Like most children’s writers I have a day job. My job doesn’t take me away from children’s writing, though. On the contrary, as an academic who specializes in children’s literature I find myself looking at the world of children’s books all over again in the daylight hours – peering through the other end of the telescope, as it were. Next week, teaching resumes after the summer break, and I’ll be greeting almost a hundred students who have signed up for my course on “Children’s Fantasy Fiction Since 1900.”
The students I teach are sometimes surprised to find that children’s books can be studied at university at all. “Aren’t they too simple for that?” they ask. “After all, even a child can read them!”
It’s a natural enough question – but they don’t ask twice. By the time they leave my course (gaunt, shuffling figures, trembly from too much late-night Derrida) they’ve learned that children’s literature can be just as challenging as the adult variety. There’s nothing simple about Peter and Wendy, or The Wind in the Willows, or Where the Wild Things Are, or The Owl Service, or Fire and Hemlock. These are all vastly sophisticated, not to say tricksy, texts, that can be interrogated with at least as much rigour as anything by Margaret Atwood or Ian McEwan – and it’s a pleasure (if at times a mildly sadistic one) to watch this realization dawn.
But even books that are, on the face of it, simpler, demand a different kind of reading from what most students are used to. They’re accustomed to seeing themselves as part of an audience of literate adults and understanding their own reaction to a book as that of a (if not the) typical reader. With children’s books, they discover they’re not part of the target audience at all – or not straightforwardly so – and they have to find a way of dealing with that. They may, for example, imagine how a child might react to a book, and place that reaction alongside their own. But which takes priority? And what is “a child reader” like, considering that there are billions of children alive today, each one different from the rest? Should children’s books be discussed using the same criteria as adult ones, even if children and adults want and need different things? Do children’s books have a special responsibility to teach their readers, or is that just a hangover from a more didactic age?
None of these questions has an easy answer, but by the end of the year I hope my students will at least be able to find their way around the territory. I hope even more that they’ll leave with an enhanced love of, and respect for, the work that children’s writers do.
There’s nothing simple about it.