It may seem strange to think that there is some question as to what constitutes a children’s book for many after all this would seem like a question with an obvious answer. A children’s book was after all created for children. However Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain one of the books considered to be classical children’s literature was originally intended for adults and as indeed received some past censorship because of how interpret it was considered for children. The Grimm’s fairy tales also where written initially for adults, yet they where bought for children. This situation of children taking over what was supposed to be an book for adults has led to many problems. After all society then complains that the story was not appropriate for children, and so attacks to book. Further the book not being appropriate for children perhaps does cause some social problems. Yet we still seem to consider many such books as children’s literature.
Why is it books written for adults become children’s books? Or at least books read by children. Although it is perhaps impossible to state all the reasons for this situation, I would forward three theories on ways in which this can occur.
The first reason is that a book offers a fantastic reality, an imaginative story, children like such stories and so for whatever reason it is presumed that such imaginativeness is in the realm of children’s literature. This could for example be the case with Gulliver’s Travels and of course the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In many ways I would argue it’s sad that if a story is fun and imaginative it is automatically pushed off into the realm of children. Not that children’s literature is lesser, indeed this imaginativeness has helped in many ways to make it superior to that created for adults. Rather it is sad that adults do not presume that such creative genius is worth more of their time.
Another reason which a book might become children’s literature is that it is about a child, for some reason a child character makes people automatically assume a child should read it, as if they are the only ones who can relate to a child. This is a ridiculous notion of course, we where all children and besides of which all such books where written by intelligent adults.
The final reason I will propose is that many books and works of art intended for adults become children’s as a means of expanding their reach or extending their life. This is why for example one will find the works of Jane Austen in the children’s literature section at the book store with a little charm.
This still does not answer the question of what is children’s literature. Part of the problem here may be that we have not yet truly defined the question, broad questions have broad answers. The question may be what should parents have their children read, or what should educators and those studying children’s literature study in order to learn about the impact of literature on children? In the case of the first question the answer is in regards to the parents beliefs and their kids reaction to things. If a parent does not believe their kid should be exposed to something then it does not constitute children’s literature for that kid. This definition of course makes the whole field of children’s books very difficult as there are so many differing views on what is acceptable for children to read.
However this problem would beg the question, is the purpose of the definition to help people study children’s literature or to help parents decide which books their kids can read? In the case of the purpose for study children’s literature would constitute all books which children regularly read. After all the purpose of study is to determine what is acceptable to read and what impact such readings have on children, as will as ways to make future books better. For this purpose to be effective all books which children read must be included.
Part of the difficulty of course with determining what constitutes children’s literature is that there is some debate as to what children are.
After all different cultures have at times believed many different things about children. However I would point out that this in and of itself is exactly the point, childhood is viewed as different by different cultures. It is then a cultural definition, one which our society can answer and change. Certainly it is difficult for people to accept this idea, and for many the idea that the culture determines someone’s role is tantamount to prejudice, however when it comes to defining a state and an impact we are indeed looking at cultural variables. One cannot for example assume that a picture book based on the Impressionist style, and with Swedish Motifs would have the same impact on Americans as it does Japanese or Swedes. It is culture which determines the role literature plays in our lives so it is through a cultures definitions of something that that thing should be defined. Further accepting one cultures definition of what defines children and not another’s is prejudice.
In American culture this definition of child has been constructed in a way as Minors to the age of 18, however not all of these ages are considered children per say, they are teenagers, pre-teens, Elementary, Preschool, Toddlers and more. However as a society we have defined these groups and so a wish to understand their demographic must begin with the societies definitions of them. Arguing that a culture is wrong is often a mute point, just as literature is a social construct many of the emotions and impact surrounding it are too.
Children’s literature then according to my definition and the definition which will be found throughout this site is literature which impacts directly through reading a fairly decent percentage of the population which is considered children by the culture it is from.
Or in the case of cross-cultural analysis such impacts will extend to ages determined by the culture with the oldest children or the largest definition of them. Why? Because in many cases especially historical ones children where considered adults fairly young, yet if we want to compare differences in impact between 8 year olds we must study both sets of 8 year olds. It is important to stress that this is not a means to push one cultures definition on another it is merely a research construct intended to help study literature, so that we can better understand its impact.
Ty Hulse has degree’s in art and psychology with both with a children’s and a cross-cultural focus. He is currently working to create the site Zeluna.net which discusses Children’s Literature and Picture Books, as will as Fairy Tales.