So…will someone please tell me what children’s literature is?

So…what is children’s literature? I should, by rights, add a disclaimer at the start of this blog entry that states that I make no claims of adding anything whatsoever to the vast academic debate on the aforementioned question.  In fact my query is not prompted by any academic interest, but merely through the much simpler (or, some might say, complicated) vein of general confusion.  Put in much more simple terms, I have come to the conclusion that the more children’s literature I read, the less I actually seem to know about what it is.
The trigger for my current state of confusion was a comment made by Neil Gaiman in an interview included within the copy of his novel Stardust that I am currently reading.  The book tells the tale of Tristan Thorn, a young man who vows to travel to the land of Faerie (beyond the village of Wall) to retrieve a fallen star for the girl with whom he is besotted.  Needless to say, several adventures and perils occur and by the end of the book he has lived a long and fruitful life alongside the fallen star (Yvaine), who turns out to be his true heart’s desire after he is eventually shunned by the original object of his affections. (My apologies if this synopsis contains enough information to effectively destroy any reading pleasure that you might have gained from the book!).  In the interview he is asked why he kills off a unicorn that befriends the pair; his response being that “…it seemed at the time a really interesting way to try and remind people that this wasn’t necessarily a fairy tale for children.  That and having one rude word in incredibly small type.”  He also makes quite a lengthy comment in the same interview about how fairy stories started out initially as stories “to be told to people”, not as the children’s tales that they have been adopted as in more modern times, echoing Tolkien’s analogy of how they are like the furniture in a nursery: “it didn’t start out as nursery furniture; it was built for adults and they sent it to the nursery when it got old and out of fashion.”  Stardust therefore is his way of reclaiming the genre for an adult audience – something which I fully understand as I purchased the book from an ‘adult’ (no, not in that sense!) section of a Cambridge bookshop.  Given the inclusion of minor sexual content within the book (which Gaiman, interestingly, doesn’t include in his explanation of why this is “not necessarily” a book for children), I find no reason to disagree with this not being children’s literature.
The problem starts to emerge when I include why I chose to read the book in the first place. It was not a direct path, starting as it does with my love of a song by Take That which was included in the film version of Stardust.  Adapted by Jane Goldman and Michael Vaughn, the film is a relatively truthful translation of the original novel, although it manages to not include all of the features that have already been cited as qualifying the book as “not necessarily” for children.  As a result, the film carried a PG rating in England and was very much promoted and publicised as a family film on its release in 2007.  That means that it was perfectly suitable for children, something which the original book was obviously (in the eyes and intent of the author) not.  So, I am now faced with reading a book written for adults because I really enjoyed watching the film, which was produced with families (including children) in mind.
And then the situation worsens.  As my reading habits tend to include having more than one book on the go at any given time (usually one adult book, one children’s text and something dry to support my PhD – currently being a book about Social Science research), I am also reading Anthony Horowitz’s Scorpia Rising at the moment.  The final book in the Alex Rider series, this pulls Alex from his ‘retirement’ from MI6 and places him in direct jeopardy in Egypt, facing his most dangerous mission to date against the international Scorpia criminal fraternity.  I first came to the series whilst teaching a Year 6 class who couldn’t get enough of the books, devouring them in turn and passing their copies amongst themselves so that everyone could get a taste of the, at the time very original, adventures of the reluctant, yet talented, teenage spy. And such a reading pattern is not unusual for these books which are written by an author who is described by his publisher as “one of the most popular contemporary children’s writers” on a page towards the end of the text copy.  Horowitz makes no Gaimanesque claims of intent regarding the audience of his book, so therefore it is safe to assume that it was written for children.  But this is where my understanding of what constitutes children’s literature begins to unravel further still, as by the end of this book several key characters have faced grissly ends either at the hands of terrorists connected with Scorpia, or through the direct actions of Alex.  Yes, this book contains no rude words in incredibly small type and yes, it has no sexual content; but I find those factors slightly overshadowed by the included torture scenes, particularly the one in which Alex is subjected to ‘waterboarding’ after being captured by two CIA agents.  In a book written for children (not ‘older readers’, but the real thing) I was slightly suprised by the inclusion of such an event.  If the book was to be faithfully translated into film, then its dark nature would probably result in a 12 rating, just as the final chapters of the Harry Potter franchise have been, reflecting how their content is not generally considered suitable for pre-adolescents (Although the use of that term triggers a mountainous alternative debate in itself!)

In summary then: I am currently reading an ‘adult’ book which spawned a film suitable for children, and a children’s book which contains more graphic violence than that included within the ‘adult’ text. So, in the light of this matter…will somebody please tell me what children’s literature is? (Because I’m beginning to think that I have no idea!)

By Clare

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