I am just going to say it: I am a huge fan of children’s and young adult novels.
There is nothing more delicious than re-reading my favorites from my childhood. From Philip Pullman’s famous Dark Materials Trilogy to Lois Lowry’s The Giver these are the books that shaped me as a young’in and are still oh-so-wonderful to read. But the experience is rather different years later and I have begun to notice certain things. Archetypes, stereotypes and clichés are alive and well in children’s literature. In best-selling Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book it’s perfectly okay for characters to replicate classic figures, something which in adult novels would be scorned as expected and cliché. In children’s literature, it’s still okay for the protagonist to be a lonely orphan, it’s okay for the good mother figure to be slightly pudgy and over-smiley and it’s more than okay for bad guy to be tall and spindly with extra-sharp teeth. Typical characters are abundant, from the mean old lady teacher who is despised by her pupil but is really good at heart, to the shadowy stranger with a hidden past, the skeptical companion and the clever talking animal.
This naturally raises a question as to the value of children’s literature as a subject of study. The focus of many books for kids, (especially picture books) seems to be some moral reached at the end. Thinking on the array of archetypal and often fairy-tale like characters, suggests that these stories perhaps are just descendents of earlier didactic fables, and that they perhaps don’t go much deeper. However, when reflecting on books as The Giver or Gathering Blue I’m forced to acknowledge the fact that something keeps me interested in these stories beyond the nostalgia for reading on the back porch of my childhood home. I don’t read Coraline now because I need to learn the lesson of appreciating my parents (college has already done that for me) or because I wish to be the 8-year-old protagonist (as I often wished while reading books like Harriet the Spy when I was younger). I read these books again and again because they have the same draw as the grown-up books I read, and must hold the same themes as the Steinbeck and Tolstoy and Faulkner I also find myself reading.
UC Berkeley offers a class called “Children’s Literature” (English 80K for all of you Cal students), and I sincerely hope I get the chance to take it. Children’s literature is beyond fun!