- Pleasure and Genre:Speculations on the Characteristics of Children's Fiction
I like to read children's books. They gave me pleasure as a child, and it was the fact that they continued to give me pleasure as an adult that led me to focus my attention as a literary scholar on them. The assumption I begin with is that my pleasure might be a valuable source of insight. Understanding more about it might help me to determine which qualities make children's books different from others—a distinct kind of writing, a genre.
On the face of it, the children's books that particularly give me pleasure—older texts such as Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, newer ones such as Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat or the picture books of Chris Raschka or the novels of the Canadian writer Brian Doyle—are quite different from each other. But they do have two things in common. First, they share the characteristics most usually identified with texts written for children, the ones I list in a chapter on this subject in my book Pleasures of Children's Literature. At least in comparison to many adult literary texts, they are short, simple, often didactic in intention, and clearly positive in their outlook on life—optimistic, with happy endings. But second, as the extensive critical discussion of many of these texts implies, their apparent simplicity contains depths, often surprisingly pessimistic qualifications of the apparent optimism, dangerously and delightfully counterproductive [End Page 1] possibilities that oppose and undermine the apparent messages. These texts can be easily and effortlessly heard or read, but once read, they continue to develop significance, importance, complexity, to echo ever outward and inward. These are texts that resonate.
I like them, I believe, because they resonate—because they seem so simple and yet allow for so much thought. There's something magical about texts so apparently straightforward being so non-straight-forward. I find more obviously complex texts much less magical.
These texts resonate so magically, I think, because they are trying to be optimistic and didactic at once. That's inherently self-contradictory; it leads to ambivalence, subtlety—resonance.
The nature of the contradiction becomes more apparent in a consideration of texts for children that are less obviously ambivalent. Many children's books (books that I tend to enjoy less) are either more purely didactic or more purely optimistic, preachy tomes about trains that stay on the track and teenagers who learn to cope with bullies or wish-fulfillment fantasies about children who defeat evil villains and save the world. Such books represent two opposite ways in which adults like to address children, based, I think, on different ways of thinking about how children differ from adults. The didactic stance implies that children are weak or fallible or somehow mistaken—in need of instruction in how to be better people, that is, more like adults. The wish-fulfillment stance implies that children are not only just fine as they already are but that what they wish for in their child-like, egocentric way is exactly what they need to imagine and ought to be. (I hasten to point out that the wish-fulfillment stance is, in its way, just as didactic as the other. It represents a way in which some adults like to imagine childhood and, I suspect therefore, would like children to imagine themselves. As a result, these books also work to teach children—albeit for a different purpose and in different and more subtle ways.)
These two opposing attitudes float free in our culture and in our minds—two contradictory ways we all tend to think about children, often at the same time. The texts I most enjoy try to do both these things at once. As didactic fables, they want to urge children to stop being childish and learn to be better and different. As wish-fulfillment fantasies, they want children to stay exactly as they so wonderfully are. They happily inform us that Peter Rabbit or Max of the Wild Things...