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The Changing Faces of Children’s Literature

18th Jun 2012

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When I was younger (and, okay, I’ll admit that this was a while ago), children’s books were different. The books I read when I was learning to read until the age of eight were probably the same books my grandmother might have read.

Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, A Christmas Carol, The Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales: all classics that I think I’d got through before junior school.

There was no Harry Potter. No Jacqueline Wilson. I think even Michael Morpurgo was only just getting started.

And while I don’t think I suffered any for that, while I grew up to love reading and to own more than one edition of each of the classics I’ve mentioned, I have to say that children’s literature today is so much richer.

For young readers, series like the Rainbow Fairies, Horrid Henry, the Humphrey Hamster books, Beastquest and Astrosaurs have all made learning to read fun. Outside of the levelled books sent home from school, I don’t remember easy readers being anywhere near as enjoyable.

The series aspect encourages reading development in a way that children don’t notice because they’re so busy moving through the characters. Parents get to watch their children read for pleasure, not necessity, and that’s something that comes without a price.

For me, this is perhaps the key aspect that has developed within children’s literature. Books don’t have to be educational, moralistic or boring. They don’t have to be read aloud by parents or slaved over by children with a fledgling vocabulary. The increase in emphasis on child ownership in children’s books is well needed.

Books for children, while often enjoyed by adults, are for children. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants and the Yuck series are all books crafted perfectly to suit childish senses of humour and cultural reference. Your parents can read them, but they’re really for the kids.

Harry Potter has kept middle grade readers enthralled for over ten years – no mean feat in an age when children that age are also dealing with homework and exams.

J. K. Rowling created a world that draws children in, a world as enticing as Alice’s and the Riverside, a place that they will remember with fondness for the rest of their lives. Every child wants to go to Hogwarts, and Harry’s struggles eclipse their own well enough to offer an escape.

Writers such as Jacqueline Wilson and Malorie Blackman who write both for middle grade and young adult readers with eloquence and respect are able to bring serious social issues down to a level that hits home. Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series tackles racism in a thought provoking and heart-breaking way, without a single sentence of preaching.

Wilson’s beautifully naughty Tracy Beaker highlights the issues faced by children in care and adoptive families, whilst her other books have highlighted children’s roles in history and gay teenage love stories.

Not every lesson has to be taught in school, and whilst these books do not look like the traditional cautionary tales passed down to generations, they do the job equally well.

As for teenagers, they probably get more choice than any of their younger counterparts. Young adult fiction is a booming, growing, competitive industry. Teenage books get grittier, deeper, sexier with each new release. They no longer pull any punches. When I was a teenager, Judy Blume’s Forever caused a huge controversy.

Now, old Judy pales in comparison to Twilight’s love scenes and The Hunger Games’ murders. And, in my humble opinion, that’s a good thing.

Teenagers have gritty, complicated lives. They deserve gritty, complicated books – although a little happy ending is never a bad thing. Teenagers have evolved, and their fiction has followed. It’s the only way that children’s books can continue to survive.

As modern culture changes, so do its children. Children in the current generation are exposed to more technology than ever before. Entertainment is immediate and disposable. Despite this, children still read books.

The invention of e-books and e-reading apps may have helped, but our children still read real, paper books. With all the other options available, this is nothing short of a miraculous achievement.

Or is it? We probably have the most diverse, richest, most talented pool of children’s writers active today. Their imaginations create the most enticing worlds, the funniest spoofs, the most daring adventures. Children just want to be entertained and, after all this time, a good book can still do it.

What do you think about the ever-evolving face of children’s literature? And will the likes of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter ever completely replace the classics?

Helen Dring

(Image via urbanworkbench)