What Are Children?
November 14, 2009 by 26 Comments
I‘m still pondering our discussion of LIPS TOUCH . . .
FROM CHILDHOOD TO ADOLESENCE
The Newbery criteria famously leave the term "distinguished" vaguely defined so that (a) each committee can strive toward a working definition and because (b) it allows for flexibility should notions of what constitutes distinguished literature change over the course of time.
Similarly, I think that the term "children" is left somewhat vague. The Newbery criteria tell us that children are defined as persons up to and including fourteen. Each committee wrestles with the books at the upper end of the range and whether they appeal to "children."
Nina makes an excellent point–
No fourteen year old is fully and only "childlike" or "young adult." . . . Consider the competing dynamics in the brain of a thirteen or fourteen year old. What in them is still a thumb-sucker, or, better, still the person-COMING-of-age…and what in them is the COME-of-age, jaded, adult. Can’t we ask that the Newbery speak to the COMING, not COME of age audience within each potential individual thirteen/fourteen year old reader?
Childhood to young adulthood is a transition, a gradual process that has no precise demarcation line (such as the physical onset of puberty) . . A young person in that cross-over zone–ages 12 to 14–may be a child one moment, hour, or day and a young adult the next moment, hour, and day in psychological needs, in perspective, and in interests. And . . . the very same book may be read differently by a ‘child’ who is 12 from the reading by a ‘young adult’ who is 12.
AS CHILDHOOD CHANGES THROUGH THE YEARS
Here’s something further to consider: Do you think that the nature of childhood has changed over time? And if so, how has our view of child appeal changed to accomodate it? For example, In her book of essays and speeches, TALKTALK, E.L. Konigsburg writes—
As I was growing up, I always had the feeling that I understood a lot more than I knew. When I listen to my grandchildren, I think they know a lot more than they understand. The difference is exposure. Even before starting school, they see more and hear more than I did as a high-school graduate. Perhaps, saying overseen more and overheard more is a better expression because they have been exposed to a great panorama on a very small scale. Their big world is a small place–the size of a television screen. My small world was a big place–my neighborhood.
Nowadays we might replace the idea of the television with that of the computer. In any case, the aformentioned Eliza Dresang wrote in her book, RADICAL CHANGE, about how the digital era has literally changed the way children read.
But how else have children changed now that they are exposed to coarser language, more violent imagery, and sexual innuendo? Are there other changes in society, say the prevlance of single parent families or families with two parents of the same gender, that may affect childhood and, by extension, our view of child appeal? What about taboo experiences of children such as abuse (sexual, physical, verbal, emotional), the onset of puberty that often happens in the elementary grades, or the sexual experimentation that often begins in middle school and junior high? How do shifts in cultural mores and values inform how we judge whether a book displays respect for children’s understanding, abilities, and appreciations?
WHEN THE CHILD HAS ALREADY COME OF AGE
More food for thought: Do you think there are parts of our being that are fully developed as children, that have already come of age? I’m not talking about the physical changes of puberty (although those can often begin in childhood). No, I’m talking about something like imagination. In her book of essays and speeches, DREAMS AND WISHES, Susan Cooper writes—
I don’t know whether anyone has ever tried to chart the chronological development of the imagination, but I would guess that it’s fully grown by about the age of six. Or at the very latest, eight. It’s formed by then, it will not get larger, or more lively, or more responsive. Age and education and experience can direct it and feed it, but they won’t alter its quality . . . That is the fundamental link between the child and the so-called children’s author. One full-grown imagination is speaking to another.
In the preface to ENDER’S GAME, Orson Scott Card writes (and I don’t have the book on hand to quote verbatim) that he forced his readers to consider the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of these boys as if they were very real. Card further writes that he never felt like he was less of a person simply because he was child. He never felt like his thoughts, feelings, and emotions were somehow less developed, less important, less real. And I would agree with him: I think there is a part of our consciousness that knows that even as children we are people, first and foremost. So I also think in addition to imagination there is a part of our consciousness that is also mature beyond its years.
I quoted Cooper and alluded to Card at the beginning of my article, "Epic Fantasy Meets Sequel Prejudice," because I think, for these very reasons, that fantasy readers tend to ignore marketing decisions: children read Tolkien; adults read Rowling. Indeed, in a recent SLJ interview Terry Pratchett took this same view–
I write what I prefer to call fantasy fiction, even if it is pretty short, in some cases, on the classic fantasy ingredients. I take the view that fantasy fiction for children and fantasy fiction for adults are the same genre. I know adults read my children’s books and children read my adult books.
PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR CHILD APPEAL
What does all this mean for the current fantasy books? Will thirteen- and fourteen-year–olds read FIRE by Kristin Cashore? Most assuredly. But the main character is sexually active and that (along with the page count, perhaps) hampers our view of this as a Newbery book. The sexuality in LIPS TOUCH is much more teasing, more tantalizing, more mysterious. I think most of us would find it much more appropriate for a child audience. Ditto for CATCHING FIRE which Nina already discussed.
And what does it mean for books with a contemporary setting? What about books like WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson and MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD by Francisco Stork? Fourteen-year-old readers? Yes, but again I think most of us would gladly cede these to the Printz committee for recognition. What about STITCHES? Leaving aside the problematic aspect of the text-picture relationship, and acknowleding that it probably has a snowball’s chance in you-know-where, I think STITCHES speaks much more to childhood than WINTERGIRLS or MARCELO does.
If we cannot measure the maturity of our imagination in terms of age then what about our curiosity? I’ve found that children can be insatiable when it comes to learning about something that fascinates them. The key, of course, is that that have to be fascinated. Thus, readers who want to learn about black widow spiders will devour everything they can get their hands on, regardless of whether it’s marketed for children or adults. But try to get them to read a nonfiction book on something they don’t find inherently interesting? Well, good luck, no matter how well written. So I think that the audience for nonfiction, too, is defined by interest rather than age. One full-grown curiosity is speaking to another.
What can we say about the child audience of CHARLES AND EMMA? It may be interested in Charles Darwin. It may be interested in evolution. It may be interested in science. It may be interested in romance. But one thing’s for sure: it’s smart and savvy and intellectual.
For me, then, FIRE, WINTERGIRLS, and MARCELO, however excellent they may be, are too old for the Newbery, while STITCHES, LIPS TOUCH, CATCHING FIRE, and CHARLES AND EMMA all appeal to fourteen-year-olds as "children." But whether they are sufficiently distinguished and whether I could build consensus around them at the Newbery table are entirely different matters.