The Juv/YA stigma

You may have already heard about Martin Amis’  comments on BBC’s Faulks on Fiction, regarding children’s books.  Specifically:

  • “People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book. … I say, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book’, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable”
  • “I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write”

If Amis had only focused on his objections to consciously writing for a particular audience, and whether that somehow hinders a writer’s creativity, he’d have made a valid point worth further debate.  Instead, he made sweeping implications about the intelligence of children’s book writers and readers.

In fact, his comments give me flashbacks to the times I was criticized for reading children’s or YA books because I was beyond the “appropriate” age-level.  Once I turned 13, I couldn’t buy anything labeled “Ages 8-12” unless I was shopping alone.  By the end of high school, I was discouraged from setting foot in the Young Adult section.  “Read something more challenging, more mature.”

Now, besides claiming nostalgia, I could defend myself by saying I’m doing research — I’m studying the techniques of other writers in my field so I can improve my own writing.  I read Kathi Appelt’s Keeper and Donna Jo Napoli’s Sirena because I also want to write about mermaids.  I wanted to see what Franny Billingsley and Berlie Doherty do with selkie legends, or how the writers in The Faery Reel blend undines, elves, and other fae characters into the 20th century world.

But the simple truth is that I enjoy those books for their own sake.  I check the YA section because that’s where I’ve found many of my favorites.

In any case, the strategies for writing quality literature are not restricted to those books placed in the Adult section.  Elements such as

  • a powerful theme
  • an intriguing plot that grabs the reader from page 1
  • fully-developed, dynamic characters
  • “showing” vs. “telling”
  • consistency and overall coherence, etc. etc. etc.

are the marks of any good story.  “Children,” says writer Lucy Coats, “are astute observers of tone – they loathe adults who patronise them with a passion, adults who somehow assume they are not sentient beings because they are children … When I write fiction, I research and plan just as (I assume) Amis does.”

In fact, there are some who believe children’s literature should be more deeply and academically studied as literature–the same way that Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby are studied.  For more on this debate, see Beverly Lyon Clark’s Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America.

Cover of Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature in America, by Beverly Lyon Clark. A sepia-toned image of two children in a field of tall grasses and flowers. The child on the left, sitting with their legs straight, has shoulder-length hair and is wearing a puffy dress with long sleeves and tall dark boots. The other child, on the right, is standing, touching one of the tall flowers. This child has very short hair and is wearing a long-sleeved top that reaches almost to the knees and flares out over a pair of bloomers. The child has shin-length dark socks and light-colored saddle shoes.

In Clark’s view,

  • “. . . contemporary critics have been slow to take children’s literature seriously and treat it canonically.  How many lists of the great books of the twentieth century—lists that do not specifically limit themselves to children’s books—include such children’s classics as Charlotte’s Web and Where the Wild Things Are?”  (Kiddie Lit, pg. 2)



  1. […] But now I realized I could do something a little more sophisticated (a little ), and make it feel a little more like a job – or at least a project.  And thus was born Postcards from La-La Land, an official “What of it?” to anyone who’d ever looked askance at my choice to spend much of my time in the Juv/YA section; I even wrote my fifth post on “The Juv/YA stigma.” […]

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