Toward a Definition of Children’s Literature

This morning I read an engaging rant on a topic close to my heart:  Whither the children’s book?1  The post came from Australian Judith Ridge’s excellent book blog, Misrule.  “Misrule” is the name of a cluttered, sprawling home (think Von Trapp family crossed with the Lost Boys) in Ethel Turner’s Australian classic Seven Little Australians.2 Mary and I have, in fact, long dreamed of one day christening our own home “Misrule” and then filling it with lots of ill-mannered children.

Ridge’s post bemoans what she sees as a trend in the book industry of labeling books written for children as “Young Adult” … some even going so far as to call chapter books “Young Young Adult.”  This is obviously a market-directed phenomenon, and thus something that will pass after a few more YA movies flop at the box office3

Of course, this new trend begs an old question:  what is children’s literature? It’s a slippery question because for every rule you put down (Rule #1: “Children’s Books Feature Child Protagonists”), you can find an adult book featuring the same trait.

After many years of wrestling with this definition, I came across one trait that might actually apply to every children’s book … and is virtually antithetical to adult literature.  It is something my wife (who studies Victorian children’s literature) learned while working with children’s literature scholar June Cummins.  Are you ready?

children’s literature assumes a teachable audience

This is not limited to books with obvious morals.  Nor does it specify that this “teachable audience” must be a literal child.  Rather, it specifies a tone in which the author is speaking to a reader who is still unformed in his/her opinions.

I understand that this is an infuriatingly-vague definition.  It’s akin to “defining” comedy as being anything that’s funny.  But unlike the a posteriori checklists obsessed with reading level and plot specifics, Cummins’ definition is both parsimonious consilient.4

What really excites me about this definition is that it might also be applied to YA books … and it goes a long way toward explaining why some Young Adult titles feel like adult books and others feel like children’s books.

  1. thanks to Fuse #8 for pointing me to the story!
  2. Seven Little Australians is a delightful book that, along with The Paper Bag Princess (Canada) and The Wonderful Adventure of Nils (Sweden), seems to have been relegated to “local favorite” rather than part of the larger international canon.  This is a pity.
  3. Note how Cowboys vs. Aliens and The Walking Dead are not being touted as a comic book adaptations — quite the change from five years ago when everything was boasting its comic creds.
  4. Which my freshman geology course instructed me was essential for any good scientific theory! Go college!

9 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Timothy says:

    I will now regard Charles Dickens and E.M. Forster as writers of children’s literature. I probably always have, and that’s why I love them so!

  • Dickens absolutely! Even his clearly adult books have that playful edge that I associate with the best children’s books. Having only read A ROOM WITH A VIEW, I’m not sure I can say the same about Forster.

  • kbryna says:

    hmmmm. “a reader still unformed in his opinions.” Shouldn’t this be, to an extent, EVERY READER?

    What does this mean, really? Tone can be awfully hard to peg – it’s not necessarily objective, is it? Can a book, with this definition, be children’s lit to one reader but not to another? Does intent factor into it?

    Personally, I’d be pretty happy to erase all of these terms and just call a book a book. I find the more I grapple with terms like “children’s” and “YA” and “literature,” the more frustrated I get. I’ve been working on children’s lit since 1998 – you do the math! – and so far as I can tell, these kinds of definitions and handles are primarily used to separate, belittle and make assumptions about books and readers in ways that mostly does a disservice to everyone.

    Seven Little Australians was a good read. I’ve been pretty excited about Australian YA lately, based almost exclusively on the work of Zusak, Marchetta and Simmone Howell.

    and finally, because it cannot be said enough, Hooray for Dickens!

  • Kerry,
    You make an excellent point about the danger of labels becoming a way to pit one camp against another. Name two things and people will almost instantly begin debating which one is “better.” I feel very strongly that the mere act of articulating binaries (or trinities) is not the same as creating hierarchies. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

  • I agree with kbryna that all readers ideally SHOULD still be unformed in his/her opinions. But I think in reality it’s not the case. As adults we react to lit in accordance with our pre-existing view of the world. And our ability to learn from lit is circumscribed by that view.

    As to labels, I saw an interesting one recently that proves your point about the rather desperate attempt to expand the YA market: something called “New Adult,” which seems to be for 18-22 year olds.

    That said, I remember the term YA in use in my public library when I was a teen in the 1980s. So it’s not all that new.

  • Fuse #8 says:

    I find I’m quite fond of that definition, though I’ll be turning it over in brain for a while. My sole quibble with what you’ve written here is the idea that The Paper Bag Princess isn’t hugely popular here in the States. Trust me when I say that at least here in New York it is requested with a frequency that is very heartening. It’s almost enough to make you forget about Love You Forever . . . almost.

  • Betsy,
    I wondered whether I might be off about my PAPER BAG PRINCESS assumptions. Previous to immigrating to Canada, I had never heard of the book or it’s author (and I was already by then an avid collector of picture books). When I got to Canada, the whole country was *freaking out* over Robert Munsch. I assumed he was a local guy who never really broke through down south. Add to this the fact that Mary or I have never had an American student who’s heard of the book. I am delighted to know that my experience is not the norm! This is one instance where I’m glad to be proven wrong, as it means that more kids are reading this great book!

  • Bridget Heos says:

    I like this definition. To me, children’s literature feels more optimistic than adult literature. Well, I’m not sure if optimistic is the right word. But there is a sense of wonder and possibility. I think that’s also true of people who are still learning about the world…like Scrooge on Christmas day.

  • Great topic. While I think there’s something to your “teachable audience” distillation, Jonathan, I am not convinced there needs to be a definition specifically for “children’s” literature, at least from an aesthetic perspective. There are too many exceptions: many adults read so-called children’s books for pleasure, all kinds of so-called children’s books do not have children protagonists (including fairy tales, mid-20th century classics, nonfiction, and media tie-ins—not that I am defending those!), some so-called children’s books do inform but do not use a particularly “teachable” tone in doing so, etc.

    I feel what comes closer to an accurate description is calling some of my books “all-ages books.”

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