| January 30, 2009 3:27 am

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.


10 Responses to “Some thoughts on children’s literature”

Peter Von Brown wrote a comment on January 30, 2009

Bravo! Thank you for this wonderful article (rant?) on the necessity and importance of children’s fiction. All too often have I come to conceptual blows with people who say, “It’s just a story.” No no no. It’s so much more than that, as you eloquently elaborated. When I find an inconsistency or point out a “blow up doll” I’m sometimes looked upon as asking for trouble. As I see it, there shouldn’t be the trouble to find in a novel in the first place.

I’m the author of “Peter Pan’s NeverWorld,” an extension of J.M. Barrie’s classic based up on his own ideas for more Pan adventure. Needless to say, I am appalled at amount of contradictions contained in other Pan stories. So, as you can see, your article has fallen on sympathetic, agreeing ears. (Eyes?) Again, Bravo!

Would you mind if I posted about your article with a link to it?

For the record, here’s more about “Peter Pan’s NeverWorld”:

Peter Von Brown

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on January 30, 2009

Thanks you very much for your kind words. I would be honored to have you post about my little rant.

Jared Ferguson wrote a comment on February 9, 2009

Lol that was great. I agree whole heartily with the above rant. As a child I spent a good portion of my time in a library and learned many life lessons from several books. My favorites are of course lord of the rings, Harry potter, and the other greats. But the best for just plain and simple lessons was the run on series of the Sword of truth. A poorly written series of books had great lessons and a great story. Bit of a contradiction, but the story was great, it just was difficult to stomach the 20 or so pages of descriptions on something unimportant. Oddly enough the wizard’s rules that were in the series are the same lessons that I am hearing from my college professors. I think that the school system is due for a change, that lord of the flies and grapes of wrath should be replaced with some newer editions.

WM-R wrote a comment on February 16, 2009

I agree with your statement that children’s literature should be held to a higher standard than adult fiction. Children, after all, are more malleable than adults. You want them to walk away from a book having learned a lesson (in addition to deriving enjoyment). The worst possible case is that they come away with the wrong lesson. In my case, as a teacher I was irritated by Harry Potter’s rule-breaking in the latter books. I know he did what he felt was right (and it often turned out to be the right thing), but I was concerned some of my own students, who read the books, might come to the conclusion it was sometimes okay to break the rules for a good enough reason.

Fortunately, they mostly learned about courage, hard work and trust instead. Perhaps I’m just paranoid.

Out of curiousity, though. How do you feel about comic books? I learned the value of tenacity and determination from reading about the villian Doctor Doom, and responsibility and sacrifice from Spider-Man. Would you say they have as much (or nearly as much) power as children’s literature?

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on February 17, 2009

@WM-R. Thanks for your thoughts. I have to confess that I blanched somewhat when you described Harry’s rule breaking. While I don’t necessarily advocate rule breaking (for any reason), I am more than a slight hypocrite on this point and actions speak louder than words. But, I always have very good reasons. Or … they at least sounded good in my head at the time.

Onto a much more interesting point: comic books. I tend to think that comic books are just as powerful as children’s (or adult) lit because … well … they are children’s and adult lit. I just don’t see them as standing apart in any meaningful way. When I was in grade school, I absolutely worshipped the Batman, Spiderman and Calvin and Hobbes. When I got to High School, I had an extremely intelligent instructor point me in the direction of the Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Sandman. Oddly enough, it was Sandman that really got me excited about “traditional literature,” mythology and philosophy. Thus, I roll my eyes when I hear people with English degrees attempt to differentiate “comic books” and “graphic novels.” That’s like trying to differentiate the Hobbit from it’s illustrated edition. In my mind, it’s all literary.

Despite early flirtations, I am sorry to say that I arrived to comics late. Any recommendations?

[…] for his life, evoked some particularly strong responses. While some of the correspondence was hostile, more often the letters were extremely thoughtful and asked all kinds of excellently difficult […]

WM-R wrote a comment on February 21, 2009

Hahah. That was what I was afraid of: that students might think any reason (if it sounded good in their heads) would be good enough reason to break rules. Still, there are always unusual circumstances to justify rule breaking. But I digress.

I can’t, in good faith, recommend any recent comics. I understand that Spider-Man comics are the most (for want of a better word) fun that they’ve been in a long time and Batman’s current writer shows his love of the character through his writing. However, I’m also bitter and jaded so I suspect this is only temporary before the next writers drag those characters down again.

Short of Archie comics, most comic books are now just too dark or depressing for use in encouraging kids to read. Worse, they teach the wrong thing. Case in point: to solve a recent problem, Spider-Man made a deal with the Devil while Doctor Doom sold his childhood sweetheart’s soul to a trio of demons and worse her skin as armour in order to increase his magical powers.

I’d recommend sticking to oneshot stories or crossovers, like the Spider-Man/Batman team up or the Justice League of America/Avengers crossover. Those types of comics tend to show the heroes at their best without too much baggage from their pasts or character derailment. “Best of”-type collections are good too, since they usually contain stories that define the character’s personality (e.g. Spider-Man’s sense of responsibility, Batman’s hatred of criminals or Captain America’s courage).

Or you could try getting into manga, which I find to be much more consistent and far less infuriating.

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on February 21, 2009

@WMR-R. If the anime is any indicator of manga’s general quality, I can’t wait. There are a number of series that have really piqued my interest (thank you Adult Swim!) and are currently in my Netflix cue. It’s far past time that I headed down to my local comics shop and took in the recommendations.

- wrote a comment on April 7, 2009

I respect you so much right now. You sound like me. It is an unavoidable fact that mediocrity sells. Dan Brown? Check. Christopher Paolini? Check. JK Rowling? Check. Stephenie Meyer? Checkmate. But fear not, you are not alone, and there are others who feel as you do. Kid’s are smart, and deserve better. And if really offended by the quality of literature based stool they are generally subjected too, then the internet is the perfect balm. If that is not enough, then let me recomend writing fanfiction.
As to comics, try manga. Better written and characterized.

Hedorah wrote a comment on September 16, 2012

This article was a thing of beauty. I will never be tolerant of the “it’s just children’s/teen’s fiction” excuse.

Care to comment?