It is important to introduce children to the world of literature. Reading is food for thought: it develops your intellect and social understanding. A child who has discovered the joy of reading will most likely also retain a love of books later in life.
Literature for children was for a long time considered unimportant, and it was not regarded as proper and serious literature. Up until mid-19th century it was practically non-existent, and it was well into the 1920s before writing for children was acknowledged as an adequate literary form.
adequate, hence, retain, apt, to adapt, versatility, legitimate, suspense, to deem, applicable, mischievous, escapism, phoney, alter ego
From Alice to Pippi
The first English literature intended for children appeared during the Victorian age. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872) have become classics of fantasy literature for children. The characters Alice encounters in her underworld adventure have become immortal, like the Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the Walrus, who is behind the famous quote - “The Time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things.” Much of the literature produced for children at the time was meant to be educational with a clear moralist Christian motive. Children were seen as small people apt to a sinful life if they were not taught the correct ways. Moral education may be good, but it is not entertaining. So literature for children had to be more than that. Towards the turn of the century writers like Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling contributed with books for children that are still read and cherished today. Who has not read or seen the animated film version of Kipling’s The Jungle Book? Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped have also gained their positions as classics and have been successfully adapted to film. During the first half of the 20th century literature for children gradually established itself as a genuine and fully recognised literary genre; and now one celebrated fiction writer after another came up with memorable and great literature for children. Examples include J.R.R. Tolkien’s substantial epic The Lord of the Rings (1937-49), C.S.Lewis’s wonderful Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, the magical world of Harry Potter created by J.K Rowling, and the popular stories by Roald Dahl and the Swedish Astrid Lindgren. In today’s fiction it is seen as sign of an author’s versatility to be able to write both for children and for a grown-up audience.
Through the Eyes of a Child
How then should we define a “good” book for children? Are there any literary criteria that define a children’s book as good literature? Like we all do, children want literature they can relate to and recognise themselves in, but compared to the literary universe designed for grown-ups there is one big difference – credibility and realism. In a child’s imagination anything is possible; fantasy and magic are counted as legitimate elements that will enrich the narrative of a children’s book. The principles of physics and the realism of the plot are not important to children. A child gladly believes that the protagonist has a secret ability to fly or a gift of seeing what other people think (in most cases grown-ups). Alice, Narnia and Harry Potter are brilliant examples of this, which is mainly why they are so successful. Fantasy opens the door to a child’s own imagination. But there is more - a child must have action from page one or the book will not work. To capture the attention of a child reader the text has to create immediate suspense and excitement. All these elements are essential if we want to evaluate good literature for children, because a “good” book for children will simply be one that a child will enjoy. An adult may well deem the book as good, but as long as a child does not bother to read it or is bored with it, it simply is not a good book. There are a number of approaches to categorise and map literature for children, but in general the common elements of literary analysis and criteria for “good” literature are simply not applicable. Good literature for children is what a child finds entertaining; it is as simple as that.
Naughty Heroes and Secret Friends
Most children love the mischievous protagonist, the little trouble-maker who dares to speak up to grown-ups, and they love to see the authorities of the adult world ridiculed. This escapism into a sort of upside-down world is an important element of popular literature for children. In Roald Dahl’s stories for children most of the grown-ups, either parents or teachers, are simply made fools of, and if you look at the literary universe created by Astrid Lindgren you will find the same elements. Emil’s father (Emil i Lønneberget), the stupid police officers or the teacher in Pippi Longstocking are all representatives of the phoney and laughable adult world. Typically, in “Pippi” the only positive adult is a pirate, Pippi’s father. Successful authors of books for children know that this is what works: To create a universe where the children come out on top and the adult authorities remain the losers, this is simply the dream world of most children. A popular newcomer in this tradition is Horrid Henry, created by Francesca Simon, a series of so far twenty story books published between 1994 and 2011. Horrid Henry is extremely popular with children, most likely because he lives up to his name. This trend is a break with the basic and long-established “it-pays-to-be-nice” morale of traditional literature for children. Both the books about Pippi and Henry have been criticised for having bad influence on children and for giving them ideas. Roald Dahl was also criticised for his horrible and often violent characters in his children's books, and the Library Journal concluded "not recommended". But Dahl did not care, he replied: "I must keep reminding you that this is a book written for children and I don't give a bugger what grown-ups think about it."
In general children have a vivid imagination where they can make up all kinds of characters and incidents. Secret or imaginary friends are a common feature of a child’s make-believe world; rag dolls or teddies that come alive when the children need someone to give them needed support or comfort. This element is also brought into children’s literature, for example in A.C.Vestly’s “Lillebror og Knerten” and Swedish Gunilla Bergstrøm’s Albert Åberg. This raises a slightly more psychological issue; the secret friend may not only be the faithful companion of a lonely child, he may also be the kid’s alter ego when he is up to something mischievous. Then the naughty child will have someone else to blame for his own misbehaviour, like in the somewhat disturbing short story If Big Brother Says So by Canadian Alice Rudoski.
The success formula of books for children is to know the universe of the child, and to take the child seriously. Educational, moralist stories will simply not work as entertainment for children. They will see through that kind of hidden adult instruction. What they want is a literary world with magic, mystery, and mischief – a world that can spur and match their own imagination.
Comprehension and Research
- In what way can we say that literature for children reflects the status of children in society?
- You have probably seen the Walt Disney adaption of Winnie the Pooh. Check out the original text and illustrations by A.A.Milne, and compare and comment on the difference.
- Why do you think fantasy literature is so popular with children and young people?
- The books about Narnia and the Lord of the Rings were written nearly eighty years ago but are still enormously popular both as storybooks and films. What does that tell you?
- You may not have heard about Horrid Henry. Find him on the net or read one of his stories, and make a small presentation for the class.
- See if you can find the short story If Big Brother Says So, by Alice Rudoski. Read it and comment on the ending. Do you think this is literature for children?