The Problem with the Concept of a “Children’s Story”.

I have just finished reading Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper for the first time. I loved every minute of it. Never mind that it is a “children’s story.” As CS Lewis noted, “When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” (For more on this idea, as well as my frustration with our culture’s obsession with tragedy, read my blog “Fairy Tales vs The Cynics”.)

Parent Reading to Child

The story is good. That period after “good” was no accident. To add the qualifying phrase “for children”, though true, would be a great disservice. It would be a disservice to the story, yes, but worse than that, to the children. First, the idea of being deceived by appearances is one that I personally find adults more prone to make than children (as Mark Twain actually points out in the book – the only people who believe Edward are young children). But even then, the social commentary of The Prince and the Pauper is definitely befitting adults, and something most children would be ignorant of. Ignorant when they began reading it maybe, but, perhaps, not when they finished it.

The only thing that should make a children’s book different from any other is the care the author takes to invite them to enjoy the story. It’s not important that the child understand everything in the story as long the child enjoys what they do understand. In fact, the best ones most certainly have ideas the child is not ready to engage yet, but rather will be something to pull to mind when he/she does encounter them.

Most importantly, a good children’s story should never avoid the darkness of the world, but rather shine a light in it. Most children’s entertainment today is mere “movement” – whether empty television or empty books. The colors and motion/narration delight, but at the end of it all, the child is no different than they were when the story began. Others try to teach a moral, but do so in such a condescending manner; they only addressing the overly mundane aspects of their lives (like sharing a toy), providing no reference or consideration for growth beyond what they already know.

When we talk down to children, we not only deny our young what we owe them in aid as they mature, we insult our own past. Did we not learn to deal with the world, in all its grandeur and ugliness, as we grew? Shoot, isn’t that what growing up actually is?! We try to swaddle children in the wraps of an infant to keep them warm and safe only to leave their arms bound and unable to swim when tossed overboard by the storms of life we cannot forever protect them from! (The Prince and the Pauper describes horrible things such as women being burned at the stake, The Hobbit has leading characters killed in war or by dragon fire, The Chronicles of Narnia talks of beheadings and “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!!” is arguably the most famous line from Alice in Wonderland. They don’t go into super gory detail, but they don’t hide the ugliness; they simply don’t wallow in it.)

In addition to The Prince in the Pauper, at one point there were numerous stories like it, including:

  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
  • Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped
  • C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series.
  • Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
  • T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (Part 1 of The Once and Future King)

All of these works are amazing pieces of literature, enjoyable at any age. That’s what chiefly sets them apart – any age. Adults can actually mine more out of them than the children! If you don’t believe me, you should read Dr. Corey Olsen’s Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, be amazed at how deep the mine goes, and then apply the same thought process to all the novels above.

Yes, children are easier to entertain with worthless fluff, just as they are easier to quiet when they are hungry with junk food. But just as many chefs know that one of the hardest things to come up with is a meal that a child will both enjoy and be nourished by, so too is writing a good story that a child can enjoy one of the most difficult, and praiseworthy, things a writer can do.

So, do not discount stories traditionally regarded as children’s literature if you are an adult. And if you are a writer applying your skill for young audiences, by all that is good and holy do not waste their voracious appetite and absorbing minds on empty entertainment! Certainly entertain them! But challenge them; they are young and have not yet become jaded and cynical. Don’t preach to them; simply tell them the story, show them the world for what it is. They will be motivated enough by that alone, for children’s sense of justice and eagerness to make the world a better place dwarfs that of adults far more than our stature does theirs. And while they will make mistakes, they also will find solutions. Children cannot help but think outside the box; the box has yet to be formed.

All people, especially children, rarely to do more than what is asked of them. Don’t worry about the word count, (many of the titles listed above are as long, or longer, than novels aimed at adults today), just make sure every word counts (a worthless book that is short is still worthless). If you’re writing well, they’ll keep coming back, and be all the happier that the story keeps on going, day after day, night after night. Don’t be concerned with a young reader fully understanding the story – whether you’re the writer or the person giving them the book. Be concerned that the story is worth understanding; they may surprise you with how much they grasp even the first time around. And if they don’t understand all of it? So much the better – for it is a well they can return to again and again.

Agree? Disagree? Other thoughts? Leave them in the comments below, or tweet me @Tales_of_Lugon!

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