“Children’s” Books?

Jack Zipes claims there is no such thing as children’s literature. And I believe him. One of the reasons he says that is that, according to him, the greatest readership of so-called children’s books is comprised of adults – mothers, teachers, librarians, students of children’s literature… (and, to boot, most of those adults are female. Which makes you think right there.).

And when I think of the books/movies I’m studying right now, that’s exactly what is the case for me. Not one of them did I read in my childhood. I discovered Narnia in a German translation when I was fourteen, not really a child any more (we had a copy of The Magician’s Nephew since I was little, but I really didn’t like it, so didn’t read it, let alone seek out the other books in the series). The Oz stories I found in my twenties; I can’t remember if I watched the movie first or read the books first, but I certainly hadn’t encountered the story earlier than that. (Contrary to what some of the gushing Oz fans are saying, the movie is not “one of the best-known movies worldwide” – I’d never heard of it until I came to Canada, and was surprised to find, a couple of weeks ago, that a German-language version has existed since the 30’s. It’s not a best-loved movie, it’s an almost-unknown movie outside of Anglo realms. But they only dubbed the dialogue, not the songs, which might explain the lack of appeal to non-English audiences.) And of course Harry Potter is a very recent phenomenon; I was thirty when it first came out.

So none of those “beloved children’s stories” I’m studying are actually stories of my childhood. Now, that has quite a bit to do with the fact that they are English stories, and I grew up in Germany. But still – I think even among English-speaking people I’m probably not alone. The Wizard of Oz movie – sure, a lot of Anglos grew up with it on TV once a year. But I bet there are many, many Oz and Narnia lovers who came to that love fairly late in life. C. S. Lewis, in his essays on children’s literature and fairy tales, says similar things – he came to love fairy tales as an adult; they were not a cherished childhood memory of his.

And furthermore: early-twentieth-century American kids might have grown up with Oz – the books were immensely popular; many children expected the new Oz book under the Christmas tree every year – but I doubt that that familiarity with the written version is the case for later-twentieth- or twenty-first-century kids. I did a casual survey among my friends, and most of them had not read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – but almost all of them knew the movie (except for a Russian friend, who loved the books and had always thought they were originally Russian, but had not heard of the film). So much for Oz, the “children’s books”. I think today, it’s the movies that shape our knowledge of the stories, and my guess is that that holds true even for the much-touted saviour of children’s reading behaviour, the Harry Potter books. It would be interesting to do a survey of kids in five years or so – will they know Harry from having read the books, or watched the DVD’s? My bet is going to be on the movies.


6 thoughts on ““Children’s” Books?

  1. I had read somewhere that “children’s literature” is really just literature that is good enough for people to love, starting in childhood and going right through the life span. It takes real talent to be able to reach an all-age audience! I believe I learned in my children’s lit course at SFU that really great writing and story-telling is accessible to everyone. I discovered The Secret Garden as an adult – I really wished I had discovered it in childhood because I felt it would have “shored” me up well during that more vulnerable phase of life.


    • I don’t mind not having “found” those books til I was older. As I said, when I was a young kid, I didn’t *like* Narnia – in fact, as a child, I had different tastes than when I got older. I read very little fantasy, from what I remember, although I did always like fairy tales. I probably wouldn’t have liked Oz even if I had had it available to read at 8 or 10.


  2. It’s interesting when you consider what children’s literature is in terms of the end reader. Where did Zipes say this? I’ve been reading his Fairy Tales and The Art of Subversion and I’d like to read more by him, he’s a very interesting guy.


    • I first read it in “The Irresistable Fairy Tale” (the 2nd ed. from 2002; I don’t remember if it’s in the 1st ed. from 1979), but he goes more indepth about it in “Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature From Slovely Peter to Harry Potter” (that’s 2002 as well). Zipes was/is incredibly prolific, and all his books are so interesting! I haven’t got through half of them yet.


      • Oh, sorry – it’s not “The Irresistable Fairy Tale”, but “Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales”, the 2002 second ed. Getting my Zipes titles mixed up. 🙂


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