YA/Children's/Adult Books

Anna Clare McDuff amcduff at math.sunysb.edu
Mon Apr 28 13:55:53 EDT 2003

	Hello Minnow!

	Long post ahead :-)

On Sun, 27 Apr 2003 minnow at belfry.org.uk wrote:

> 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.)

	I think, however, that it is fairly clear in the context of this
discussion that we mean adult to mean "book primarily intended for grown

 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)

	Yes, but as far as I am aware, no one in this discussion has said
that children should be prevented from reading books which are not
children's books. I haven't said it, Hallie hasn't said it, and I cannot
recall *anyone* saying it. What we have said is that there is a category
of book called The Children's Book. And that the contents of this category
are not determined solely by whether children read a given book or not.
The Oxford English Dictionary does not become a children's book if a child
consults it, it remains an adult work of reference.  And we were
discussing whether Deep Secret and/or the Dark Lord are children's books
or not. I don't think they are, which doesn't mean that I think children
should be prevented from reading them. But leaving the issue of reading
level aside, I think they, especially Dark Lord, contain elements which to
my mind preclude them being labelled children's books.

> >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.

	Yes, adults can be embarrassed in these situations, but the
embarrassment is unlikely to significantly harm the adult, whereas there
is a distinct possibility it could harm the child. It depends on the child
and the situation. And in a public situation such as a school, or a
library, or a care centre, or even the home of an acquaintance (as opposed
to the home of a very close friend or family member), it's really
impossible to know how a child is going to react to such material, so
in my opinion the most sensible course of action is to reserve powerful
issues such as human sexuality for times when they can be addressed
responsibly and at the child's own pace & comfort level. Maybe I'm being a
bit serious about this but I've spent too much time with abused children
not to be careful about these issues. Children often *aren't* as resilient
as we wish they could be. And marks on the psyche don't show on the face,
so in many cases it is best to play it safe, and yes that *does* sometimes
require the withholding of a book or conversation or film or whatever from
a child. Children aren't just short, they are genuinely immature and can
be hurt by things that wouldn't hurt an adult. Maybe that caution is
unnecessary some of the time, but the consquences of overwhelming a child
with Too Much Too Young can be drastic & severe.

	Actually, can I share this with you? It's a beautiful
semi-autobiographical graphic short story by Lynda Barry about childhood &
resilience. It's from her book, 100 Demons, which I love & can highly
recommend to anyone:


	And speaking of abused children, sad to say, there are
practical issues here as well; in the current UK climate a librarian, say,
holding a story session with an inappropriately sexual book could easily
find themselves all over the pages of the News Of The World denounced as a
nonce. Or perhaps it might be the Sun, now that Rebekah Wade has moved
jobs. I hate these absurd and destructive paedophile witch hunts, but they
are a fact of life now, horrid though that is. There is a lot of tension
in society at present around issues of childhood and sexuality & who wants
to share the fate of that poor paediatrician who was attacked by a mob
looking for a paedophile?

> 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.

	But a lot of children grow up without the boon of committed
expert parents. What you describe sounds nice, but I can think of so many
children in my immediate neighbourhood who have exhausted, frantic,
impoverished parents and attend appalling schools. (I live in Islington
and we have some of the worst schools in the country; the proud boast of
our two local papers a few weeks ago was that we did so well last year
that we no longer have the worst schools in London. We now have the second
worst. This was front-page Yay Islington! news.) What about those
children? They need books too. And the adults in their lives may love them
very much and care passionately about raising them as best they can but
they are not going to pre-digest their reading material for them. They
simply don't have the resources. So other people have to be involved too.

> >        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.

	Well, you may feel it's absurd, and you are entitled to feel that
way if you want to, but it is the way things are. And I know I am much
happier with this informal-consensus system, imperfect though it is, than
I would be with an authoritarian top-down system. At least this way
children can read whatever they like, which I think is a Good Thing given
that they have the skills & desire to read the book and that it doesn't
overly disturb them; they, and the adults in their lives, are just
provided with a category clearly marked Children's Books as well. Which as
I've said, is a useful category for many reasons. What if books were
managed the way we manage films and there was an official authority that
graded them all by age & made it illegal for a child to read a book with
an age grading higher than their chronological age? I, for one, would

	Really Minnow, we should be revelling in the intellectual freedom
children (and adults!) can enjoy with books. The last time I was in the
States, over Christmas, I noticed a newspaper film review column in which
*all* of the films had been annotated as to their potential for giving
offense. Not just the children's films, *all* of them. You may have seen
these things, with entries like "contains brief nudity, obscenity
(twice), casual violence". One of the films had the annotation "contains
language and themes". Which made me avid with curiosity as to the identity
of the ideal language-free, themeless film they were comparing it to. Andy
Warhol's Empire State Building perhaps?

	But even though there are real worries about the infantilising of
adult society, that does not mean that children do not require sheltered
environments at times!


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