Excellence and children's literature

I expect most fans of young adult literature will have come across this article by Ruth Graham. For those who haven’t, here is my summary of the author’s main points. She insists that young adult literature really is inferior to literary fiction for adults, lacking in nuance and craft, and those adults who read it ought to feel ashamed of themselves. There has been a lot of outraged commentary from people like me, who read and write young adult literature. But I’m not sure anyone made the basic point a library patron recently made to me. *

This is a bright woman and an avid reader. I’d suggested Francisco X Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World to members of the adult book club. This woman took it out. She came to me to tell me how much she enjoyed it, and how impressed she was. “I read a lot of books,” she said. “ Most of them are very good.  Only a few are excellent. This was excellent. I’d be happy to read it again.”

Exactly! The care Stork uses to bring readers to share Marcelo’s perceptions and growth  -- the sheer craftsmanship of the writing – is remarkable. This is, quite simply, a good story. The same is true of many other books for children and teenagers. Catherine Fisher’s use of myth and literature and her sometimes breathtaking prose; Naomi Shihab Nye’s fluid language and warm humanity; Vicki Groves’s transposition of Greek myths to the modern Midwest; Megan Whalen Turner’s twisty, well-thought-out plots and the moral and social issues she raises; Michelle Paver’s clean prose and her sheer skill as a storyteller – these are writers I am always happy to read. And there are many other fine and skilled authors writing for youth. I could easily list twenty more I admire, and I’m sure many of you could, as  well.

 I wouldn’t go so far as to say, as some readers might, that there are only two types of books – good ones and bad ones. I would, however, agree with that library patron. Some books are excellent, and others are not. Further, every book is unique. Some books for children and teens are clearly excellent, while some books for adults are not.

 It’s true that children’s books are easy for an adult to read. Most children demand a story with a clear beginning, middle and end. Young children also lack the sophisticated vocabulary of adults, and very young ones can’t handle complex sentence structure. Further, most books for children are short – on average, half the length of an adult novel, or even less. A skilled adult reader can tear through a children’s book in about an hour. I often have. But this by no means makes them bad books, or unworthy of an adult’s attention.

 One of my favorite children’s books, originally published for young adults of 12 and up, tackles freedom, structure, and how they relate. In A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit expalins the need for structure and limits to an impatient teenage boy: 

Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.  (cited here on Goodreads)

Think about this in relation to children’s books. A book for children and teens must be short; the vocabulary may be simple, but the story can be as complex and emotionally profound as the author is able to make it.  I’d like to analyze another favorite in somewhat greater depth to show what I mean.

 I fell in love with L.M. Boston’s Children of Green Knowe when my sister introduced it to me. I still love that book today, and I’ve written a longer review of it here. L.M. Boston did not write it as a children’s book, but it was published as such because the main character is a little boy of 8 or 9. It is also quite short, and involves ghosts, a castle (or, more accurately, an ancient manor house that resembles a castle) and has other fantasy elements. So it’s easy to see why it was marketed to children.

 The basic plot also seems simple. A small boy who has, in a sense, been homeless, comes home at Christmastime and discovers his family. But there is a second layer of plot which, oddly, I only noticed as an adult. There is a curse on the boy’s family, causing all the eldest sons to die by violence. The child, Tolly, is the eldest son – indeed, the only remaining son – of his generation. He is threatened by this curse, which is broken at the climax of the book. On a third level, the story is about the rapprochement between generations, and the integration of the past and the present. On a fourth, closely related level, it is about the power of imagination and fantasy to teach and heal*. Tolly’s great grandmother tells him stories about the children who lived in the house three hundred years earlier. These stories mesh with Tolly’s experiences as he explores the house and comes to know his family. Finally, the book is an extended praise song to a particular setting – the manor at Hemingford Grey, which the author herself restored and lived in for many years. L.M. Boston conveys all these levels in absolutely lovely prose and creates vivid characters. The house she loves almost becomes a character in its own right. She does all this in considerably less than 200 pages.

 Anyone, of any age, with any interest in fantasy, should read this book and marvel at what the author achieves. It is by no means simpler than adult books I’ve read, and, as I’ve said, the prose is gorgeous. It is, most definitely, worthy of the attention of adults.

 Are there other children’s books you have found exemplary? Any that you go back to regularly for refreshment of the spirit, or simply to appreciate the craftsmanship and the prose? I’m only just starting to realize how much I appreciate The Hobbit, and what an impact it  had on me as a writer. How about you?


*Author R.J. Anderson did make a similar point. She retweeted a tweet citing C.S.Lewis. Lewis points out – quite rightly, IMHO – that you choose the form that will best carry your meaning. He found that the form of a children’s fairy story was the best vehicle for what he wanted to say in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.