You guys won’t see this until well after now, but just so you know, I’m supposed to be working. I really need to be grading. Or packing. Or doing anything but watching the comments feed on a WordPress article. But I’ve been having a conversation about The Hunger Games and young adult literature with the good folks at Scholars and Rogues for the better part of the day. I’ve managed to write, over there in the comments section, what probably would’ve been at least one, if not two or three or four, blog posts–and so I decided what the hell, I’ll write a bit about it myself.
The post contends that The Hunger Games holds no real cultural critique; the author sees the books as a cash cow for Collins and Scholastic, written to cash in on the explosion of YA literature’s popularity in the wake of the Harry Potter and Twilight books.
Suffice it to say, I’ve been arguing my fangirl heart out. We discussed the origins of the genre with The Outsiders in 1967 and the problem of situating a beginning of the genre as an economic product with Harry Potter; we talked about the history of violence in children’s literature and about how the means of production can affect the product. And as the conversation took its twists and turns, I started having another conversation with a fellow children’s literature graduate student or two on my Facebook feeds, and I began to see a connection between these two conversations. What I noticed the was terribly interesting. My feelings were about what I thought was a mischaracterization of YA and children’s literature. My colleagues’ reactions became about children’s and YA literature as a genre, as well.
Often, people think that children’s literature and young adult literature are easy to define– at least until they start to try. Just think about it for a moment. It’s not a genre written by children. It’s not always about children, either. And (perhaps most significantly) it’s not exclusively for children; it cannot be, because someone has to buy the product (after someone has decided to print it), so it has to have some kind of appeal to an adult. Sometimes, a book like The Yearling or The Chocolate War becomes children’s literature when it was intended by its author to be for adults. (Jacqueline Rose characterizes this as “the impossibility of children’s fiction,” but I tend to agree with Marah Gubar-we should stop worrying about defining the genre -see her essay “On Not Defining Children’s Literature”).
It’s also particularly difficult to see the through-line in children’s literature because of the massive societal changes concerning childhood just within the last three centuries. Adolescence is a fairly new concept (and so is the genre of YA, of course). Our concepts of childhood, of what it means to be a child, have changed as adulthood and society have changed. If you have trouble with what I mean there, think of the mind-boggling car seat regulations that have changed so drastically just over the past 20 years. Think of whole TV channels that we now have specifically for children on cable that is more widely available and has a far greater picture than just 30 years ago. Now think about the kinds of changes that a rising life span, the creation of a new country, the rise and fall of slavery, the industrial age (with all of its factories and cars). Restructuring society affects childhood. It changes the way life is lived, and it changes how we have to raise the next generation of people.
And so, of course, the way we write for children has changed, too. In the 17th and 18th centuries, children were often killed off in didactic stories—Daisy ran too fast and wasn’t looking where she was going, so she fell into a well and drowned. This was common, as was its inverse–a child that was very good and died early, thus forever preserving her goodness. Later, Alice in Wonderland and some of the other Golden Age children’s literature poked fun at these didactic stories–Alice is consistently almost dying, and jokes about it are constantly being made. Sex and sexuality were also not uncommon in children’s texts–Peter Pan is full of jokes about Tinkerbell’s jealousy of Wendy, and its initial chapter title is “Peter Breaks Through”–a thinly veiled sexual reference. Removing the child from parental control somehow–a journey, a death, etc.–provides agency for the child, and the actions that fictional children take are complex, the texts representing an adult configuration of children and childhood.
Now, with the rise of adolescence, we’ve seen the creation of an offshoot of children’s literature. And it has taken off in a major way. Estimates are that half of its audience is above the intended reading age.
On a final note, and of especial importance, is the way we’ve pejoratively defined childhood. Maturity rhetoric assumes that it’s always better to not be a child, to be older. (When someone says “infantile” or “childish,” for instance, it’s never a good thing.) And so something like children’s literature has been overlooked and oversimplified for a long time, as it has been so allied with children’s culture. For many years, it wasn’t considered a valid field of study: children’s literature was too simplistic to need to be studied. It wasn’t Literature. Except that it is. It’s complex. It tells us as much about the adults who produce, distribute, and buy it, who create the fictional child, as it does about the children who read it.
In the coming weeks, as a prepare for comps, I’ll be working through a list of texts that are a small but representative sample of the last three centuries of children’s literature. I’m looking forward to seeing what new stuff I discover about childhood and the way we represent it.
For now, I’m off to do some of that stuff I’m supposed to be doing.