deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
[personal profile] deborah
After having been fairly publicly snippy in Roger Sutton's blog, I feel a need to explain myself. For one thing, Roger Sutton is a big macha in children's literature and I... well, I'm not. To a certain extent, you could even call him my boss; at least, the book I just put down to write this post was sent to me courtesy of Horn Book Guide, who will pay me to read and review it. Moreover, Roger is a very intelligent man for whom I have a lot of respect, and it feels weird to have people sending me e-mail saying "thank you for what you said to Roger!" And finally, I don't want to come off, as Elissa said, as a Trekkie angry at SNL Shatner's "get a life". I think Roger raised a lot of points, some good and some less so, and I do want to address them.

Roger makes an important and subtle point when he talks about the different audience for reviews of children's books and adult books. Reviews of adult books are sometimes intended for the readers themselves, the end-users, as it were. Reviews of children's books almost never are. Sure, publishers will selectively quote sections of children's book reviews which will be seen by the final consumer of the book, but reviews of children's books are essentially intended for teachers, librarians, and others who will mediate the book between purchase and reader. I would give a minor amendment to Roger's point: many reviews of adult books are also not intended for the final reader. There's a big difference between reviews published in Kirkus and reviews published in Entertainment Weekly in terms of the intended audience of the review and that audience's assumed relationship with the book and the marketplace. Yes, the individual reading the issue of Horn Book Magazine, Kirkus, or Publisher's Weekly probably loves books, and may be disappointed if a review spoils a major plot twist. But ultimately that individual is likely to be reading the reviews in order to make purchasing decisions, not recreational reading decisions, and that changes how those reviews are going to be written.

Roger makes another important point when he says "children's books tend to be easier and thus potentially "fun" for adults in a way they tend not to be for children, an incongruence librarians need to remember, not dissolve". He's quite right. There are exceptions, of course, but it's very important for those of us who mediate books for children (and I include reviewers in that chain) to remember that a book which seems trite to me might well be the first introduction of an idea to its implied readers, and a book which seems pleasurably simple to me might be less so to readers who are 10 years old, or who haven't read Milton, or who won't recognize the book's similarities to 1984.

I start to differ from Roger when he makes a blanket statement about people who claim the children's literature is better, claiming that saying so is "just sentimental ignorance".
"I also feel my jaw clench when a fellow adult tells me that he or she prefers children's books to adult books because they have better writing or values or stories."
There's one point in there where I can absolutely agree with Roger. Some of the people who make these claims are romanticizing childhood, claiming that children have some kind of true understanding of their elegant styles of fiction that we easily adults have forgotten about. Those people, the ones who have an essentialized and romantic view of child readers, those I agree can be extremely aggravating. But me, I happen to actually prefer the writing in books which are, in the 21st century, marketed to young adults in the United States. Notice my emphasis on marketing. It has nothing to do with who the readers are, nothing to do with any kind of pure ability of adolescents to understand concepts adults are too small minded to comprehend. For whatever reasons, though, the current trend right now is that books which are produced for and marketed towards adults are written in styles which I find less appealing than those books which are produced for and marketed towards young adults. I like my books to be character driven, plot-heavy, low on philosophical meanderings, fast-paced, ultimately optimistic, and to have high-quality prose. In general, I find it difficult to find all of these traits combined in individual books written for adults; they aren't fashionable. So by my standards of literary quality, books written for children and young adults are "better". This isn't sentimental, this is my judgment based on my tastes.

The one point that I am confident that I and others did successfully address in Roger's blog post (although I do wish I had proofread more carefully before I posted!), is the idea that readers who primarily read books marketed towards children and young adults are missing something in the world. As I said in that thread, there is a vast supply of recreational materials available for us. Every day I decide how I am going to spend my recreational time: reading, sleeping, watching television, watching movies, gardening, going for a walk, visiting friends? And if I pick recreational reading, what shall I read? An old favorite, a bestseller, a recent recommend, a children's book, a science fiction book, some political nonfiction, a blog post, romantic fanfiction, plotty fanfiction, my e-mail, some online news, popular nonfiction, scholarly nonfiction, a friend's academic paper? Regardless of what the NEA may think, I do believe all of those are valid forms of reading which will enrich my recreation time (if I even need to defend my choices of how I spend my recreational time, which I don't believe I do). There are far more possible ways for me to spend my time than I could even if I were independently wealthy and had five clones. Even if all I do in my free time is read, I can't read everything fabulous there is to read. I'm a human being, with limited time, and yes, I mostly specialize. Most of what I read for pleasure is fiction for children and young adults. Not everything -- I also read romances, science fiction and fantasy, fanfiction, popular and scholarly nonfiction, blogs -- but even if it were everything, what of it? I know I don't have time to read all the great books by Barbara Kingsolver and Jonathan Gash, and if I made time for them, what would I have to give up? I missed out on majoring in history as an undergraduate because I majored in English instead; I missed out in minoring in gender studies because I minored in computer science. I missed out on traveling the country in a camper because I settled down instead. No matter what choices we make there is always something else we could be doing with our time. The world is a rich and wonderful place, and I can't possibly experience everything there is. And you know what? I'm okay with that.

Date: 2008-03-06 12:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You know, I hate modern literary fiction for adults. I'll read genre fiction, but literary fiction makes me twitch. Tolstoy may have believed that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, but modern fiction is all unhappy in formulaic ways, formulas that I don't find useful. This partly a result of modern literature being dominated by middle aged men with ED for a long time, as my mom more or less said.

Date: 2008-03-06 03:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
hm. some books are classified as children's literature, but are really totally for everyone. i'm thinking, off the top of my head, of the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin. Or the Velveteen Rabbit. or fairy tales. or the parables of Jesus, to go the other way... considered adult, but children can so GET them.

i'm not so sure, first of all, that there is a real boundary between children/YA and adult. if there is one, it's very artificial and mostly one-way. there are books i wouldn't recommend children read, but not the reverse, you know?

sometimes, i think, if we as writers sit down to write specifically for children, we have a sense of desiring to give them our best -- of giving them reality, and yet giving them hope and humor.

some adult mainstream literary fiction is so cynical and so sad. not that adult topics aren't overshadowed by war and death and real horror. but that's not all there is to life, you know?

in short, i think i'm basically agreeing with you, after following your links and reading the blog post and the comments.

Date: 2008-03-06 03:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, brava. Seriously.

Some of this will be repeating what you've already said, but I want to think/write through my response in my own words... It took me a long time to learn it for music as well as literature -- not to write off any genre or category. There are true gems somewhere in every section of the library or record store, though it can take time to find them (and/or to find the ones that you really like as well as appreciate aesthetically). If you've got that kind of time, great. Not everybody does.

I, also, am irritated by those who think only children's literature has something worthwhile to offer, as I am irritated by those who think it has nothing to offer. It's fine to only want to read one kind of literature; it's not fine to then condemn all other literature as Not Worthy.

It's fine to have a preference. It's fine to want to develop expertise in a particular area, to read or listen for depth over breadth. Nobody can read everything, of course. The important thing is to remember that your choices are your choices, and you've got no right to judge other people's choices based on your own preferences.

This is not me saying that everybody's opinion on everything is equally worthwhile and there's no such thing as Informed Critical Judgment -- of course not. And I know some individuals who, in my personal opinion, make poor reading choices and could be reading a) more and b) better. But that's my opinion of another person based on long-term observation of their reading habits, not a sweeping critical judgment of a certain kind of reader or a whole category of books.

Nice NEA reference too, btw. I agree.

Date: 2008-03-07 09:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
During those really busy semesters when I was reading 5-8 books for class a week plus critical articles etc (did I mention I took Realism and 19th-Century American together??), the NEA would probably count me as having read nothing at all. Particularly if they don't count Livejournal. Which they don't.

Date: 2008-03-06 03:40 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, yeah, and in reference to children's literature classes being easy -- this seemed to me to miss the point. Yes, most children's books are easier to read than a lot of adult literature. But I'm not convinced they're easier to satisfactorily analyze, and at least in children's lit classes I've taught, greater quantity makes up for that difference in reading difficulty, so that just as much out-of-class time is spent on the reading as in other literature classes. Or more, if my students are to be believed. I also assign a lot of critical articles and textbook readings, which are sometimes quite dense. I'm not a particularly hard grader but I do demand real thinking and critical analysis from my students. Some of them find it harder to think this way about children's books than about adult literature. I make them.

Students who take my children's lit classes primarily hoping they will be easy, are generally disappointed. Students who take it primarily hoping it will be fun, are generally not.

Date: 2008-03-06 07:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
As I read the comments, I thought "Wow, this Deborah is one smart cookie", and then realised it was OUR Deborah, you! :)

Thanks for the articulate comments (much more useful than my mental squarking!).

Date: 2008-08-20 12:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hi Deborah,

Here is an off-topic question (interesting conversation here, btw): I notice that you write reviews for Kirkus. I'm looking to move up to paid reviewing and I would appreciate any pointer on how to crack into that market. If you prefer to reply by e-mail, you can do so to I could get into my writing experience a bit more via e-mail, or you could also find me on AIM or on Yahoo Messenger, where I am also Papilleau. Thanks in advance!

- Papilleau
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