Confession time: I’ve read more Harry Potter books than I have Shakespeare dramas. Yes, I know, truly shameful stuff for an English Lit major. But despite my supposed status as an adult, I’m still a total sucker for children’s literature.
Children’s literature is an expansive and flexible genre that can be prescribed to many different works. What counts as children’s lit depends on how you define the genre, and how you define “children” and “literature”. You could argue Harry Potter, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Coraline” fall under that category. And then you have outliers like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which for all purposes appears to be children’s literature but is not intended for a single age group, according to its author. Regardless, children’s literature is typically written for children and features characters that are children. It’s inaccurate to say, however, that children’s literature is always “childish”.
Take the Grimm fairytales for example. Cutting off your stepsisters’ toes or burning cannibalistic witches in ovens is hardly “childish”, in spite of the stories’ simplistic writing style and youthful characters. In fact, you could argue that having children experience and commit these atrocities amplifies the stories’ impact. It’s often because children’s literature is primarily written for young people and presents young characters that these types of works are so compelling and effective.
As children’s literature is often written for a younger audience and with younger characters, mature and critical undertones can be slipped into a story without overt notice, allowing the creator to discretely comment on certain issues without explicitly shoving their agenda down your throat. Many works of children’s literature are structured with an overarching journey or plot interwoven with deeper messages such as moral teachings or critiques of politics, power struggles and social justice. Think of the Narnia series, a collection of adventures steeped deeply in biblical allusions. Or the Earthsea books, which purposefully invert the typical portrayal of ethnicities in fantasy traditions. Both of these series can be read at two layers, literally or more critically, but can still be understood through either reading. Older readers are likely to catch on to such nuances, while younger readers, and the young characters in the works themselves, are often protected from politics and strife around them by their innocence.
In our modern society, children are often portrayed in a light that celebrates their innocence and childishness, their curiosity and naivety. Children are inexperienced and should be protected, kept unaware of the horrors of the world until they grow older – there’s arguably something moral about those statements.
Children’s literature can take these tropes and twist them, often creating situations antithetic to this rhetoric that undermine our societal expectations. Bod in “The Graveyard Book” is hunted by an agency of murderers, Lyra from “The Golden Compass” experiences something that can be interpreted similarly to sexual abuse when her daemon is touched, and Coraline’s fake Other Mother wants to kidnap her, pull her eyes out and replace them with buttons. If those scenarios are not horrific, I don’t know what is.
By juxtaposing the supposed innocence of children to the horrors of reality, writers can invoke a powerful reaction from readers because to many of us, children are not meant to experience these things, not yet – perhaps not ever, if we can help it. They’re far too young. Having children rather than adults experience these terrible situations seems to make the stories that much more potent and powerful, because our assumptions about how children should be treated have been violated.
Yet children can’t remain young forever. Working with young protagonists allows for ample flexibility and character development through a narrative. They become worldly, shed their innocence like snakeskin and perhaps even become corrupted by the world themselves. In other words, they grow up. And whether that’s something we readers find saddening or enlightening, it’s likely something we all relate to.
We were all children, once, although we sometimes forget it. We see ourselves in these child characters and relive past experiences through them, whether it’s a first love, dealing with grief, or setting out alone for the first time. We have the chance to return to simpler times in “Anne of Green Gables”, or re-explore ourselves with Ged in “A Wizard of Earthsea”.
Sometimes we may find ourselves still struggling against the oppressive forces often present in children’s literature. Children are relatively powerless in the world: they live under the supervision of adults, whether this is directly from a parent or indirectly from a governing power. Consider Harry Potter’s antagonistic relationship with bureaucratic forces like Fudge of the Ministry of Magic, or his confrontations with greater evils like Bellatrix, Voldemort, and worst of all, Umbridge.
Even as adults, we can empathize with the feeling of being overwhelmed by things outside our control, or being underestimated and silenced by higher authorities. Whether we feel suppressed by a supervisor at work, are trapped by legislations, or have experienced an unexpected crisis, the feeling of being small, insignificant, and stifled by forces more powerful than ourselves is universal, not something experienced solely by children.
No matter your age, children’s literature can teach us lessons that we carry with us throughout our entire lives. The Giving Tree reveals the delicate balance between generosity and exploitation. “The Happy Prince” situates material greed and immaterial sacrifice side by side, and reveals that kindness can come both at a great cost and reap great rewards. Age becomes arbitrary when it comes to learning from literature; what is for children is not necessarily “childish”. There is value in works that are written for a younger audience, things all of us can take away from, no matter who we are.
Kristine is an English Literature and Psychology double major at UBC. When she’s not glasses-deep in projects, Kristine enjoys listening to falling rain, inventing bad puns for unlikely scenarios, and cultivating her coffee snobbery. The em dash is her aesthetic.