C.S. Lewis and children’s literature

chronicles of narnia An imaginary dividing line has been created in literature, a line of longitude if you please. If we were talking about cartography we may call it the Prime Meridian … or if you prefer, you might decide to call this literary intersection the equator, the 0 degree line of latitude …whichever way you like to cut-up this analogy…some north to south and others east to west, a division is metaphorically visible. This literary line is more obvious when you enter a library or book store resembling a road where there are painted stripes we refer to as the median… However, one has to wonder why in our quest for good books there has been a division at all… making the signage “Children’s Section” like the highway indicator for the fast-food exit.

This imaginary line in writing has been created slowly like erosion over a mountain pass by a running stream…this ever expanding crevice has become a fissure that is widening with each passing decade starting round about the time the publishing industry found out that it could create a marketable and lucrative item, Children’s books. And so, here we have it… the 21st century where the glut of books written just for kids has flooded over into a hot bed of “products”. Yet, children are neither as gullible nor devoid of knowing when they are being conned; they enjoy a well written story. Let’s resurrect Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; I use these works as an example not because of the story lines or plots…for some would find them too ‘out-dated’ for their liking… but rather because they are beautifully written, well-crafted, and genuine in their allegiance to providing a laudable narrative… none of these authors looked down upon the younger reader as though they were perhaps not worthy of the best.

A delicious meal isn’t usually watered down for a child, for if it was then most of the flavors and taste that the cook intended would be lost, unless of course this cook was not very good. Literature fed to children aught be refined enough to satisfy the reading pallet of an adult; for they too are deserving.

However on a “most” positive note, within the multitude of books published every year there are excellent titles that offer quality writing and craftsmanship by the author… the quest for the buyer or borrower is to heed their selection as if shopping in a grocery store; one needs to know what we are ingesting. (As for the adult readers who like very spicy food, adult books are often written just for adults… while children’s books can be enjoyed by both parties; for who doesn’t like a good kid’s story)

c.s. lewis 2 I now turn today’s blog over again to the esteemed thinker: C.S. Lewis; author, scholar, and literary critic who gained international recognition for his array of popular and scholarly works. Let us take time out from our busy day to read a parcel of words from his essay, “On Juvenile Tastes” ….

“…Surely it would be less arrogant, and truer to the evidence to say that the peculiarity of child readers is that they are not peculiar. It is we who are peculiar. Fashions in literary taste come and goes among the adults…for children read only to enjoy. Of course their limited vocabulary and general ignorance make some books unintelligible to them. But apart from that, juvenile taste is simply human taste, going on from age to age, silly with a universal silliness or wise with a universal wisdom, regardless of modes, movements, and literary revolutions…
It follows that there are now two very different sorts of ‘writers for children’. The wrong sort believe that children are ‘a distinct race’. They carefully ‘make up’ the tastes of these odd creatures-like an anthropologist observing the habita of a savage tribe-or even the tastes of a clearly defined age-group within a particular social class within the ‘distinct-race’. They dish up not what they like themselves but what that race is supposed to like. Educational and moral, as well as commercial, motives may come in. The right sort work from the common, universally human, ground that share with the children, and indeed with countless adults. They label their books “for Children’ because children are the only market now recognized for the books they, anyway, want to write…”

8 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and children’s literature

  1. A great man! I guess that the child/adult line is weakest in fantasy, where even adults will appreciate a good fairy story.

  2. I think we label books for children because we don’t want children indiscriminately going after adult books. When I was growing up the divide wasn’t as profound, and I used to read the “literary classics” when I was “technically” too young. I missed out on some of the great children’s classics which were being published at the same time, but my reading skills improved more quickly.

  3. I followed a link here from joeinfocus.wordpress.com . . .

    This is an interesting post, and Lewis’s comments ring intuitively true. I think that time has a way of winnowing out the children’s books written by “the wrong sort.” And the best “children’s” books are indeed interesting to readers of all ages.

    As for children reading books that are too “adult” for them: Setting aside the obviously problematic works, I think that children generally find uninteresting books that are too advanced for them. Sometimes, they will find enough of interest to make their way through the books, generally picking up what they can. I remember that I first read an unabridged edition of “Moby-Dick” when I was sixteen: old enough to find it interesting, but not nearly old enough to understand what makes it truly great. (And perhaps, at almost fifty-six years of age, I still don’t understand that!)

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