A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager

Those of us who read, create, study, or teach children’s literature sometimes face skepticism from other alleged adults.  Why would adults take children’s books seriously?  Shouldn’t adults be reading adult books?

There are many responses to these questions:

  1. Children’s books are the most important books we read because they’re potentially the most influential books we read. Children’s books reach a young audience still very much in the process of becoming. They stand to make a deeper impression because their readers are much more impressionable.
  2. Adults who dismiss children’s literature neglect their responsibilities as parents, educators, and citizens. What future parents, teachers, doctors, construction workers, soldiers, leaders, and neighbors read is of the utmost importance, if for no other reason than some of us will continue to live in the world they inherit. If books leave such a powerful impression on young minds, then giving them good books is vital.
  3. Almost no children’s literature is written, illustrated, edited, marketed, sold, or taught by children. Adults — and adults’ idea of “children” — create children’s books. It’s profoundly hypocritical for an adult to suggest children’s literature as unworthy of adult attention. Indeed, adults who make such claims are either hypocrites, fools, or both.
  4. Children are as heterogeneous a group as adults are. There is no universal child, just as there is no universal adult. Defining the readership of any work of “children’s literature” is a tricky, sticky, complex task. Paradoxically and as the term itself indicates, “children’s literature” is defined by its audience — it’s for children. It thus a literature for an audience whose tastes, reading ability, socio-economic status, hobbies, health, culture, interests, gender, home life, and race varies widely. Children’s literature is literature for an unknowable, unquantifiable group. The very term “children’s literature” is a problem. Only someone who has never thought about children or what they read could argue that children’s literature does not merit serious consideration.
  5. Children’s literature has aesthetic value. Good children’s books are literature. Good picture books are portable art galleries. If we don’t take children’s literature seriously, then we diminish an entire art form and those who read it. We also prevent ourselves from being able to distinguish quality works from inferior ones — thus neglecting our responsibilities outlined in no. 2, above. This is not to suggest that we can or should all agree on what is a great children’s book. We can’t and we shouldn’t. What we can and should do is care about what makes children’s books bad or good, average or classic, banal or beautiful.

But my focus in this post is less on those preceding five points (or the many other points that could be added) and more on a sixth point: that children’s books have much to give those of us who are no longer children. There are levels of meaning we may have missed when we read the book as a child. There are experiences adults have that grant us interpretations unavailable to less experienced readers — just as children may arrive at interpretations unavailable to adults who have forgotten their own childhoods. In children’s books, there is art, wisdom, beauty, melancholy, hope, and insight for readers of all ages.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverWhat inspires me to make this sixth claim is that I have no memory of reading Harold and the Purple Crayon as a child. As an adult, I created a website devoted to the book’s creator, Crockett Johnson, and wrote a biography of Johnson and his wife, fellow-children’s book writer Ruth Krauss. But the book that inspired both website and biography is completely absent from my memories of early childhood.

The book does appear in memories of those memories. In eighth grade, when I had long since “graduated” into reading chapter books, my mother got a job teaching at a private school, thus enabling my sister and I to attend the school for free. Once a week (or was it once a month?), there was a faculty meeting after the end of the school day. During that meeting, my sister and I were left alone in the school library to do our homework. She did her homework. I did not. Instead, I wandered over to the picture books and began reading them. There, I rediscovered Harold and the Purple Crayon, a book I then remembered fondly from my pre-school days. I also realized that there were other books about Harold — Harold’s Trip to the Sky, Harold’s ABC. Had I read these other Harold stories when I was younger? I wasn’t sure. But I knew they were just as enchanting as the first Harold book.

So, at the age of 14 — an age when you might expect a person to be reading Young Adult novels — I began to collect paperbacks of Crockett Johnson’s Harold books.

I don’t know what needs were fulfilled by those particular words and pictures. Perhaps it was the books’ presentation of the imagination as a source of power and possibility. Maybe Harold’s iconic, clear-line style better enabled me to identify with him as he, and his crayon, navigated an uncertain, emerging landscape.

For that matter, I don’t know why, as a freshman in college, I adopted as my bedtime reading A. A. Milne’s The World of Pooh and The World of Christopher Robin. (The former contains both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner; the latter collects all the verse from When We Were Very Young and Now We are Six.)

My point is that books “for children” can speak to people of all ages and backgrounds — if we are ready to listen. It’s hard to predict when or why we will be ready to listen. It is indeed dangerous to assume that recommended age-ranges on the backs of books will tell us anything about who may read those books. When I read and re-read the Harold stories at age 14, the books did not then have age ranges on them, though I note that a more recent copy of Harold’s Fairy Tale claims it’s for “Ages 3 to 8.” As Philip Pullman has said of his own work,

I did not intend the book for this age, and not that; for one class of reader, and not others. I wrote it for anyone who wants to read it, and I want as many readers as I can get, and I want to meet them honestly…. For a book to claim “This was written for children of 11+”, when it simply wasn’t, is to tell an untruth.

Exactly.

Books “for children” or “for teenagers” are books for all who are ready to listen to them. They are for all who recognize that art cannot be confined within such narrow labels.

17 Comments »

  1. Celia keenan Said,

    April 28, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

    This is so useful to the study of children’s literature.

  2. Steven Withrow Said,

    April 28, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    Beyond simple nostalgia, I would add that the “grown-up” appeal of children’s books lies in how well a story’s central metaphors speak to adults and children alike. Simply put, Harold and Winnie-the-Pooh remain apt metaphors for adult struggles and desires.

    However, as with most “adult” characters, children’s book characters are often much more specialized–they are more *mimetic* than metaphorical in that they represent a specific and limited set of human actions rather than a broader spectrum of human experience.

    My seven-year-old, for instance, adores the Junie B. Jones books, though I doubt she will return to those books two years from now. This in itself doesn’t make Junie an inferior character, but we quickly move beyond her primary concerns, whereas we might never outgrow what Harold or Pooh or Max and the Wild Things signify.

  3. Perry Nodelman Said,

    April 28, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

    That I have serious trouble with your no. 4 probably won’t come as a surprise, to you or anyone else, Phil. Otherwise, though, a clear and sound statement of some important concerns.

  4. Philip Nel Said,

    April 28, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

    Thanks, all, for your comments.

    Perry: In addition to your critique, I would also add that a more scholarly manifesto would cite others who have addressed these issues (such as you, Rose, Shavit, Bev Clark, & so on). Another critique I might add involves the brief time I spent on this (wrote it in one sitting this morning, then edited it, & posted it). But thanks again for the comment — glad it seems mostly “clear and sound” to you.

    Steven: Good point about characters serving as “apt metaphors for adult struggles and desires.”

  5. Robin Bernstein Said,

    April 28, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

    Beautifully said, Phil. I agree 100%, and I’ll add another reason: children’s literature deserves serious study because it is a unique source of evidence about historically-located cultures. Children’s books are sites where adults, in their diversity, speak to children, in their diversity, who in turn find an infinite number of ways to speak back and to speak further. All these interactions are intensely interesting and historically important.

  6. Philip Nel Said,

    April 28, 2013 @ 8:35 pm

    Thanks, Robin! Your comment gives me an idea. People might use this space to add other points to the manifesto. I wrote 6 points. You and Steven Withrow have written a 7th and 8th. I’m up for as many numbered points as people want to add.

  7. Roswitha Said,

    April 28, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

    Philip/Perry,

    I would like to know what the point of contention is on #4. Would one of you mind clarifying?

    I really enjoyed the post and the comments.

    -Avid lover of children’s and YA literature

  8. Virginia Lowe Said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 3:18 am

    I really enjoyed this, but was also puzzled by your criticism with point 4, Perry.
    As adults we have to read it to our children anyway, but it gives endless pleasure. Quoting AA Milne was standard in our family – in a way no adult book ever was – some exchanged quotes from Shakespeare of course, and the other ‘Great Poets’ we adults had learned by heart as children, but only children’s literature was quoted and re-quoted. And of course, went into the children’s vocabulary as well. So satisfying.

  9. jill Carter-Hansen Said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 4:12 am

    One Christmas – a very long time ago in years and yet as yesterday in my head, I pulled a gift from the christmas sock pinned precariously to my bedding. (I always received books as a child) but on opening this one a sickening realisation overwhelmed me – as a child approaching eight I had moved into the land WHERE BOOKS NO LONGER HAD PICTURES! I have never forgotten that moment.

    Now, as a published writer and illustrator, I fall into the land of picture books with the sense that I am working for both an adult and child “audience” And yes, I purposely don’t use the word “reader” For to me a children’s book is also an experience-something to fall into, (like Alice) to discover and share with someone you love, and if there is magic there, it is a place that can be returned to over and over and is never forgotten.

    Not all children’s books do this for me, but probably each of us are drawn to the things that “speak” to us at different times, for different reasons. And it would take many pages to define all of these.

  10. Perry Nodelman Said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    In response to concerns about my problems with Phil’s no. 4, here’s a quick summary of them
    First, while real children may be a heterogeneous lot, the audiences for the texts adults write for children are significantly less so. The readers these texts imply tend to share many characteristics with each other, and as as result, the texts tend to be less heterogeneous than we might like to believe they are. While there are certainly exceptions, and certainly differences in texts for young people written in different times and places, I am convinced there is a core of consistent traits that do in fact tend to define or at least characterize children’s literature–traits that emerge from the basic situation of writers producing texts for someone centrally understood as being younger than themselves, in a ways that demands that older people write their books for them. (See my book The Hidden Adult.)
    Second, I think it’s really important for those of us who enjoy, admire and like to think about children’s literature not to lose sight of that fact: if it’s enjoyable and interesting, it is not because it is like other kinds of enjoyable or interesting literature, but exactly because it is different in a characteristic way, and offering distinct and characteristic kinds of pleasure that we surely ought to be working at understanding better. We can certainly celebrate what is unique about unique texts–but I think it’d be sad if we totally lost sight of what even the most unusual texts of children’s literature have in common with the rest of children’s literature.
    Third, I worry about the ways in which our insistence that writing for young people is just plan old good literature like all the other good literature might come, as Phil seems to suggest, from our own embarrassment about our pleasure in such texts and the disdain that other adults, especially other literary scholars, express for them. I feel no such embarrassment. I think children’s literature has to offer adult readers much exactly in and for the ways it differs from texts written for adults–adults brave enough not to care if other literary scholars think their interest is a sign of simplemindedness.
    Fourth, I worry that the current trend in children’s literature studies seems to be an insistence on the importance of their adult audiences, on views of the literature as cross-writing, on the insistence in many essays I’ve been reading that the fact these texts were written for children matters less than what they reveal of their historical contexts or some other aspect of their significance for adults. Phil’s point no. 2 above is a refreshing (and in the current context, unusual) insistence that a main goal of children’s literature scholarship might be the long-range effect of the work we children’s lit scholars do on the lives of actual living children. Too many people want to dismiss that goal as not being purely academic enough to be academically respectable–which I think is just self-regarding hooey.

  11. Liz Parrott Said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

    I wear a “Harold and the Purple Crayon” tee shirt sometimes. Almost every time I wear it an adult stranger comes up to me and says “I loved that book!”

  12. Philip Nel Said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 6:31 pm

    Thanks, Perry, for taking the time to respond.

    Let me preface this comment by saying that everyone should read Perry’s The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature for a more complete discussion of what he outlines above. The book tries to get at the core (or cores) of what makes a children’s book a children’s book. In it, he finds consistent features of children’s literature, such as having “central characters [who] are childlike beings,” and as its “main concern … the meaning and value of being childlike as understood by adults” (243). And “It is a plot-oriented literature that shows rather than tells” (243), and many other features, most of which are in some way qualified or ambivalent. It’s a brave, thoughtful attempt to clarify what I seem to evade in point 4 above — just what makes children’s literature qualify as children’s literature?

    It’s a great answer to a slippery question.

    To respond to Perry’s comments above, I would argue with his suggestion that “our insistence that writing for young people is just plan old good literature like all the other good literature might come, as Phil seems to suggest, from our own embarrassment about our pleasure in such texts and the disdain that other adults, especially other literary scholars, express for them.” I don’t experience embarrassment when I read children’s books. Children’s literature offers a comparable range of emotional and aesthetic experiences to what we find in literature for grown-ups, even though children’s literature is read by people with less experience of many kinds. For this reason, readers of different ages, different degrees of aesthetic experience, different kinds of emotional experience will receive different meanings from the work. And that’s why I make the comparison to literature that’s ostensibly “for” grown-ups — even though, of course, some children will read those “adult” books, too.

    I also find myself resisting claims about children’s literature having such clearly identifiable traits because, as Zohar Shavit has pointed out, the children’s books that become “classics” tend to be those that break the “rules,” that include combinations of genres that had heretofore not been combined. She reads Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a hybrid of the adventure story, nonsense literature, and fantasy — all of which existed prior to Alice, but the novel combination of which produced Carroll’s classic book. If children’s literature’s exemplars tend to be generically exceptional, then I find myself struggling with Perry’s claim that children’s literature is a genre. On the other hand, as Amy J. Devitt has argued, genre itself is not reducible to a fixed set of formal features, but rather is unstable, always evolving. If we’re thinking in Devitt’s sense of the term, then I could be persuaded by Perry’s that children’s literature is a genre — but precisely because this understanding of genre acknowledges the impossibility of ever fully codifying generic features.

    Having said that, I admire Perry’s thorough, thoughtful answer to the question — an answer which, as I mention above, contains its share of ambivalent, qualified claims. And I realize that my hastily written manifesto (above) should be more carefully theorized. But I stand by (or, since it’s been a long day, maybe sit by) my claim that the key term in “children’s literature” — “children’s” — brings us to a highly heterogenous category. “Children” encompasses a range of ages, different sexes and sexualities, varying socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, changing tastes, and so on. For me, at least, I’m more comfortable mapping the term “children’s literature” as a problem than I am in offering something like Perry’s definition.

    My answer may be less satisfying than Perry’s, and likely derives from (among other things) the fact that I know less than he does. I’ve been in the field for a shorter period of time, and have read fewer primary and secondary texts in the field. My answer may well change over time. Indeed, I do not agree with everything I’ve published. Each thing I write represents my best understanding at that moment, but as I learn new things my thinking changes. So, for instance, my latest (and as yet unpublished) essay on Dr. Seuss takes a more complex look at issues of race in his work, and — in so doing — departs from my earlier work on the political Seuss. At some point, I may look back on this blog post and think, “Darn it. Perry was right!”

    However, at present, I’m sticking to my (purely metaphorical) guns.

    Thanks for the conversation, everyone! Feel free to dismantle my comments here or in the manifesto, of course. Glad to have the conversation continue.

  13. Aaron Kashtan Said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

    Thank you for the brilliant post, Phil.

    I don’t know if Perry’s point about embarrassment is true about scholars of children’s literature, but I think it may well be true about comics scholars. As a comics scholar, I feel that many of us in the field have internalized a certain sense of embarrassment about the supposedly childish and low-cultural nature of our object of study. And we feel we have to justify our decision to study comics by claiming that comics can be just as sophisticated and literary as books without pictures.

  14. Gloria Hardman Said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

    I’m proud and happy to take credit for introducing Phil to Harold. I found Harold and the Purple Crayon in the Lynnfield public library which was a favorite place for us to visit. Phil was about three or four years old and he certainly enjoyed the book, but it went back to the library and the memory must have drifted away.

    I was delighted when he rediscovered Harold and embarked on the research and writing of the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.

    Gloria a.k.a Phil’s Mom

  15. Rosanne Parry Said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing your manifesto, Phil. As ever, good food for thought. Here’s my point to add to your list.

    Adults should continue to read children’s books because the concerns of childhood do not leave us when we reach our legal majority. The essential questions about the world and our place in it continue life-long. What are my talents and how should I use them? Who will be a be a good companion to me and how can I be a good companion to another? What is the just response in this situation and why should I care? I haven’t out grown these concerns. I hope I never do. My mother died unexpectedly a month ago today, and I’m finding this moment in my adult life as much a coming of age as any first trip to summer camp or boarding school. I read plenty of adult literature, plays, essays, and poetry, but there isn’t a single adult novel that I recall from a lifetime of reading that would comfort and support me in this moment. But there are plenty of children’s books that have nourishing things to say. Because all these years later, Pooh still has his Kanga, and Harold and his crayon are drawing their way back home to his own warm and safe bedroom.

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