Whither the Children's Book?: My Two Cents' Worth

In her excellent, thought-provoking post, Misrule discusses the state of the children's novel.

Obviously I must admit to some bias here. But deep down, I believe that the perfect children's novel is perhaps the highest work of art to which the writer can aspire. It's even possible to argue that the children's novel can discuss bigger, (purer?) issues than the YA novel, because it's not yet caught up in all the messy, personal business of identity formation and burgeoning sexuality. The children's novel routinely deals with death and grief and love and pain, and the deep delight of being alive.

The really good children's novel plants seeds in the rich and hungry soil of a child's imagination. The really good children's novel is a uniquely satisfying reading experience.

Off the top of my head (by no means an exhaustive list, but from a quick scan of my book shelf), here are some the children's novels that 'built' me - not just as a child, but as an adult reader:
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken
Skellig, David Almond
The Children of Green Knowe, Lucy M. Boston
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Dark Is Rising, Susan Cooper
Arthur: The Seeing Stone: Kevin Crossley-Holland
Charlotte Sometimes: Penelope Farmer
Down In The Cellar: Nicholas Stuart Gray
A Wrinkle In Time: Madeleine L'Engle
The Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe: CS Lewis
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe: Penelope Lively
Anne Of Green Gables: LM Montgomery
Five Children and It, The Railway Children, The Treasure Seekers: E. Nesbit
Playing Beattie Bow: Ruth Park
Tom's Midnight Garden: Philippa Pearce
Swallows and Amazons: Arthur Ransome
Harry Potter: JK Rowling
Marianne Dreams: Catherine Storr
Ballet Shoes: Noel Streatfeild
Charlotte's Web: EB White
And I've left off heaps of books that I loved, and still love -- these are just a handful of the books that I think offer some special nourishment to the reader - a taste of philosophy, an introduction to ethics, a poetry of language, a richness of imagery, a model of courage or truthfulness, or a glimpse of the sheer breadth of the world out there, before and behind us.

Many, but not all, of these titles contain an element of magic, or the uncanny, or a crossing from one time into another. (Adult writing which enters this territory tends to be thrust dismissively into the 'spec fic' basket... but that's a topic for another time!)

But perhaps what the really good children's novel does (and I'm thinking aloud here) is open out the boundaries of the child's world a little. It pushes and pulls and stretches, it exercises the muscles of imagination and empathy. But it's not just 'teaching' something - it is art, a thing of beauty and value in its own right, and without them, the world would be a poorer place indeed.


  1. Wow! All hail Misrule. I tried to comment on her blog but it wasn't going to happen. For what it's worth I do think the 'withering' of the children's novel is indicative of a larger problem in our society which seems to devalue anything to do with children. Anything in the 'child's realm' is deemed lower status and is marginalised because it is still linked to the 'female realm'. So for my money it's a feminist issue. Thank you Judith, if you read this. And thanks Kate for a brilliant, eloquent defense. ;) xx

  2. That's an interesting point, Jen, I think I agree. It's bizarre that for all the lip service we (and when I say 'we' I mean society, to quote Friends!) pay to the rights and protection of children, to an almost fetishised degree, we are systematically dismantling the things that children need: space and freedom to roam, books that feed them, time to be bored and discover their own creativity.

  3. I wonder if part of the problem is that silly marketing term "tween"? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tween_(demographic)

    But the space and freedom issue is tantamount in my mind. We've talked before Kate about the problem of getting kids away from parents in a way that doesn't create a very YA scenario. Divorce, the death of a parent, an apocalypse - all of these tend to create an aura of the quest for identity in a world where meaning isn't absolute, which to my mind characterises YA as a genre. I've said before that I think children's novels tend to be theistic (not necessarily a Christian god, but an order of meaning to the universe) and YA books tend to be atheistic, ie meaning comes from within. I think a timeslip novel almost has to be theistic, as time behaves in a very structured (though unexpected) way, according to certain laws. Eg time doesn't just fall in, everything doesn't all happen at once, linearity is vital.

    Having said that I do think that there are a number of books classified as YA which are really the sort of children's book you describe: A Small Free Kiss in the Dark is one that springs to mind, The Museum of Mary Child is another. These books to me aren't so much about individual identity but about the shifting faultlines between real and pretend, which is what I think children's novels are often actually about.

  4. I just want to clarify that I don't think divorce/dead parent/apocalypse NECESSITATES YA, just that it tends to lead the character in that direction, there are many examples of kids books where this isn't the case though.

    I still think of Only Ever Always as a children's book in the way the story works, it was very much that sort of classic storyworld that I was investigating, and those questions about real and pretend. But I think it is for an older reader, but not necessarily someone who craves traditional YA stories. Hmm, not making it sound very marketable am I?