Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Children's books and other controversy

The Independent just reported Rowling joins revolt over age banding for children's books" a big-name author seriously raising the profile of an ongoing protest at a publishers' scheme to categorise children's books by age. The No to Age Banding site hosted by Philip Pullman lists signatories and explains the problems: for instance, how such categorisation would affect marketing and packaging, perhaps deterring a child from reading books of merit. The issue, in any case, is a broader one of label, as discussed by Felix Grant at The Growlery (Juvenilia, feminism, love, and other labels); there is great merit in the view that "children's fiction" is itself a stultifying categorisation. Many nominally juvenile books, such as Louis Sachar's Holes, are good reading by any standard - see the previous post Holes and other non-juvenilia.

Via MetaFilter, The New Yorker recently had an interesting article on a controversy in the same territory. The Lion and the Mouse by Jill Lepore tells of the career of Anne Carroll Moore, a pioneering New York librarian who came to exert massive influence over US children's books, then largely published in New York. In some ways it was a positive influence: in the early 1920s she introduced multicultural books, along with open shelves and many of the now-standard formats that make libraries friendly to children, and instituted the reviewing of children's books in mainstream publications. The downside was that she imposed her own taste: as Jill Lepore puts it, "Anne Carroll Moore did not like fangs. She loved what was precious, innocent, and sentimental". This eventually put her in head-on collision with the author EB White (who viewed her preferences as "mawkish, prudish, and daffy") leading to a showdown when she tried, unsuccessfully, to block his book Stuart Little. (Her stance seems daft in hindsight, but it needs to be remembered that the original book was not the same as the film - bizarrely, Mrs Little actually gives birth to Stuart the mouse).

The Lion and the Mouse touches on the age-banding issue, pointing out how many books now viewed as children's classics "Grimms’ Fairy Tales or Gulliver’s Travels or Huck Finn —were born as biting political satire, for adults" and argues that early 20th century writers and editors invented "children's literature" as a genre. I'm not sure how true that is overall; The Victorian Web's Children's Literature as a Victorian genre has plenty of links relating to the essentially didactic/moralistic genre fiction that targeted children in that period. The point of the non-childish nature of some such fiction is well-made, though; for example, Kingsley's The Water Babies is almost invariably abridged in modern imprints and adaptations, because the original is an intensely wacky Christian allegorical fantasy full of literary, cultural and scientific allusions way above heads of children. (More on this later maybe).

As to White, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, he wrote two other children's classics, Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. He was also one half of the Strunk & White, whose The Elements of Style has probably been the single most influential style guide for American writers in the 20th century. Like other century-old prescriptive guides, such as the relatively enlightened Fowler's Modern English Usage, Strunk & White is coming under increasing criticism nowadays, I think rightly, for advice that doesn't reflect real usage and, in some areas, doesn't seem particularly good stylistic advice and even disobeys its own rules. Language Log has regular snipes at it, where academic linguists have variously described it as a "stupid little book", a "horrid little compendium of unmotivated prejudices" and "a self-help book for social climbers".

- Ray

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