An Argument Worth Opening

From School Library Journal, May 1974. © 1974 R. R. Bowker Company/A Xerox Corporation. Reprinted with permission.

By Lillian N. Gerhardt

Innumerable commentators on children’s books plug the idea that children’s books are part of “…the mainstream of American literature.” The authors, illustrators, publishers, reviewers, and librarians who have employed or applauded that self-congratulatory tag line apparently see the children’s book field from an angle completely hidden from SLJ’s Book Review. From where we sit, books for children are more accurately described as: the last bastion of yesterday’s literary methods and standards. The Mainstreamers would be hard pressed to name one, let alone two, children’s books that ever turned around writing for adults. But, there’s a lot of evidence to support the Last Bastion view.

A time line of literary lag in children’s books would show that an average of twenty years lapses between the time a storytelling method is generally accepted at the adult reading level and the time it is first employed and finally accepted in books for children. All of the energy in children’s book selection circles, after the handed-down methods are encountered, seems to be invested in initial resistance followed by total surrender. No critical discussion relative to the usage and limitations of the methods in successful children’s books ever follows.

Some examples of such literary lag in children’s books are: episodic novels, first-person narration, and the unresolved plot.

Episodic novels were s.o.p. in adult fiction during the 1940s. Not until the 1960s did such books begin to appear for children. Anybody who can remember the protests against It’s Like This, Cat (Harper, 1963) will have to concede our charge of literary lag here. The same time span and resistance to acceptance of first-person narration in novels can be observed. It was a commonplace technique in the adult fiction of the 1950s, but rarely encountered, except in historical fiction, in books for children. After initial resistance followed by critical silence, such novels have now become a depressant drug on a juvenile book market overpopulated with incredible fictional young teens gossiping with all the world-weary cynicism and end-point insights of their middle-aged authors. Plagues used to be called down upon authors of children’s books who failed to supply a last chapter settling each and every character’s hash (long after this technique ceased to be a critical factor in adult fiction). This has at last given way to a supine acceptance of participatory endings for even those juvenile novels which don’t deserve five minutes of anybody’s thinking time after the last pages have been turned.

All this is not Mainstream. It’s the Last Bastion falling and then failing to notice.

The very latest literary time lag battle in children’s books was joined in SLJ’s Book Review last December and has been ramping along in our Letters columns ever since. It concerns the use of blasphemy and obscenity in the dialogue of novels written for preteens. Any children’s book specialist reading adult fiction in the 1950s might have predicted this conflict at this level for the 1970. Such usage crept from our poets, to the stage, to our novels, to film in a trip that took nearly thirty years. Radio, TV, and newspapers — always more cautious — have nevertheless caught up.

Reading a great many books for children does not prepare anybody for changes or extensions of the storytelling modes that make their gradual way from adult books into novels for children. Reading too few adult books disqualifies children’s book specialists from responsible criticism of any reading level. The necessarily condensed traceries above about where arguments on books for children begin, and the way they peter out, lend support to the always embarrassing suspicion that children’s book specialists become immersed so far below the adult reading level that when their debates finally surface about matters literary they are all wet.

In the love/hate relationship that has developed from the overdependence of juvenile publishers on their single ready marketplace, the children’s book editors and promotion personnel tend to stand aside and rejoice when librarians to children and young people publicly fall out over matters that are central to the selection of sub-adult library collections. Odd, that. In this instance, as in the others cited, they’ve been as slow as their library buyers in casting off, or freeing their authors from, Last Bastion dogma and have no more claim to creative credit than a caboose can get for bringing in a train. This latest debate is the argument worth starting because it brings into clear focus for possible resolution the most divisive element in selecting books for children — the nonliterary considerations that often override the literary and block the entrance to the Mainstream.

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