Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Changing Art

When I arrived to pick up my son up from school last Wednesday, I found him sitting with his nose firmly buried in a new novel. I had to guide him through the packed parking lot to the car as he refused to stop reading long enough to manoeuvre himself, and there was none of the bickering between him and his sister that normally punctuated the afternoon car drive home.

"Mommy," he said, "I have to have this whole series!"

I frowned when I took my first look at the book. The cover was not a typical children's book cover. I actually don't recall the details, but it was a subtle illustration, more like the cover of a Tom Clancy or Michael Connelly novel than the books to which he was accustomed to reading. I quickly turned it over and noted with relief that it had won a children's award. I read the blurb and was surprised at the level of adventure, action and intrigue which the author purported to have fit into his children's novel.

I read sections of the book and, although it was like no children's book I had ever read, it was certainly appropriate. I realised at that moment that children's authors sometimes behave like parents. We don't want to acknowledge that our children (whether natural ones or our readers) must grow up and if we want to maintain our relationship with them, we have to keep pace with the level of stimulation to which our children are exposed today and which they have come to expect.

It was an eye opener to me, and a discovery which will certainly impact my future writing.


Charles Gramlich said...

So good to hear he's reading. When my son got into the Goosebumps series I read several of them first to make sure they weren't too much. He ended up getting a whole bunch of those books.

Liane Spicer said...

Children's books have come a long way since I was a child. I love that story about having to guide your son through the parking lot.

When my son was about 10 I went to pick him up after school and couldn't find him anywhere. Eventually found him upstairs, alone, in the library. It was the last day of school and he HAD to finish Superfudge, a novel by Judy Blume. He had read and loved the first one, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Unfortunately, that was his last day at that school - he would be going to secondary school the following term.

We had to leave. I looked everywhere for that book for years so that he could finish the story (this was before online stores brought instant gratification to our doors) and never could find it.

My point being, I have the utmost respect for Judy Blume and children's writers like her who can keep my superactive, supersocial son's nose glued to a book for hours on end.

KeVin K. said...

Children's literature has changed over the years, reflecting changes in culture. That's particularly true here in the USofA -- sometimes I think childhood should be placed on the endangered species list. TV shows (and books) about kids in high school are aimed at supposedly aimed at middle schoolers, for whom high school is a pending adventure. However they routinely deal casually, almost callously, with topics, situations, and language that would not have been considered appropriate when I was in high school (and dinosaurs roamed the earth). There were more protections in place to allow children to explore their world. Mysteries were puzzles to be solved and the unknown meant something interesting was waiting to be discovered. As someone once wrote: When Nancy Drew was held prisoner by a suspected murderer for three days and greets her rescuers with "The very worst has happened!" you knew she meant a vital clue had been stolen.

One of the best things about raising three children was reading good children's literature to them. And watching some good children's TV.

But not all change is bad. And some of the things we did to protect children limited their experiences. And stories written fifty years ago do not reflect a reality children see around them.The basic values conveyed through children's lit -- treating everyone with unconditional positive regard, honesty, honor, and the journey of growing up in a world beyond our control -- are the themes of great literature everywhere and handled well can enthrall readers of all ages. How those themes manifest and the context in which they play out change, but the values remain. (At the moment I'm thinking of Stellaluna, a story that could not have been written at a time when transracial and transcultural foster care were not common -- or when young readers did not see blended families all around them. But there are other examples.)

Personally, I read young adult and children's literature for escape. There's a clarity, even when images and meanings are layered, and an underlying given that things will work out that I find refreshing.

And of course now I'm interested in what book your son was reading.