Monday, December 05, 2005

Weighty concerns

I am not exactly sure what Edward Rothstein is saying in his column in today's New York Times, "Reading Kids' Books without the Kids." He begins with a rather easy poke at YA fiction, true enough as far as it goes but failing to recognize either YA's breadth or its origins. He has a very nice paragraph on the role of the parent in reading aloud Where the Wild Things Are, but goes on to make rather too much of the role of parents in childhood reading, ignoring the fact that one of the great things about reading is that it allows you to forget that you actually have parents and can begin to stake out an imaginative life of your own. His ultimate point has to do with the new Norton Anthology of Children's Literature (which is also reviewed in the paper today) and how the academic shape and context of the book somehow misrepresent the literature in a way that does not happen in a Norton Anthology of Something Else. I think he might be saying that scholars of children's literature read children's books differently from children, and that YA pulp isn't as good as Alice in Wonderland, neither of which observation is untrue, original, or useful.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

What balderdash, Mr. Sutton! You appear to be willfully misreading the article, which makes a very clear point: Academics examine text. That's their lot in the life, poor souls. That's why Norton put out this anthology. But a child reader goes beyond the text. That's why Charlotte's Web is more powerful than War and Peace.

Roger Sutton said...

Please don't accuse me of bad faith; I assure you that any misreading I've done is completely sincere. Since I've never read War and Peace, I can't speak (and neither does Rothstein) to its merits in re Charlotte's Web. But if you are saying that great children's literature is always "more powerful" than great adult literature, I feel fairly certain that Rothstein would join with me in finding your point preposterous.

Kelly said...

I also find the anonymous commenter's point absurd.

As an avid reader of children's literature and "War and Peace," I have to object to the argument that "Charlotte's Web" is more powerful than "War and Peace." Adult readers are also capable of "going beyond the text"--especially as "W&P" is an entire world in and of itself. Adults and scholars are perfectly capable of reading for love and reading analytically.

By the way, Roger, I agree with you wholeheartedly on the Rothstein article. I could only mention it as "cranky" on my blog as I've found this week with the endless articles on C.S. Lewis (and it is true, I'm not nor have I ever been a fan of "Narnia") to be completely disheartening in the world of children's lit.

Anonymous said...

Yet more balderdash. Of course Charlotte's Web has more power than War and Peace, by virtue its audience. It profoundly affects, sometimes even determines, a child's understanding of mortality, virtue, obligation, and more. By comparison, though magnificient, War and Peace is a 90 pound weakling. But even so, Mr. Sutton, it's worth reading.

Roger Sutton said...

I think you're unfairly conflating the way children read with the books that are written for them. I agree that children can bring a particular intensity, unique to childhood, to their reading. But Charlotte's Web won't always be the book that brings that out in a child (it made a greater impact on me as an adult than it did when I read it as a child, for example). I know people whose best childhood literary friends were the Berenstain Bears, source of order and comfort. While acknowledging that standards for literary power and/or excellence will shift depending upon one's premises, I have a hard time accepting the argument that greatness is determined by virtue of the age of the audience. I suppose this is the old argument about evaluating a book based on what it does as opposed to what it says!

Kelly said...

Okay, sorry to intrude here again, but if I am understanding the anonymous commenter's point correctly, "Charlotte's Web" has more power because it is read by a child and, therefore, "it profoundly affects, sometimes even determines, a child's understanding of mortality, virtue, obligation, and more."

Okay, then what about this scenario?

"War and Peace" is read by many a child the age of "Charlotte's" audience. Most Russians I know have read it by age 12. Does that mean, according to your argument, that child readers of "War and Peace" get more out of this weakling than do its adult readers? And, if they do it is because the book was written for an adult audience?

Anonymous said...

I just wish the NY Times would assign journalists to cover kids/teen literature stories who knew at least a little bit about the field. Are the powers-that-be in publishing pointing out how stupid so many of these articles have been? If not, I sure wish they would.

Laurie

Liz Bicknell said...

I thought the Rothstein article somewhat disingenuous, personally. The jacket copy he first quotes is from Ron Koertge's Where the Kissing Never Stops, clearly a young adult novel, and, actually, originally published in 1986. To make a comparison to the titles of Eleanor Estes is to ignore (perhaps willfully) the fact that these books are for completely different audiences.

Moving on, though, from my shameless plug for Ron--who, btw, is not a "pulp" writer, but even if he were--what the heck is wrong with pulp? Let them eat pulp, at least some of the time.

Jane said...

First, I find it hard to argue with Anon. If you have such a point to make, why hide behind a seasoned pro's name.

I think you are trying the old apples/oranges, or at least apples/caterpillars game when comparing a child's passionate reading of "Charlotte's Web" and an adult's passionate reading of "War and Peace." I have read both as child and adult. The reading child brings a naive sense of wonder to one, the reading adult
a broader world view and larger appetite for understanding. Different kinds of reading, same books. Trying to say which book is "better" makes no sense.

Jane Yolen

Roger Sutton said...

Well, you all have me itching to read War and Peace, I must say! Enraptured by the movie of Dr. Zhivago when I was eleven or so, I tried to read W&P but was quickly defeated.

Kelly said...

You can do it, Roger! Get the Norton Critical Edition. They did a wonderful job footnoting for the modern Anglo-American reader (especially necessary for the war parts).

Jane said...

It really is a book you have to give 100 pages to, Roger. The patronymics alone can sink you before then. Most people won't give any book 100 pages these days. (I, alas, have become one of them.)

Jane

sdn said...

dear anonymous poster who is not laurie halse anderson:

it's easy to be inflammatory when you don't have to identify yourself. i am impressed by roger's balanced responses.

as for me, i read war and peace as a toddler and charlotte's web as an adult, and i think the former had more of an impact on me and is a better book overall.

psych.

Roger Sutton said...

sorry to be so derelict in this discussion--I've been at jury duty. But at the lunch break I DID go over to the bookstore and get a copy of that Norton ed of W&P that Kelly recommended. Perhaps at Christmas break . . . .

Kelly said...

I hope you enjoy it, Roger! There is a list of characters (by family, I believe) in the Norton volume and all the names they go by (formal, informal, diminutive, etc.). Helps with the patronymic issue Jane brought up.

Andy Laties said...

At age 12, I loved the Masterpiece Theatre 12-part version of W&P starring the (young!) Anthony Hopkins. The TV-show led me to the book. Yes, it makes great teen reading for young existentialists (that is, for all teens).

Charlotte's Web and War & Peace share this theme: "Death Lends Life Meaning". But Tolstoy rejected War & Peace fifteen years after writing it because he'd decided the book didn't settle on an insistence on self-sacrifice as the ultimate necessity. Charlotte's Web however does land on self-sacrifice as the highest virtue, so perhaps E.B. White loved Late Tolstoy. W&P however may be such an artistic/mimetic success BECAUSE it's incompletely didactic. Tolstoy was perhaps hamstrung by the fact that he was narrating his own parents', uncles' and aunts' life histories with great fidelity. (Rostov = Tolstoy. See Ivan Bunin's "The Liberation of Tolstoy".)

"Classic novels" are these days principally read by teens and college students. If War & Peace is now read mostly by people between the ages of 14 and 22, are the nineteenth century's "grown-up" books this century's leading YA novels? Teens certainly are more philosophically inquiring than many of their elders. Is it an inevitable function of Charlotte's Web to serve as training wheels for the critical reading of War & Peace?

Andy Laties

Jane said...

Andy is being deliberately provocative with the phrase "training wheels" of course. I like to think that ALL good literature prepares us for reading other good literature. That arrow has heads at both ends.

I consider "training wheel" books things like DICK AND JANE. One can only hope that when the wheels come off, the child will not wobble over to such fare as a Madonna book, or other celebrity offerings.

Jane

Andy Laties said...

Jane,

Guilty. When asked to name a favorite children's book -- after demurring -- I always capitulate with "Charlotte's Web".

Isn't it an obligation to the group, though: To end a blog contribution with a thrown gauntlet?

Andy

Andy Laties said...

On the subject of the value of "training wheels" books though -- and since this is Roger's blog -- here's my favorite Zena Sutherland anecdote.

Somehow I found myself in the position of having assembled a panel of six children's literature experts to discuss the recently launched "Most Important 20 Minutes of the Day" reading initiative. (1994: Chicago; Printers Row Bookfair.)

Among the panelists were Zena Sutherland and Rosemary Wells.

The moderator, radio host Mara Tapp, asks the panel to comment on the subject of children reading series books like Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High.

Rosemary Wells opines that it would be better if the kids were reading authentic children's literature (my phrase, not hers, which I do not recall exactly).

Zena Sutherland responds with the "As Long As They're Reading" argument.

When Rosemary realizes Zena is advocating the reading of mediocre books, Rosemary's face registers real shock, and she doesn't respond. Mara Tapp has to restart the panel conversation with a different question.

Afterwards, we're all standing around, and Rosemary asks Zena, "How could you say children should read series books?"

Zena replies, "Someone had to make the conversation interesting for the audience."

Years later, I reminded Rosemary of this story, and she said, "Did I say that? Now, I'd say any reading is better than no reading."

(Someone really should write a book about Zena Sutherland. (Gauntlet.))

Andy

Roger Sutton said...

And somebody should ask Rosemary Wells what she thinks Max-and-Ruby is. Are.

Gauntlet picked up to slap licensed characters around.

Andy Laties said...

Well, Rosemary won my heart back in the mid-90s when she said (this is an exact quote): "I wish an architecturally selective tornado would destroy all superstores". This was two years before we closed The Children's Bookstore; the chains already had us surrounded. There's no question that for her, the licensing of Max and Ruby (who after all inaugurated the Board Book revolution in 1978 -- they were the first, weren't they?) is an uneasy capitulation to the new "rules" of children's culture production. To her credit, Max is still cheerfully amoral.

Andy

rindawriter said...

I've never been a fan of either Alice in Wonderland as a child or and adult, or of Charlotte's Web as an adult, though I can see the excellence of the works...but books, for me, and books for children, for me in particular, are things I must fall in love with...nothing else much matters.

A muddled and sloppy article and not well thought out, wanders from point to point. I'm surprised at the "Times." Would expect better of them.

At any rate, he's out of touch with teens and preteens. He ought to spend some time talking with and, more importantly, LISTENING to a few... Nothing in any of the books he mentioned in teh first part of his article shocks me or surprises me...not when I compare it all with some real teens' lives and real children's lives.....

Liz Rosenberg said...

Okay, this is one of the truly great lines about children's literature: "one of the great things about reading is that it allows you to forget that you actually have parents and can begin to stake out an imaginative life of your own."

I laughed out loud with delight when I read that. Thanks, Riger!

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