August 10, 2010

What Makes Juvenile Fantasy Juvenile?

        The short answer is: nothing.
        Seriously.  There is fantasy for adults that would be inappropriate for younger readers, but any book that lacks inappropriate content gets automatically labeled “juvenile.”  All kinds of books, such as Oliver Twist and Pride and Prejudice, that were written for adults now get shelved in the children’s room for no reason other than their lack of explicit sex or too horribly graphic violence.  Within the genre of fantasy that’s what gets Goldman's The Princess Bride shelved in the Young Adult books, for example, or what makes LeGuin’s Earthsea books “Juvenile”: no explicit sex, no cussing, and not too much gore.  On the one hand, lucky kids to get these books marketed to them!  On the other hand, why should such books not be considered adult books?  Certainly there are children's books that seem a little shallow when I reread them now - (Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books spring to mind, for example, although it may be time for me to reread them again.  Certainly Abbott's Secrets of Droon series and its ilk are for kids only) - but for most of my favorites I find that adult reading only enhances my appreciation.  Many of these books have all the depth, sophistication, and complexity of any adult book.  They wrestle with the same themes adult books should tackle.  Their vocabulary and writing are in no way over-simplified or dumbed-down.  In short, I believe it's seriously misleading to imply that they are suitable for children only.
        I have a theory that in the entire history of humankind there has been a period of only about one hundred years in which fantasy was treated as the province of children.  Tales of fantasy were told by and for adults through all the millennia of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, Beowulf and King Arthur, the Thousand and One Nights and wicked stepmothers.  These stories were shared with children, but they were not thought childish.  Then the Enlightenment turned sensible adult thoughts toward logic and science, and Victorians invented the modern concept of childhood as a time of innocence before rationality took over, and bingo - the idea of fantasy was assigned to the realm of childhood.  With George MacDonald's stories for children in the 1860's and 70's and  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, the innocence of childhood was firmly bound up with the idea of imagination and fantasy.  In the next seventy-five years some really wonderful fantasy was written explicitly for children:  Nesbit’s fairy tales and Baum’s Oz series, for example.  If you count the classic talking animal books as fantasy, the list grows even longer.  Adults, meanwhile, could have gothic horrors such as Dracula, and sci-fi such as Verne and Wells, but anything too much about magical worlds or swords and sorcery was definitely marginal.  In this spirit Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for his children.  But with The Lord of the Rings, written for adults, and wildly popular with adults (by the late 1960's in the US), Tolkien broke the dam and reminded us that even for such practical, learned, scientific adults as we, there is a place for fantasy.
        So now we are coming back out of the realm of juvenile-only fantasy and the bookstores are full of fantasy for adults.  The genre lines are also blurring again, back toward the attitude that all of humanity held for the entirety of our existence until just an eyeblink ago: that fantasy can be entwined in all sorts of stories for all sorts of people.  This is a wonderful thing, but the attitude that all fantasy is juvenile is disappearing only slowly.  (And The Lord of the Rings is firmly shelved in the Children's Room.)  That’s all right, too.  I like the so-called juvenile fantasy better anyway – instead of assuming that I'll need to read about lots of graphic sex and violence to keep me interested, "juvenile" fantasy explores all the deepest, most important issues that any human of any age ever had to wrestle.

        [Picture: The Enormous Turnip, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008.]


Pax said...

Thanks, Anne, for describing so well why I dislike reading modern "adult" fiction with its graphic sex and violence. The characters tend to be people I would not want to invite into my home, so why should I give them entry into my head? Let's hear it for fiction that deals with complex human situations without resorting to detailed descriptions of sex and violence. If such books are considered "juvenile", and the sophomoric fascination with sex is labelled "adult", what does this say about our society today?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Good point that it's the situations that are interesting, as opposed to the purposely titillating descriptions. Goodness knows that sex and love and violence are all important parts of the human condition, and how we approach them is a large part of how we define and demonstrate who we are -- so it isn't that I don't like books that deal with them. What I don't appreciate in "adult" books is the feeling that the graphic description has become the entire point of the scene.
As for "characters... I would not want to invite into my home," that prompts me to write up something about my opinions on heroic heroes. Thanks!

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