When Penelope Lively was interviewed by Emma Donoghue in 2003, the author was tickled to have her books for children acknowledged; her writing for children was routinely dismissed and she explained that she now felt quite distanced from it.
The news of this dismissal shocked me because I came of age with The House in Norham Gardens, A Stitch in Time and The Voyage of QV66. Penelope Lively wrote loads of books for children, not an occasional volume but a substantial body-of-work.
Her novels weren’t necessarily formative reads for me, but they contained themes that underscored my experience of the world: a belief that certain truths resonated across time, a sense that the impossible became possible in the context of a trusted alliance, and that compassion was a fundamentally important value.
These are serious ideas. And to learn that a writer I admired had had her work systematically dismissed because she was including younger readers in her audience first appalled and then saddened me.
And, yet, with some notable exceptions, I have not, as an adult reader, kept pace with the world of children’s literature and the raging developments in YA.
Like many young readers in the 1970s, much of what I understood about the complexities of relationships (between individuals, between races, between ethnic groups) was thanks to Judy Blume novels.
Not that I was directed to read Blubber, Iggie’s House, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, or Tiger’s Eye to understand bullying, racism, Anti-Semitism, or divorce. These were books that I plucked off the shelf because I loved the characters and the stories which surrounded them.
And yet there were a handful of books that I knew were about important things: Barbara Smucker’s Underground to Canada, Sandra Scoppetone’s Happy Endings Are Not All Alike, Deborah Hautzig’s Hello, Dollface and the anonymously penned Go Ask Alice.
I did reread these books, too, but not as rigorously as I reread my Judy Blumes, or other favourites. Now, however, they stand out in my mind as having been about subjects that were not discussed in school (or subjects which were treated in shameful isolation, like that dreaded sixth grade lecture on sexuality, which didn’t contain half the answers that Judy Blume’s Forever held between its covers).
It’s true that some books which were marketed primarily towards adults were available to me as a young reader, like Norma Klein’s Sunshine (which considered terminal illness) and Mary McCracken’s books about the children she encountered in her practice as a social worker (which addressed abuse and neglect).
But on the shelves of the children’s library – in which only picture books were segregated, so that the adventures of Mrs Pepperpot and Thornton Wilder’s nature stories cozied up with the likes of Paul Zindel and Lois Duncan – I did not encounter a variety of books which addressed serious matters like suicide, teen pregnancy, war, mental illness, eating disorders, homelessness, prostitution, and crime.
Perhaps it is simply a matter of perception and awareness. Perhaps this is more a result of depending on the shelves of small-town libraries rather than actual availability. But it seems like the landscape has altered fundamentally and I have a lot of reading to catch up on.
This hit home when I discovered Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars a few years ago. Published in 1989, it considers the horrors of WWII from the perspective of a 10-year-old girl: something I learned a little about from Judy Blume (of course) and The Diary of Anne Frank (and as a teen, memoirs by Aranka Siegal and Johanna Reiss and one by Fannie Fénelon which I scored from my grandmother’s shelves after watching the made-for-TV movie).
Adolf Hitler did not appear on the pages of the books I brought home from the library as a girl. Now there are stories like Rebecca Upjohn’s The Secret of the Village Fool (2012), illustrated by Renné Benoit. There are chapter books like those in Second Story Press’ Holocaust Remembrance Series and Karen Levine’s Hana’s Suitcase. Standalone works like John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas are now taught in some schools: young readers can turn to a variety of stories to be educated on this war.
There are volumes in the reference section of the children’s library devoted to cataloguing books on particular themes of interest, websites with a similar intent showcase favoured titles by theme (like this one), and sites like GoodReads and LibraryThing allow readers to search by subject and make recommendations for you; it doesn’t take much to accumulate a substantial list of titles on any given theme.
And, so, I have to wonder: did I become one of those adults who ceased to take writing for children seriously? Just when those writers were taking on more serious matters than ever before?
When I asked other readers for recommendations, I received such a wide variety of suggestions that what started as a week-long reading project has stretched across several months and, now, I realize that my reading habits have actually changed.
From books by Christopher Paul Curtis to a series by Scott Westerfeld: kidlit is serious stuff.
Next up in this series: books about saving the world and dealing with difference. (And, yes, it’s probably time to hunt down some of those treasured Penelope Lively volumes too.)
Did you grow up reading books about serious matters? Are there books written for children and teens in your reading stacks? Do you take kidlit seriously?