to the soul and mind, and it takes you to great places. But children’s fiction can change the world and give you a refuge from the intolerable. It can give you a place of safety and show you the world is not bounded by the world you live in.
Children’s fiction has power that adult fiction can only dream of. Adult fiction makes us question our place in the world while children’s literature helps us to find and define it. Some of the greatest books of consequence – Narnia, the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, Harry Potter, House on the Prairie – are all children’s works. Many a child learned the lessons of hard work, mercy, tolerance, and temperance while reading the exploits the Ingall’s family. I first learned to recognize loss when reading “Where the Red Fearn Grows” in the fourth grade; I also learned that even if the hurt is unbearable when new, it will someday fade.
Like Gaiman says, Children’s fiction is holy. It teaches, expands, edifies, confounds, frustrates, and spellbinds. Rather than be “given a break,” we should hold our children’s literature to a higher standard. While kids may know crap when they see it, sometimes they don’t know why it’s crap; nor should they have to worry about it. Their only concern should be one of enchantment. Descent into Neverland for the first time only happens once.
Ignoring the problems in a children’s book is bad, bad, bad. It’s letting rot take hold in the walls, knowing about it, and failing to act. So children’s books or their authors don’t get slack. They’re simply too important for that.