Are Children’s Books Condescending?

What got me thinking about this question, you ask?  Well.

I was shopping in Costco, and was drawn magnetically to the book section, as I always am.  I am sure some of you know this feeling.  For me, it also occurs with dresses, jewellery, and shiny things in general.  What can I say.

What drew my eye even more was a certain name.  Suzanne Collins.  Suzy!  And this name was NOT on The Hunger Games novels.  She had a new book!  A series, in fact.  The Underland Chronicles.  Without any thought at all, I bought it (technically, my partner in shopping bought it for me).  Because Suzanne Collins.

So, I take it home, have a good look at it, and start reading.  Throughout this, the realization dawns on me.  This is a kids’ book.  The protagonist is, like, 10, the language is relatively simple (still lovely, don’t get me wrong, but simple) and it contains a few basic plot holes  (why would they not retain contact with the outside world, particularly in times of trouble?) and silly little concepts.  But, I kept reading, partly because I felt not finishing it would be a betrayal to my shopping comrade, and partly just do to curiosity.

Thank god (specifically Thoth)!  The more I read, the better the books got, with all the little things pooling together into one grand adventure that left me nearly breathless at the end.  I could go on about why it was so good, but what really interested me was that the kinds of things I consider “good” were the kinds of things that I wouldn’t expect to read in a children’s novel.

Firstly, while the themes were simple (racism, war, friendship) they weren’t TOO simple and could be expanded and deepened with almost no effort, allowing the reader to take what they could handle.  Heck, I even managed to make some observations about religion and political structuring.  So many books meant for kids have no real POINT to them, no themes, nothing to think or talk about after the book was over.  I mean, we don’t expect our kids to do that, right?  Maybe we should.  (Either that, or they’re overly moralistic with not enough substance backing those claims up or adding interest.  You know what I’m talking about.  Listen to your parents, don’t get dirty, eat your vegetables.)

The structure was both complex and clear.  Never was I lost, wondering who was supposed to be where, and where that guy came from, but at the end, all these paths that you weren’t even aware were being created came together and blew you away.  Now, I do understand that even this might have been too much for someone much younger than the target audience to understand, but so many children’s authors for all ages don’t seem to go to any effort at all to actually work out an interesting plot.  You rarely see much more than, “And she went out to slay the dragon, and crossed some hills, and some mountains, and a forest, and then she slayed it and then went back home.”  The point is, Suzy could have just wrote five separate books with five separate adventures and called it good, but she didn’t.  Because Suzanne Collins.

In The Underland Chronicles, sometimes, stuff gets DARK.  And I mean that literally and figuratively.  Not all the characters were nice and good all the time, in fact, few of them were, even the ones on the “good side”.  In fact, Suzy went out of her way to show that maybe there wasn’t really a “good side”, and that people and societies are too complex to be described that way.  But of course, written in such a way that anyone could understand.  Often, all you see in children’s books are everybody being nice and beautiful, except the bad guy(s) who are often just misunderstood.  Not only is this not how life works, it’s also just not interesting.  But of course, we do this because we assume children are so terribly delicate and we must coddle them.  The real world is for then they’re older.  Now, trust me when I say, Suzy was not much for coddling.  The violence?  Everything was vivid; nothing was censored.  I’m talking guts spilling, brain spattering, eaten alive kind of violence.  Should children be exposed to that kind of violence?  Here’s my thought:

Adults should not expose children to violence.  But children should be allowed to expose themselves to violence.  See, nobody WANTS to be traumatized.  So, if I’m a little kid, and I’m starting to get way too scared by a book, I’ll stop reading right then and there.  I’m setting the boundaries for myself.  Hell, I still do this.  I don’t watch too many horror movies, and will sometimes turn one off if its going to far.  And this is most certainly not too difficult a judgment for a child to make.  They know what’s scaring them, what’s just too gross, too gory.  It’s a very base reaction.  I suspect the only times a kid will subject them to more they can handle is when they’re trying to rebel, or prove something, and if the only person telling them what not to watch is themselves, then the feeling that they need to do that diminishes.

(Sometimes I wonder if Suzy actually intended to make the books as violent as they were, or if she just started to get back into Hunger Games mode.)

And yes, while I did say the language was simple, it was not THAT simple.  There were plenty of words that kids might have to look up, and that’s exactly how it should be.  Only ever being exposed to words you already know are what creates the “Speak English, why can’t you just say (insert simpler version of chosen word here), why do you have to talk so fancy,” attitude.  It’s not anybody’s obligation to only use words you know.  It’s your obligation to know the words that people use.  Luckily, this particular aspect of writing for children is more consciously worked toward in children’s literature, to varying degrees of success.

Now, this particular aspect is less relevant to The Underland Chronicles specifically, though perhaps I could cite the cover artwork, but the artwork in children’s books is almost always sub par.  I suspect the idea is to mimic how children draw.  You know, those one-dimensional, stick-y looking figures with all their features completely out of proportion.  You see them in children’s television too.  Me, I ask, “Um, why?”  Why do you need to lower your drawing abilities to that of a child to draw for children?  I suspect that you’re actually slowing their learning to draw by only exposing them to the incorrect or basic way to do it.  This is much the same as only exposing them to a basic vocabulary.  Not helpful.

So, overall, what I’m trying to say is this.  When writing books for children, you must write in such a way that they understand, and are captivated (a point I did not bring up specifically, because it was done so well in The Underlander Chronicles, and is also usually done well in popular children’s fiction) but this does not mean you should lower the quality of your writing, the standard you’re holding yourself to.  Really, writing for children should be much harder than writing for an older audience.  You don’t get to slack off and make everything simple and sloppy, because you don’t expect your audience to notice.  The Underland Chronicles is the perfect example of how to keep an audience entertained without stooping to condescension.  Because Suzanne Collins.

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