YA/Children's/Adult Books

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Sun Apr 27 18:36:45 EDT 2003

Anna answered some of my remarks:

>        I applaud your passionate arguments Minnow, but I think another
>thing that has to be considered here is what people mean when they say
>something is, or is not, a children's book. I sense an assumption in what
>you have written that if one says Deep Secret is not a children's book,
>that means that children ought not to read it.

Aha!  That's the nub, yes; thank you.  That was precisely what pushed that
button.  (I'd add that the word "adult" has been hijacked to mean "has high
levels of sex, violence and bad writing" in many circles, and so has a lot
of negative baggage.)  Mama used to say "I think you may find that book a
bit grown-up/dull" when she saw me embarked on some book I had heard my
professorial father lauding, but she didn't say "that book isn't for
children".  It's the prohibitory nature of "not for [some group]" that has
made me so edgy.  I am old enough to remember the attitude expressed in the
Chatterley court-case: "would you want your servants to read this book?"
with the implication that the servants (and the women-folk, in that case)
were in some way unfit, whereas Us Chaps could be trusted with this dubious
stuff.  (Grrr)

So if a book is said to be "for children" or "for young adults" that
doesn't bother me too much, though I think it silly to assume that reaching
a certain calendar age automatically makes someone also reach a mental or
spiritual age   It's the "not" that sticks in my craw.  To make a positive
suggestion is merely trying to help, to make a negative one is trying to
interfere, is the way it feels -- or that's how it felt when I was six, and
I don't think I changed my view on this as I grew older.

(And the gates of the Chapel were shut
And "Thou Shalt Not" writ over the door
     --- William Blake, 'The Garden of Love')

>I certainly divide books
>up into children's books, YA books, and adult books, but I would never say
>that a child couldn't read a YA or adult's book if it had the skills &
>desire to do so and wasn't quivering & sobbing under the bedsheets
>afterwards. Children need to learn about the world they will grow up into
>and reading adult books is certainly one good way of doing this.

Making one's own mistakes is also a very important part of growing up...
:-)  And the sooner they are made the more likely you are to be able to get
help if you need it.  Being scared of the Morlocks in the middle of the
night is a lot less awful if Mum is asleep in the next room than if Mum is
asleep in the next state or county!

>But if I
>was giving a child a present, or recommending a book to a child, and
>especially if I was choosing a book to read aloud to a child I would
>probably want to choose a children's book, because it would be more
>appropriate to the situation. For example, a child might really enjoy
>reading a book with sexual references in it, but might feel very
>embarrassed or threatened if an adult was reading these sexual passages
>aloud to it.

Can we be painfully honest with ourselves here and say that the embarrassed
one in such circumstances is at least as likely to be the adult as the
child? Grownups (as I observed when young) come all over shy and wriggly
about sex, and can't cope at all, pooor things.  :-)  And that can be
embarrassing for a child, sure 'nuff.

>Similarly, if I was looking for a present for a young teen of
>my acquaintance I would chose a YA book, rather than a children's one
>which they might feel was too babyish & denied their total personhood and
>mature standing as an almost-adult or whatever, or an adult book that
>might contain content of which the teen's parents didn't approve.

Uh-oh.  Red alert.  Is it my business as a parent to censor the
almost-adult's reading?  And is it in any case possible to do so, if I
don't watch the teenager 24/7 (at which point any teenager worth his or her
salt will leave home and next be heard of in a commune in Wales or wherever
is trendy this year for dropouts... or in some loony sect headquarters) and
make myself into a Thought Policeman?  What I'm most likely to do that way
is introduce Forbidden Fruit attractiveness, possibly to something the
child hadn't even noticed before I implied it was "nasty, don't touch", or
would have been bored by and put down if my disapproval hadn't meant there
must be *something* there interesting enough to upset an adult.

I think what is really being talked about here is not what the recipient
feels about all this, but how you or I feel.  The matter with giving or
suggesting an inappropriate book to the young adult is that the parents may
disapprove.  To go for an uncontentious example, it makes an unpleasantness
if I give Harry Potter to a child whose parents believe it to be the Work
of Satan -- even if the child wants that book above all things in the
world, and would be entirely unshocked and unfrightened and generally very
very happy to have read it (and is certain to get hold of it somehow and
read it, eventually) the grownups will get in a strop and spoil the present
for the child anyway, so I might as well not bother.  My pleasure in the
giving will be spoilt...

>So I
>feel that the distinction of whether a book is children's, YA or adult is
>a useful one.

The essential point, though, is that an individual should be making that
decision, regarding *that* child and ideally in consultation with that
child, and paying attention to the sensibilities of the adults in that
child's immediate circle, rather than a blanket decision being made by some
Them or other who don't know the individuals concerned.

Anna then appended more, and I'm adding it here rather than making two
posts (One long one is easier for everyone to throw away!):

>        As with most things in our society, the question of whether books
>are children's, YA or adult is decided by the intersubjective consensus of
>all the people you mention and more.

Which is absurd.  Whose mind is it anyway?  Me, I'd say it was the child's.
(Until They sort out Their ownership and trademarking of our genes,
anyhow).  (I never actually met an intersubjective consensus, but I now see
this creature as being a cross between the Jabberwock and the Manipeeplia

[pointer to the Doing It debate and an article by Anne Fine]
Thank you.  Read it (the article not the bilge).

The operative sentence in the article is:
"No girl or young woman should ever have to read these vile, disgusting
musings about themselves."

"have to".

Obviously I oppose anyone being compelled to read anything, just as I
oppose anyone being forbidden to read anything.  (Though I'm not sure that
having *Mein Kampf* as a school set-book wouldn't be the very best way to
show it up for the dreary garbage it is, and also mean that nobody ever
again got a thrill from reading the Ultimate Forbidden Book, if it was
compulsory instead!)

That there is loathesome rubbish out there is not something I would deny;
but hard cases make bad law, and using extreme examples doesn't generally
help the argument about the middle ground.

>> I would contend that there should be none made at any level other than
>> one-to-one, someone who has read the book and knows the child advising that
>> individual child that s/he thinks the known child will probably not enjoy
>> that book
>        Unfortunately that really isn't practical in many situations.

Let's put back the sentence to which I was replying there:
>>It doesn't mean that there is no distinction between
>>children's and YA and adults, surely?
>I would contend that there should be none made at any level other than
>one-to-one, (etc)

Sorry; it wasn't entirely clear that the word "made" is important in that
sentiment.  There is a difference between *Yes Dear* and *Hexwood*,
obviously; but a child of six can tell that without anyone having to point
it out, I think.  The distinction doesn't have to be "made", it's already

[Giving books without data]
I'd be inclined, if giving a book, to try to establish first whether the
child in question is an avid Enid Blyton reader, or a pony-book person, or
interested in robots, or a fanatical sailor....  Otherwise I'm simply
firing off books *I* like, randomly, at children who may have absolutely no
interest in them at all and would far rather have had a book-token so they
can choose something they want.  What's more, I'd want to know they didn't
already have that book, in hardback, signed by the author, their much-loved
favourite read, because I'd feel a twerp "introducing" someone to something
they knew as well as I do.

[snipped example]

One, you have yourself read the books, and are not working blind, though
you are making the assumption that three individuals you have never met,
and two you don't know, will share your tastes: there are some benighted
souls who *gasp* don't like DWJ or Tove Jansson, hard though I personally
find this to believe, and prefer Harry Potter or the Secret Seven!

Two, presumably the adults attached to the children of whom you are
speaking have some basis for judgement in that whether or not they know
*you* personally they do know the person whose judgement of you they are
following.  Ie your friend, their mother, the children's grandmother.

If the primary reassurance these parents have is that a bunch of total
strangers have made a decision about a book, rather than that an individual
about whom they know has made a judgement, they are going to be in a sad
way if they go on by those rules: see your own example, the book Anne Fine
is condemning, which if I understand aright is to be peddled as suitable
for the young, by the very people whose judgement is being taken as
acceptable in other cases.

That one won't fly: it eats its own tail.  Sorry.  I come back down to the
personal, from there: rather than take the word of people I don't know nor
know anything about, that a book is of some type or other, I'll take the
word of someone I do know, or someone who is known to me to have been
reliable in the past or is vouched for by someone I know (and possibly
whose taste in books I know).  In this case, as the parent, I'd rather
trust your taste than the publishers.... wouldn't you, if you were them?
(should that be "they"?)

I have left this sitting for a day before posting it, and I hope I have
managed to spot anything that might be taken as being a personal criticism
and expunge it, but if I've failed, please can you try to see whether what
I have written can be read as non-judgemental and merely argumentative,
general rather than specific, and assume that I meant it that way?  As a
rule, I am arguing rather than attacking someone, unless I say with
deliberation that I personally think they personally are a complete prune
and talking foetid old dingoes' kidneys...  Honest.  I do tend to call a
spade a spade not a manually-operated earth-moving implement, so it's
generally easy enough to spot if I am being deliberately offensive...

Which in this case I did not intend!


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