Tuesday, 11 March 2014

In which St Paul and Jesus Debate Children's Literature - Cathy Butler

A few months ago I was asked to give a talk on “Taking Children’s Literature Seriously” to a group of children’s writers.

In a way, it was an open goal: I knew that my audience already took children’s literature seriously, and they knew I did – so all that remained was to congratulate each other on our insight, to list some of the many things that make children’s literature worth taking seriously (an exercise I leave to the reader), and to indulge in a little well-justified moaning about the ways in which children’s literature tends to be patronized or ignored by the literary establishment and the wider adult world. Like many children’s writers, I’ve been compiling a list of such slights over several decades, at least in my head. I greatly admire the science fiction magazine Ansible’s “As others see us” column, in which the indefatigable Dave Langford has long chronicled the ignorance and snobbery of literary pundits and others regarding SF (you can see a selection here). It would not be hard to create an “As others see us” column for children’s literature too, and in a future ABBA blog I may do just that – but meanwhile it’s notable that one of the most-viewed posts ever made in this place was about just such a snub. These things rankle.

The more I thought about these matters, though, the more it seemed to me that a speech on these lines – while well worth making – would not get to the heart of the problem. Indeed, I’d already read many essays and had many conversations in which the same points had been made at least as eloquently as I could make them, and things hadn’t fundamentally changed as a result. On the contrary, it appears that the case for taking children’s literature seriously is one that needs to be made again and again – not because it is weak but because many adults find it difficult to hear, being too wedded to ideas about childhood that taking its literature seriously would require them to question.

While I was wondering how to illustrate this point, two well-known pieces of Scripture floated into my head. First, St Paul:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly: but then face to face.  (I Cor 13.11)

Then, Jesus of Nazareth:

Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. (Mark 10.14)

Both St Paul and Jesus are using children and childhood as metaphors – but interestingly they are doing so in exactly opposite ways. St Paul likens spiritual understanding and grace to growing up and putting away childish things. Jesus likens the same thing to being, or even becoming, in some way like a child, and presumably putting away the self-consciousness and worldliness of adulthood. Who is right? In our society, both these ways of thinking about childhood are so deeply rooted that the contradiction between them is seldom acknowledged.

On the one hand, children are seen as not-quite-finished adults, and accordingly anything associated with them, including children’s literature, tends to be viewed as necessarily inferior, or at best as preparatory for the “real” (i.e. adult) thing. This is why even when children’s books are praised it is often in terms of their being (to use a phrase popular with well-meaning Amazon reviewers) “too good for children”, and when they are dismissed it is because they are seen as limited in range and scope – just like the children who read them.

On the other hand, childhood is often viewed as a time of innocence in need of protection from adulthood – which is why even books for young adults may be criticized on the grounds that “a careless young reader […] will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.” "Joy and beauty” are of course the agar in childhood’s Petri dish, the proper medium for culturing innocence. Such books are in effect criticized for not being childish enough.

Children’s writers are hence caught in a double bind; but this is only because children are caught in a double bind. The contradictory demands made on writers (“Help children to grow up!” “Preserve childhood innocence!”) are merely reflections of the contradictory demands made on children themselves. In the end, taking children’s literature seriously is just one part of taking children seriously. And that is a lifetime’s work. 


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catdownunder said...

Oh, well said!

michelle lovric said...

how very interesting! thank you!

Joan Lennon said...


Nick Green said...

"St Paul! St Paul! Have you any comment? Will you be resigning?"

Catherine Butler said...

He's working on a letter as we speak, Nick!

Emma Barnes said...

Thank you - and for the link to the Journal piece. Thought-provoking!

Lucy Coats said...

Great piece, Cathy. I hadn't really thought before about the contradiction in those two quotes. I will look forward to that 'As Others See Us' piece when it comes!

Katherine Langrish said...

This is a really excellent, thought-provoking and inspiring post, Cathy - thankyou! *Goes away to think some more...*

Elen C said...

really interesting post, thank you!