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What Children Read

August 1, 2013 — 14 Comments

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).