What Children Read

young readerI recently reread C.S. Lewis’ brief essay, “On Juvenile Tastes.” In it he ponders two basic questions.

First, what do children prefer to read? And second, why do they evidence that preference?

Lewis set the stage by discussing the state of children’s literature in 1958, which was of course, more than half a century ago. Nevertheless, like most of Lewis’ observations, there is much that is timeless about his argument.

Not long ago I saw in some periodical the statement that “Children are a distinct race”. Something like this seems to be assumed today by many who write, and still more who criticise, what are called children’s books or ‘juveniles’. Children are regarded as being at any rate a distinct literary species, and the production of books that cater for their supposedly odd and alien taste has become an industry; almost a heavy one.

It seems little has changed during the intervening decades. If anything, this concept has become much more deeply entrenched. No one can doubt that the publication of “juvenile” literature has expanded dramatically. (To maintain the entrenchment allusion, we might say it has “exploded.”)

Lewis, however, does not accept the notion that children have unique—in his picturesque words “odd and alien”—literary interests. His first argument is that their preferences are by no means monolithic.

This theory does not seem to me to be borne out by the facts. For one thing, there is no literary taste common to all children. We find among them all the same types as among ourselves. Many of them, like many of us, never read when they can find any other entertainment. Some of them choose quiet, realistic, “slice-of-life” books . . . Some like fantasies and marvels . . . Some care for little but books of information, and so do some adults. Some of them, like some of us, are omnivorous. Silly children prefer success stories about school life as silly adults like success stories about grown-up life.

So, in Lewis’ opinion, we witness great difference in the tastes of children, as well as adults. He attributes changing literary emphases to human nature, rather than chronological considerations. The difference enters with children’s focus on enjoying literature, which provides them immunity to literary fads.

Surely it would be less arrogant, and truer to the evidence, to say that the peculiarity of child readers is that they are not peculiar. It is we who are peculiar. Fashions in literary taste come and go among the adults, and every period has its own shibboleths. These, when good, do not improve the taste of children, and, when bad, do not corrupt it; for children read only to enjoy.

Of course their limited vocabulary and general ignorance make some books unintelligible to them. But apart from that, juvenile taste is simply human taste, going on from age to age, silly with a universal silliness or wise with a universal wisdom, regardless of modes, movements, and literary revolutions.

Lewis’ critique of the publishing arena follows. Since these literary phases fade in and out, it is here where contemporary literary critics may fairly evaluate things differently.

This has one curious result. When the literary Establishment—the approved canon of taste—is so extremely jejune and narrow as it is today, much has to be addressed in the first instance to children if it is to get printed at all. Those who have a story to tell must appeal to the audience that still cares for storytelling.

The literary world of today is little interested in the narrative art as such; it is preoccupied with technical novelties and with ‘ideas’, by which it means not literary, but social or psychological, ideas. The ideas (in the literary sense) on which Miss Norton’s The Borrowers or Mr. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose are built would not need to be embodied in “juveniles” at most periods.

Lewis ends his essay by contrasting two disparate approaches to the production of so-called children’s literature. I suspect the two general categories still hold true for most. However, having only dabbled in writing for children, I’m by no means an authority on the subject. As for the creator of Narnia . . . I’m persuaded he possesses the credibility to speak with some modest influence.

It follows that there are now two very different sorts of “writers for children”. The wrong sort believe that children are “a distinct race”. They carefully “make up” the tastes of these odd creatures—like an anthropologist observing the habits of a savage tribe—or even the tastes of a clearly defined age-group within a particular social class within the “distinct race”. They dish up not what they like themselves but what that race is supposed to like. Educational and moral, as well as commercial, motives may come in.

The right sort work from the common, universally human, ground they share with the children, and indeed with countless adults. They label their books ‘For Children’ because children are the only market now recognised for the books they, anyway, want to write.

Right or wrong, like Lewis I cast my lot with those who write for children from their shared humanity with them. After all, they may be slightly less mature than most grown-ups, but they are not truly “alien” (even if they occasionally behave that way).

14 thoughts on “What Children Read

  1. I still will read a good “childrens” book from time to time, mainly because many of them are better than so-called adult fiction. I especially like the older tales, like “The Wind in the Willows.”

    1. I’ve been sporadically working on an essay inspired by one of our childhood favorites for several years now. This makes me want to return to it. If only I didn’t have so many other projects on my proverbial plate…

  2. Just because there has been an “explosion” of children’s books doesn’t mean the quality is there. Since the publishing industry recognized the big pool of money available with juvenile titles, language and sentence structure has been watered down and many “authors” are popular high profile personalities – often with little solid story telling skills or writing abilities.
    It’s disturbing to me that children are offered so much bland dribble. They are not idiots, and they can think and are quite astute observers who draw solid conclusions and comparisons if anyone bothers to listen.
    Older “classics” still hold timeless appeal. There are some excellent recent children’s authors – usually their tales will hold the interest of just about any age group. Never too old to discover something new in some “children’s” books

  3. “…children… can think and are quite astute observers who draw solid conclusions and comparisons if anyone bothers to listen.”

    A truth that my grandchildren frequently remind me of, just as when I was reading to two of them yesterday and they spontaneously broke into a game of thinking of all of the compound words they know… and even coining one or two new ones in the process!

  4. Amen. I hadn’t read Lewis’ take on kids lit, but it doesn’t surprise me one bit. I remember being 7 and 8; my thinking hasn’t changed that much and George McDonald is just as magical now as he was then.
    To this day I don’t go searching for a new story in the adult section. A good kids’ book has just as much depth of story without the ‘grit, ambiguity’, and ‘passion’ they seem to think adults need to stay awake.
    It’s a happy thought that Lewis would approve of my philosophy of children’s writing. Maybe someday I might even try a story, but creating a truly good one is no easy feat!

    1. You’re right about creating anything of quality. In some ways writing a good children’s book would be far more challenging than a good adults’ book. It’s like the challenging of writing a pared down story or letter and those saying about apologizing for the (greater) length of something because one “didn’t have the time” to write something shorter.

  5. Brings to mind that quote (was it actually Lewis who said it first?): “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

  6. Evidence for Lewis being right lies in how many people, like me, still love, as adults, the books they loved as children, not just from nostalgia, but because they are good books. :)

Leave a Reply to robstroud Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.