Kidlit, Seriously

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.

Wellworn Blubber

Yes, the spine is peeling. And that stain is permanent.

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?



  1. Vasilly February 8, 2014 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    I love this post! I grew up reading The Giver and Number the Stars. There was also Dicey’s Sing by Cynthia Vioght, Daphne’s Book by Mary Downing Hahn, and Anne on My Mind by Nancy Garden. I still own copies of these books that talked about parents who abandoned their children, foster care, and even GLBTQ issues.

    I take my kidlit very seriously. I love it and most of the books I read every year are from that genre.

    Did you ever read Iggie’s House by Judy Blume? It wasn’t one of my favorites but it’s one of her books that I remember the most.

    I can’t wait to read your next kidlit post.

    • Buried In Print February 10, 2014 at 5:04 pm - Reply

      Dicey’s Song was wonderful; it’s one of the few favourites that I haven’t reread, but I think it would be worth revisiting. I don’t know Daphne’s Book, but it looksl ike one that I would have loved too: bookish, y’know! I’ve yet to read Annie on My Mind.

      I remember getting Iggie’s House at the same time as I got Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, which I reread many times and yet I don’t remember when I first read it, but I vividly remember my first reading of Iggie’s House. It wasn’t one of my faves either, but in the mix with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Deenie, the ones that I read a couple of times but didn’t revisit reguarly.

  2. olduvai February 7, 2014 at 5:50 pm - Reply

    Oh! A Stitch in Time! It’s written by Penelope Lively?? Ok I just had a flashback to my childhood… I remember that we had this book on our bookshelves at home. I remember it had something to do with fossils and the seaside, but that’s about it. I did not know it was Penelope Lively! Ok I have to go see if my library has it now. Wow.

    Other than that fascinating revelation, I really enjoyed reading your post. It made me think back on what I used to read as a kid. Definitely a lot of Judy Blume (Forever will always stick in my mind as a book that opened my eyes!). Enid Blyton was always a staple, whether it was Willow Farm or Mallory Towers or the Faraway Tree! I remember around the age of 11-12 I started reading Christopher Pike’s books. I think the first one I ever bought was Chain Letter. Haha! Other books that suddenly pop up as I’m reminiscing include picture books from New Zealand! My dad worked for an American firm and became good friends with an Australian couple, who had a niece my age who lived -and still lives – in Wellington. So we were pen pals for many years and her mum would send us, among other things, books that told of New Zealand myths and such. I wonder if we still have them?!

    I have only recently read Lois Lowry but I was wowed by her Giver series – apparently a movie is being made, starring Meryl Streep.

    Ok I think my comment is so long that it ought to be a post….

    • Buried In Print February 7, 2014 at 6:09 pm - Reply

      She does love her archaeological bits and bobs; I hope your library has a copy (she is hard to find in e-books I’ve noticed).

      And I don’t think your comment is too long, but I do hope it becomes a post. It’s fun to think about where reading habits took root.

      And The Giver is fantastic. I love that it, too, is being taught in some schools. I’ve yet to read the fourth volume in the series, but I’m looking forward to it .

      Ah, Enid Blyton. I loved the Willow Farm books too, and all the collections of stories. Wasn’t so much a Mallry Towers gal (though I did love other boarding school stories), but a Famous Five and Adventure Series rat, and my favourite of all was The Secret Island. I can literally reach out and touch my Blyton shelf from where I’m sitting….

      • olduvai February 10, 2014 at 4:50 pm - Reply

        Oh I am envious. I have no idea where any of the Enid Blyton books are anymore. It’s possible my mum gave them away to my cousins….

        But yes, my library does have a copy of A Stitch in Time. It’s actually on loan right now (I love that it’s not languishing on the shelves), so I’ve got it on hold. Can’t wait!

        I also just remembered how much we loved Noel Streatfeild. I must have read Ballet Shoes over and over and over! We also had Lorna Hill’s Sadler Wells books. I wonder if they’re still around!

        • Buried In Print February 10, 2014 at 4:57 pm - Reply

          I only reread Ballet Shoes until it was even more worn than the book in the photograph here: the back cover actually detached. The other Streatfeild books weren’t available to me at the time, but I did reread Veronica Tennant’s On Stage, Please (another ballet story, but Canadian) excessively as well. Another British series I adored were the Mark and Mandy books and I had some other favourite singles, like Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick and the first volume in Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe stories. Much of my reading was English, but there were a lot of American authors on my shelves too. I’m so glad to know that Lively’s book is checked out in your library!

  3. iliana February 7, 2014 at 11:28 am - Reply

    I didn’t realize Penelope Lively wrote children’s books too. I grew up on diet of books by Judy Blume, Paul Zindel, Lois Duncan and others. Loved those books but as an adult I didn’t read any kidlit until I started blogging. Now I’ve discovered some incredible YA books like books by Rainbow Rowell and Marcus Zusak. Having said that though, YA is not really the genre I turn to first.

    • Buried In Print February 7, 2014 at 12:52 pm - Reply

      I’ve yet to read either Rainbow Rowell or Marcus Zusak, but they’re both on my reading radar; it’s interesting that being online encouraged you to read in a different direction, and seems to have given you some positive experiences too. Perhaps because you particularly enjoy crime fiction, kidlit just doesn’t pull you in very often?

  4. Nana Fredua-Agyeman February 7, 2014 at 9:51 am - Reply

    I don’t remember doing active reading whilst young, i.e. preteens or early teens. The first book I remember reading was No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe, which is a difficult book. (and that was at age 14).

    I believe that children’s books should be as reflective as possible of society. However, I don’t like books that are propaganda-oriented.

    • Buried In Print February 7, 2014 at 12:48 pm - Reply

      The first time I remember feeling as though it was socially expected/accepted for one to read a lot when young was for a school read-a-thon in the third grade; I remember reading a lot of series books for that event and I don’t think I voluntarily read any difficult books until I was in my later teens.

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