Lately, I’ve been reading some fantasy literature, which I believe is often perceived as being aimed at children and adolescents, and I’ve been thinking about even more examples. It’s like… I have no idea how a children’s book is deemed a children’s book. What are the criteria for the classification? That the books deal with kiddie stuff? That the main characters are children?
I think that last thing is quite important to a lot of grown ups. These books that I’ve read lately, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and the Abarat by Clive Barker, mainly, have children or adolescents as their main characters. This of course, automatically targets them at audiences of that same age.
I’m not so sure.
One aspect of reading which is important to a lot of people is identification; is it at all possible for me as a reader to identify with at least one of the main characters? Preferably the main character, but some lesser being is quite alright too. Like, if you can’t identify with Harry, Hermione could work just as well.
Or can she?
See, the reasoning behind identification is often (and I’m rambling here, NOT being scientific, you'd better not dream of quoting) based on likeness. I identify with the person who’s the most like me. I.e., with Harry Potter, I ought to identify with the clever neurotic overachiever with large front teeth and bushy hair. Thing is – I don’t really want to do that. I’d much rather identify with someone who I can feel for, someone who doesn’t have all my worst sides. I like Ginny, for example. We’re not terribly similar at all… It’s like… You trekkers out there will be familiar with Wesley Crusher, I’m sure. You know, the rather annoying young man who constantly fucks up? The son of Dr. Crusher? There are whole web pages dedicated to scorning him. Apparently, he was put on the show for young viewers to have someone to identify with. Thing is – do you really want to identify with him? He grows nanites that put the ship at risk – well, to be honest, he repeatedly puts the ship at risk! – and he’s not really much use. He’s annoying (this is an aside: interestingly enough, the actor playing Wesley, Wil Wheaton, has risen to great hights in the blogger community. Oughtn’t the bloggers and the trekkers overlap quite a lot? Really? It’s interesting). Anyway: The younger viewers don’t want to identify with Wesley, they want to identify with Picard! I want to identify with Picard. So, a younger character doesn’t make the book a book for children.
Secondly, are the children really children? *slight spoiler warning* Both in Abarat and in His Dark Materials, the children are more than ordinary kids. *end of spoiler risk* The same in Narnia: The children are ordinary in our world, but in Narnia they are special because of their humanness. They lose their plainness. With His Dark Materials, I’d say that the children aren’t even very credible as children: Lyra’s close to superhumanly bright occasionally, and generally, the children of fantasy either have extraordinary powers (like Garion or are extraordinarily clever, like Lyra, or good, like Lucy. They’re not primarily children. Primarily, they’re super humans.
But: What does seem to be an important feature of all good children’s fiction – not only fantasy, mind you – is that there’s a moral, ethical, scientific and social depth which is mind boggling, and often missing in a lot of fiction aimed at adults. His Dark Materials is filled with quite advanced theology and physics, to say nothing of quantum physics and meta physics. Don’t even get me started on the theology of Narnia. The social realism of Abarat and of Mio, my Son is occasionally plain scary, and possibly not really suited for children. At least not without adult supervision. Seriously. Read the stuff as adults and think about it.
Anyway: Let’s just step away from that narrow classification of books into children’s fiction and adult fiction. There’s such depths there, and we miss out on so much if we dismiss something because we think it’s aimed at another age group.
This is not a way of avoiding to grow up. I love being grown up. This is a way of keeping my mind open, accessible and agile. I’m trying to avoid putting stuff in boxes and labelling it. I’m trying to keep my mind young.