Did I ever tell you that several years ago, after the Harper management saw that I could publish children’s books successfully, I was taken out to luncheon and offered, with great ceremony, the opportunity to be an editor in the adult department? The implication, of course, was that since I had learned to publish books for children with considerable success perhaps I was now ready to move along (or up) to the adult field. I almost pushed the luncheon table into the lap of the pompous gentleman opposite me…
Nordstrom spent a good deal of time fighting to publish children’s books that really were for children, that celebrated children’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences rather than trying to force-feed children whatever uncreative adults believed they ought to have. In 1954 she wrote in exasperation, Oh hell, it just boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of basic wonderful stuff to some adults… [Some] books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child. But of course that will only work if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to everything.
All too often I come across this snobbery, that children’s books are lesser, wimpier, lite versions of real literature, to tide over the lesser, wimpier, lite people until they grow up and become adults capable of appreciating “real literature.” Such attitudes, like much criticism, tell us more about the critic than the subject, and in this case, such comments betray adults who have probably not read any children’s literature since they were ten, who may never have read anything good, and who, if they ever have read excellent children’s books, have forgotten their power, or were too dull, unimaginative, ignorant, and self-important even to realize what they were reading. The desire to be thought intellectual is a deadly enemy to the imagination.
Undoubtedly it is true that children can’t read or get everything out of adult literature, and thus not all adult literature is appropriate for children. But is it true that all children’s literature is inappropriate for adults? Does it follow that adults like me who read fantasy (particularly juvenile fantasy) are hiding from reality in some pathetic state of arrested development? I’ve written about these questions before (What Makes Juvenile Fantasy Juvenile? and The Importance of Fantasy (II)) and I don’t want to repeat myself, but I do want to add a few quotations I’ve come across more recently that speak to this question, especially the question of whether children’s books are lesser than adult books or, as Nordstrom implies, actually better than adult books.C.S. Lewis wrote, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.”
Maurice Sendak said, in his famous interview with Stephen Colbert, “I don’t write for children. I write, and somebody says, ‘That’s for children.’” Further, “What is a children’s book? I don’t have a clue! I’m famous for them, I write them, I illustrate them, but I don’t know what they are. I don’t know why they’re for children.” (Ursula Nordstrom, by the way, was Sendak’s editor and mentor, and was instrumental in recognizing, developing, and publishing his classic work.)
What both these authors imply is not that children’s books are better than adults’ books, or vice versa, but that the best books are simply… books. That they have something of value to offer people over a wide range of ages and stages. That the true classics are written not with deliberate intent to appeal to a particular market segment, but are written because the author has something of truth and value to share, and it really doesn't matter whether the best format for sharing that author’s truth is a picture book, a middle grade chapter book, or a literary novel.
[Picture: The Magician’s Chariot, wood block print by Gwen Raverat, 1939]
Quotations from Ursula Nordstrom, Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom;
C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, 1966 (from an earlier essay);
Maurice Sendak, interview with Stephen Colbert, 2012.