Should we distinguish between adult’s and children’s literature? Or is a good book a good book, be it for children or their parents?
I remember reading Orwell’s “Animal Farm” when I was too small to understand most of it. I missed all of the parallels with the USSR (I probably didn’t know what the USSR was at the time) but I still enjoyed it, and I still understood something. I felt the story slide from the perfect animal democracy to something wrong, something distorted – I wouldn’t have been able to explain it, but it didn’t stop me from taking something from it.
There has always been a permeable border between children’s and adult’s fiction – Philipp Pullman springs to mind. A lot of fantasy sits across both genres: Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series contain both books for children and for adults. The closing book in the series is a book for children, even if the series started as, and contains, many books for adults. His adult fans read his children’s fiction quite happily – the only differences are the absence of sex-jokes and swearing. Pullman doesn’t even bother with such trimming: “The Subtle Knife” opens with a torture scene, and both violence and sex are explicit themes throughout “His Dark Materials”.
In the same way, adaptations sometimes carry a story across the border of adult/children categorization. For example, “The Eagle of the Ninth” is a historical adventure novel for children by Rosemary Sutcliff, but it was adapted into an adult action film entitled “The Eagle”. Both were enjoyable, albeit different.
All of this being said, I do feel some books are inappropriate for children, in the same way some films are. I remember my mum forbidding me to read Frederic Beigbeder’s “99 Francs” as child. When I finally read it several years later, I was grateful for it. As a younger reader, it would have shocked me. I don’t think it would have been a nice read, only the source of nightmares.
So how do you find the perfect balance? Why did Pullman’s writing never shock me, whereas I’m pretty sure Beigbeder’s would have?
Maybe it’s a question of subject – some subjects might simply not be appropriate for children. But I’m not sure that solves the problem. Some children live through difficult experiences, and it’s important for these experiences to be reflected in the stories they read. If children are going through something horrible, shielding them from it in books isn’t going to provide them with a solution, only with more isolation. The YA author Joyce Carol Oates explores murder, suicidal thoughts and child abuse in her books. Her solution to this is to write around the main issue, leaving the gaps to bleed.
Another element which I feel makes an important distinction is the narrator. An unreliable narrator, which is neither nice nor well-meaning, seems to me to be reserved to adult fiction. It might be difficult for children to understand why the author is writing against them rather than for them – unreliable narrators might be an acquired taste. As a child it might be perceived as frightening or intrusive.
So there is a gap between children’s and adult’s fiction, but it isn’t a clear-cut, obvious line. Up to a point, I believe it depends on how explicit the story is and how much children of all ages can understand. I’m thinking of adult jokes hidden in all-audience movies – sometimes an adult theme can be placed in the centre of a children’s story, constructed in such a way as they don’t notice it. As long as the subject is treated with intelligence, I feel children can grapple with it.
And of course adults are always able to go back to their childhood stories and enjoy them.