Yes, children’s books can be literature

I was rather surprised to hear that Kent University was the university in question that had made the questionable “gaffe” of implying that they don’t see children’s books as literature. Perhaps it seemed particularly strange to me because Kent is the university I studied literature at myself, and my course included a so-called ‘wild module’ on children’s literature. I would quite unapologetically praise that module, because it was brilliant. I was very glad to hear they’d apologised and clarified what they meant.

However, it seems some of the great minds of academia did not share my joy. Bummer.  In fact, Jonathan Myerson from City University is apparently so passionate in his belief that children’s literature isn’t real literature that he wrote a whole article about it. I made the innocent mistake of reading it. And that was when I became really pissed off. What children’s literature has he even read? He either hasn’t read much, or he – ironically – didn’t actually understand what he was reading. The latter would be quite funny, given that he’s attacking it for its simplicity.

Ironically, it is his generalisations, not children’s books, which are simplistic. Children’s literature absolutely does explore the full range of the “human experience.” It just does it in a way that children can understand. Children’s experiences are part of the human experience, and indeed, shape who we are as adults. Children are – shock! – human.

Myerson says children’s books cannot be literature because they create “scenarios where good and evil were clearly defined and rarely muddied”. This is utter tosh. Children’s books are often much more morally complex than many books for adults. You can’t just make a philosophical argument at a child that will ring true because it fits their prejudices. Children are intellectually honest. If a character is all good or all bad they won’t relate.

Myerson explicitly mentions JK Rowling as an example which made me laugh out loud because the Harry Potter books are probably the worst example he could possibly give of moral simplicity. Has he actually read these books? When Sirius points out to Harry and his friends that the world isn’t as simple as good people and death eaters, it’s not a throwaway comment – it’s highlighting the way Rowling explores the complexities of human nature throughout the whole series.

Here are some examples just off the top of my head: Scrimegour is a hypocritical, cowardly politician, but it is also revealed that he allows himself to be tortured to death rather than give Harry up. Sirius is cruel and unpleasant to Kreacher, and is rather intolerant about elf-rights, but he’s also fearless and loyal. Kreacher himself is obnoxious to the point of being contemptible, but he is also brutally oppressed – and astonishingly brave. Even Voldemort is shown in a complex light. When Dumbledore shows Harry memories from Voldemort’s childhood and asks: “could you be feeling sorry for Lord Voldemort, Harry?” this question probably applies to most readers at this point, too. Rowling isn’t satisfied just handing her readers an evil monster. We are expected to challenge our assumptions and ask ourselves: but why he is so hateful? How did he become like this? What do we have in common with him?

And as for Snape, where to begin? You could ask a roomful of Harry Potter fans, of any age, whether Snape is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and we could debate it for hours. On one hand, he’s a passive aggressive entitled douchebag. But he truly does love Lily, until he dies, which is sort of beautiful. Or is it creepy? And does he really love her, anyway? Is what he calls love just a selfish projection of his own ego? Is it more about wanting possession and control than love? He calls her a Mudblood. So in the allegorical context of the book, he’s kind of racist. He petulantly clings to grievances from the past. And yet, he probably evolves morally and emotionally more than any other character in the books.  He’s both extremely cowardly, and extremely brave.

Myerson says the difference between “literature” and “children’s books” isn’t down to the quality of the writing but the nature of the subjects the books explore, and the nuances in how it’s done. But that doesn’t hold up at all. There isn’t any big difference in the subjects taken on by children’s literature and the subjects taken on by adult literature. Why should it be the case that the very same themes are deemed literary if told through the eyes of an adult, but not through the eyes of a child, if as Myerson admits, the quality of the writing itself is the same? To take Harry Potter again: if an adult book explored that moment a child realises their parent is not perfect, heightened by the pain of grief for that parent, which inevitably makes that moment where you have the image of them destroyed even more profound, would that suddenly become literature? Why is it suddenly not so when JK Rowling writes it for children to read at the very time they are experiencing such situations in real life? Is that not part of the human experience? Is grief not part of the human experience? Myerson might not know this but children grieve too.

When I was small my mum died, and let me tell you, children do grieve. And there were books, children’s books, which dealt with grief – an enormously complex part of the human experience – in words I didn’t yet have. It’s condescending to say that these writers somehow simplified the experience by writing it for children. The language may be simple but what it is expressing and exploring is not. You’d think a literary scholar, of all people, might know that.

Children’s literature can do exactly what Myerson himself says literature ought to do: hold a mirror up to human life, reflect it back to us, throw up “unwinnable dilemmas,” ponder why we will never be able to solve them. Myerson says it’s good that children’s books don’t do this because we should protect children from these “unwinnable dilemmas.” Does he think children never experience them in real life? Does he think childhood is always without trauma? Does he think childhood is just lollipops and fairies? Does he think nothing any child experiences as a human could be equivalent to his own experience as a human? He is wrong.

It’s not just Rowling, of course. There are countless other children’s authors who examine the world through the eyes of children, who validate and question the world alongside their young readers. When I was about 7 or 8 I remember reading a beautiful book in school called the Time-Travelling Cat, by Julia Jarman. I haven’t read it since I was small but I still remember parts of it vividly. It was a very poignant depiction of a child coming to terms with not just his own grief after the death of his mother, but also the strange confusion of watching a parent grieve, when you’re too young to even understand what that is. I suppose the cat makes it seem childish and silly to the likes of Myerson. But the projection of loss on to another creature – a pet or a teddy or even a sibling – isn’t some made-up fantasy about cute animals, it’s a common part of the grieving process. It is, in other words, part of the human experience. Would we tell a child psychologist that they aren’t a proper psychologist because they only understand about children, and so cannot possibly be dealing with the full spectrum of human experience? Children’s experiences are as important as those of adults.

The more I think about it, the more I find these assertions that children’s literature is all simplistic and narrow in theme vaguely offensive. I think it was in the Time-Travelling Cat – I may be misremembering, but in any case, it was a children’s book – where a child says “I hate her, I hate her for dying!” Is that a morally simplistic thing to explore? The anger of grief? Many children know very well that the world isn’t all good or all bad. And only allowing us to read books that pretend otherwise is the opposite of protecting us, thanks.

And when it comes to so-called ‘young adult’ fiction – because Myerson is careful to include YA fiction in his article – it becomes even more ridiculous. In year 7, we read a book at school called Tell Alice, by Frances Usher. It ties together two lives, a girl living in contemporary Britain and the diary of a girl living around 1914. The 1914 character – Jessie – has a big sister called Alice, who takes on a sort of mother role in the house, and who then dies. Grief, loss, suicide, the projection of emotion into music (yes, Myerson, children experience music, too, which is also part of the human experience), women’s roles and rights, the complex web of changing class lines and the guilt of aspiration. It talked about suicide, mental health, and self-determination. Are these things not “part of the human experience”? There is countless adult “literature” which deals with far more trivial subjects. And one of the most important things about that book was that people are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Jessie’s father is proud and sometimes cruel but loving, hard-working and strongly ethical. (A bit like Billy’s father in Billy Elliott – which may or may not count as being about the human experience since we don’t really know if it’s ‘for’ children or adults). Meanwhile, Joanna – the modern day character – is struggling with anger and forgiveness towards her dad, who walked out on her and her mother. It’s a very complex, very human experience, and uniquely that of a child, that Usher was exploring in that book. Loyalty to her mum, feelings of betrayal when her mum starts to forgive him, anger that her dad tries to buy her affection with gifts, not to mention being a kid and having to learn how to deal with sexist pervy adults – are these things not part of the human experience? Do they not count because she’s only thirteen in the book? Do they only count if they are written about for adults, taken and re-framed from the adult’s perspective, so that the child’s voice is no longer central? Even though they are specifically about children’s experiences?

And then there are writers like Jacqueline Wilson, whose books cover everything from divorce, eating disorders, grief, sexuality, child neglect, sexual abuse, predatory older men, the psychology of sibling rivalries and, of course, sex.

(I feel like I should mention Roahl Dahl here but frankly that could be an entire blog post of its own. So I will just say this: Roahl Dahl is clearly literature. You’re welcome.)

Literary experts like Myerson should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves for missing the point so embarrassingly of the very books they disparage for being too simple. It takes a tremendous talent to explore such weighty subjects in language that children can understand. That’s not because, as Myerson so patronisingly puts it, the books stay with you when you go on to read or write adult fiction. They can be literary works in their own right. They are about the profound complexities of life, and not only that, but they are often far more profound, because these authors can’t rely on academic cleverness or waffling purple prose to trick people into thinking they are a talented writer. They either reflect truths about the world or they don’t.

To say children’s literature doesn’t shape the human experience is like saying ‘the human experience’ begins at adulthood. And when does adulthood even begin? Eighteen? Why? Because we say so? I was read Shakespeare as a kid, as well as Enid Blyton. I liked Midsummer Nights Dream  mainly because of the fairies and the funny names. Children can enjoy literature for adults just as adults around the world fell in love with Harry Potter. These silly lines drawn up by academics make no sense. To think these books aren’t about the human experience suggests you didn’t actually understand them. And that makes me think some of you academics are not  be quite the ‘experts’ on literature that you think you are.

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