One of the most prominent childhood memories I have is being read to, or reading with my parents. It is an incredibly formative experience for many of us. Aside from teaching us to read, titles like Guess How Much I Love You and reading about what kind of creature was in ‘Mummy’s Tummy’ were invaluable in navigating relationships with family, established and unknown.
Children’s books seem an entirely necessary feature of childhood in this way. As they read, children absorb worlds of information and experience the wonder of imagination and creativity. Given this importance, it seems strange that children’s literature does not have anything near the weight of that written for an adult audience. Why is it that this vital feature of our early lives does not hold half the literary weight that literature for adults possesses?
Arguably, books without the star quality of an established name or the brand of celebrity culture will find it near impossible to receive critical praise
It is true that there are some works for children whose titles remain on the shelves and circulate through many generations. From Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, to A. A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and, of course, the entire works of Roald Dahl. The list of ‘classic’ names goes on, evoking nostalgia like nothing else – certainly we must also acknowledge that several more modern texts surface and garner popularity. The rise of the celebrity children’s book cannot be ignored. Today, names like David Walliams, Tom Fletcher, and even Madonna have ventured into the market of childhood staples.
We must ask ourselves if there is now a certain precedent that makes it difficult for new books to break into the rankings of critical acclaim. Arguably, books without the star quality of an established name or the brand of celebrity culture will find it near impossible to receive critical praise.
The reasons for this are multiple. A combination of ease and nostalgia for their childhood might draw parents continually back to these books. Perhaps the celebrity name reaches out as a relatable feature in the midst of content which is no longer interesting or personally relatable. However, it has to be said that a prominent reason is a sense that children’s literature does not warrant the level of criticism and praise granted to books for adults. This means that as a result of its more basic form and simple content, many feel that children’s literature is created with a certain amount of ease.
There is difficulty in creating worlds within the form of a story, whatever the audience
To this, I say that literary snobbery must not blind us to the importance of the children’s book. Of course, critical analysis of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is not going to be exactly the same as that of Donaldson’s Room on the Broom. The importance of the different praise of each must be celebrated. There is difficulty in creating worlds within the form of a story, whatever the audience. The author must cultivate imagined plots, characters and places which entice the person they are writing for. This is a challenge regardless of if they aim for the minds of 2 year olds or 52 year olds.
It is time we acknowledged the immense difficulty of writing books for children. It is also time that we try to shake off the standards of star quality which we expect from the author of the book, and instead appreciated with new eyes the immense undertaking of making a new world for a child which will stay with them until they are adults themselves. Hidden in children’s literature are tools to expand the mind and unlock the imagination, the value of which should not be underestimated.