What Constitutes ‘Good’ Literature for Children?

How do we decide what books children should be reading and what is motivating that decision?

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Children’s literature is an often overlooked topic of discussion, it may be viewed as inferior to the works of Jane Austen or Shakespeare, yet children’s books are some of the most important books you will ever read.

What we read when we are young shapes our minds, feeds us an education on language, ideas, concepts and fuels our imagination in ways that school cannot. Children’s literature is so important because it exhibits ideas that can be complicated in a simple and accessible way, ensuring that many books that we read as children are multi-layered and complex.

So how do we determine what is ‘good’ children’s literature and what should be avoided?

This depends entirely on what your motivation is. Does your choice of book need to be free from violence, sex and disturbing ideas to protect their innocence? Does it need to be full of complex language to improve their vocabulary? Does it need to be written by a prolific author?

There are many factors that ensure that fitting children’s books into the categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is not viable. What is good for one child, may not be right for another. Also, what you may believe is appropriate or useful for a child, might not necessarily be right.

As adults, we dictate how children grow up. We choose what they wear, what they eat and often we dictate who they are surrounded by. We make these choices based off of what we believe is right for them, which is justified by our wiseness and years of experience.

We ultimately have complete control over the way children are, and how they live, and this does not stop with their reading material. Peter Hunt, a children’s literature academic and professor, states in his book Understanding Children’s Literature, that:

“History, as constructed, generally shows us (obviously enough) that adults can and do control the production of children’s literature — however subversive the child’s reading might be”. (Hunt 5)

As a young child, I adored reading. I would devour a book in a night, clutched under the covers with a torch as my light source. This allowed me to quickly become a rather advanced reader, which spurred my parents to introduce me to some more mature books. I remember at the age of five, my mother took me to a book shop and bought me a copy of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It was a challenging read for a girl of my age, but I absolutely loved it.

Yes, this book was appropriate for me, as it was indeed written for children, yet perhaps for those older than I was. It exposed me to more complex language and ideas of exclusion, tolerance, friendship and family problems.

However, as I grew and my reading ability developed my mother wanted to push me even further. When I was about eleven or so, she bought me a copy of Jayne Eyre, which I absolutely hated. I found it dull, stuffy and boring and my lack of appreciation for Bronte’s writing made it a difficult read. This is a classic, a work of art in the literature world and a fantastic book, yet it was not appropriate for me at that time.

Because books are highly esteemed, does not make them enjoyable for everyone. Of course, I have since read it as an adult and loved it, yet I understand why I was not ready to enjoy it back then.

My mother thought she knew what was good for me, as her motivation was to expose me to canonical literature, yet she was wrong to do so as I was not ready.

This is a prime example, of adults thinking that they know what is best for a child when it is their own selfish desire to push their child in a certain way that hinders them from actually seeing that it isn't the best choice.

As adults, we all have some selfish motivation when making choices for children. Do you want your child to read a book which shows a female superhero because you are a passionate feminist? Do you want to preserve your child from reading The Hunger Games Trilogy because you think that such violence and murder is too graphic?

Yes, we do have to make choices for children, as they are not wise enough to always know what is good for them. We send them to school when they’d rather stay at home and play because we know that education is necessary for their future life and career.

However, sometimes our power and authority can get the better of us, and we abuse it by censoring children too heavily. Mark West in Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children’s Literature, says that:

“Throughout the history of children’s literature, the people who have tried to censor children’s books, for all their ideological differences, share a rather romantic view about the power of books. They believe, or at least profess to believe, that books are such a major influence in the formation of children’s values and attitudes that adults need to monitor nearly every word that children read”. (Mark West 689)

This is why some books remain restricted to younger children, such as Harry Potter, or as previously mentioned The Hunger Games. The main concepts that many feel children should not be exposed to are sex and death. They believe that these taboo topics are not appropriate for children, and consequently, we must censor them.

Both sex and death are two natural parts of life, which a child will encounter at some point in their life, some, unfortunately, sooner than others. When we begin to censor these topics and label books which contain them as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘bad’ we begin to restrict our children. Hunt says that “censorship is relative: if books are withdrawn from classrooms, as they have often been, is that being protective, or restrictive?”.

In our endeavour to protect children, we are often hindering their natural curiosity and the way that the learn things for themselves by exploration.

As a child, despite being fed mature literature, I was not allowed to be exposed to books or films which contained extreme violence or any sort of sex. Of course, my natural curiosity still bloomed despite the restriction. So how do children explore this curiosity under restrictive rules? They break those rules of course and go behind their parent’s back.

I had a Kindle as a child, and I would download eBooks by myself. My parents wouldn't exactly know what I was reading and naively I read a few romance novels which contained some erotic passages. If my parents knew what I was reading they would’ve been horrified and I would’ve been punished, yet what they did not know didn't hurt them. It didn't hurt me either.

I think it is very important to expose children to complex and mature ideas of the world subtly. Yes, children should know about racism, homophobia, politics and the sufferance of many people in our world. They should know about sex and death, about loss and mental illness and all the other topics which many adults deem as taboo.

For me, good literature is something which teaches a child about complex ideas of the world in a way which is accessible and subtle. They do not need to see footage of the Holocaust, to understand how millions of people were persecuted for their religion, their culture and their way of life.

This is why children’s literature is so great because it can say what we are too scared to tell children about. When we begin to censor what they are reading in order to protect them, we are stopping this wonderful absorption of knowledge and ideas which is so vital for their development.

Judy Blume, a children’s author, wrote the first children’s books to exhibit sexual intercourse in the 1970s. At the time it was marked as controversial and obscene. She was the first children’s author to discuss masturbation, menstruation and sexual urges. Many parents regarded her work as sordid, yet she was giving children a safe outlet in which to satiate their curiosity about such things and letting them know that they are not alone in their curiosity.

Blume says that:

“Kids will actually go to Mom or Dad and say ‘What does this mean?’, which is the perfect time to talk to them about it. But that’s when sometimes parents get hysterical. Really. It’s like, ‘Argh, I don’t want to talk to you about this, let’s get rid of this book, I don’t ever want to talk to you about this, I don’t ever want you to go through puberty.’”

We must begin to realign our ideas of what ‘appropriate’ literature for children is. What is good for children, is to experience and understand concepts which are embedded in our culture and will be a huge part of their future lives.

We must rid ourselves of this fear that by reading about sex, hatred or depression they will lose their sense of childhood innocence. We must stop romanticising childhood to be this whimsical period in which children all believe in Father Christmas and think that when someone dies they turn into a magical star that glows outside of their window at night.

Children know and understand a lot more than we realise or give them credit for. Think back to your childhood, when was the first time you knew what sex was? Probably a lot earlier than you think.

I think that we need to stop dictating so heavily which books are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for children and allow them to follow their own intrigue and read about what interests them. If a child wants to read The Hunger Games, let them, but have a discussion with them afterwards about the ideas discussed in the book.

My opinion is, that no book is too harmful to a child if it is accompanied by an appropriate discussion that addresses what they have been reading about, be it racism, abuse or other complex ideas.

Written by

Cambridge master’s student, literature grad and a semi-amateur writer.

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