a monthly column
by A.C.E. Bauer
"It's just a
“It’s just a children’s book,” he said,
That he took a swipe at Harry Potter didn’t bother me. But he didn’t attack the
writing (fair game), the premise (fair game), the characterization, plotting or
storyline (all fair game). He dismissed the book because it was written for
children. It’s “nothing else,” not worth the hoopla, not worth our attention,
after all it’s just for children, like a pet rock.
There is an argument to be made, a powerful one I may add, that children’s
fiction has enormous value in shaping thought, in influencing writers, and in
producing narratives, and that objects made for children can have an intrinsic
value of their own. But I don’t want to argue about the value of children’s
books—and I definitely do not want to argue about the worth of Harry Potter. The
swipe bothered me for another reason: while Harry Potter is indeed “just a
children’s book,” it is not just for kids.
Children’s books form a totally weird genre. They are written for two sets of
readers with frequently differing tastes and agendas: the kids who listen to or
read them, and the adults who buy the books. Do not, ever, discount the adults
in the equation. Children’s books are written, edited, published, marketed and
bought by adults. Some proportion may be chosen by the children themselves, but
adults remain the gatekeepers into children’s adolescence.
The adults’ role as gatekeepers has led to a somewhat spotty history of didactic
fiction, dumbed down plots, and treacly messages. At the same time, anything
that became viewed by society as too simplistic was relegated to children: fairy
tales, myths, fantasy, a lot of science fiction. But fortunately, there were
adults out there who didn’t think that children needed nothing but morals to get
by, or weren’t clever enough to follow a complicated storyline, and maybe
deserved something better than leftovers from the adult world—enter Lewis
Carroll, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie, Beatrix Potter. Also enter new
thinking on education and interaction with children from the likes of the Bank
Street Experimental School, and visionary editors like Ursula Nordstrom, and now
you had a critical mass of adults who didn’t think children were too delicate
for real books. We started getting picture books from Ruth Krauss ("The Carrot
Seed"), Maurice Sendak ("Where the Wild Things Are"), and Margaret Wise Brown
("Goodnight Moon"). Plenty of treacle and didacticism was still published, but
E.B. White wrote "Charlotte’s Web", and Louise Fitzhugh wrote "Harriet the Spy,"
and Madeleine L’Engle wrote "A Wrinkle In Time". These were stories kids could
sink their teeth into, and parents approved of, and a whole new generation of
children’s books was born.
In theory this new generation was for children. Instead of being what adults
wanted children to learn, or what adults thought was too simplistic for their
own tastes, these books had stories aimed at a child audience with a child’s
sensibilities. Anyone who has been forced to read "Green Eggs and Ham" a
quazillion times can attest that these child-focused books succeeded. But the
thing is, the adults never left the room.
Adults continued to write, edit, publish, market and buy the books. And read
them. Let’s not forget that. Because, that adult readership is vital to the
At first, adults do all the reading for a child or, in the case of board books
without words, all the decoding. Over the course of years, the balance shifts:
slowly the child decodes more and more and, eventually, reads independently.
Still, adults remain as gate-keepers for the books. The gatekeeping might be in
the form of a parent purchasing the book, or a teacher assigning the book, or a
librarian choosing which books are available on the shelves, or an editor
deciding whether a book is geared for young readers. Wherever that gatekeeping
occurs, at some point along the way, an adult has looked at the book and
determined, “Yes, this is suitable for a child.” The key here is that adults
read children’s books. And not just some of them. All of them.
So, we have books aimed for children but read by adults, and purchased by
adults. The fact is, unless an adult is willing to read the book, it is not
going to be read by a child.
Think for a minute about alphabet books. You could sink a ship with all the
alphabet books on the market—just how many alphabet books does a single child
really want to read, anyway? And yet, new alphabet books continue to be churned
out, year after year. True, there is a ready market in adults who view them as a
teaching tool, but you still have to get children to sit and listen. Their
popularity will not wane, however, because once in a while someone will produce
something original and entertaining, that keeps both adults and children glued
to the page, and that makes money for both the publisher and the author. "Chicka
Chicka Boom Boom" by Bill Martin Jr., John Archambault and Lois Ehlert, is such
a book, still in print after 16 years. Creating it took skill—talent as well,
but skill is even more important—honed over years of producing children’s books.
Packed in a volume containing all of 274 words (52 of them being the recitation
of the alphabet (twice), and another 30 being repetitions of the refrain), they
wrote a story about the alphabet (in meter and rhyme that scanned) which was
actually amusing, and made the text and physical aspect both kid-friendly and
with adult appeal. This may not be your favorite book. You might not even like
it. But the pre-school and kindergarten set eat it up. And adults keep on buying
it and reading it to them.
The more successful a children’s book is, the more adult readers there are.
Harry Potter demonstrates this proposition at its extreme. The word of mouth was
phenomenal, and the marketing that followed, brilliant, but nothing substituted
for the fact that J.K. Rowling hooked the gatekeepers. Sure, they purchased the
book for their kids, but they also wanted to read it for themselves. Whether
Harry Potter will join the cannon of great children’s literature, revered and
studied by academics and readers alike, or whether Rowling will become another
Horatio Alger, selling millions of copies and then hardly being read by future
generations, truly does not matter. For the here and now, Rowling accomplished
beyond anyone’s dreams what every single children’s book author attempts to do
(whether consciously or not, and not always with success): she wrote a
children’s book—yes, it is just a children’s book—aimed squarely for the kids
who are right up front, and the grown ups who sit right beside them, and won
them over both.
A.C.E. Bauer has been telling and writing stories since
childhood. She took a short break to write dreadful poetry in
then a longer one while she worked as an attorney, writing legal
briefs and telling stories about her clients. She has returned
to fiction, and now writes children's books and short stories
for all ages. She was a finalist for the Tassy Walden Award: New
Voices in Children's Literature in both 2001 and 2002.
her stories has appeared in Ladybug magazine, and a
middle-grade, magical-realism novel is scheduled for
publication in autumn 2007. Born and raised in Montreal, she spends most of the
year in New England with her family, and much of the summer on a
lake in Quebec.
In the Rabbit Hole
began in December 2005
Reconciling to the Impossible
A.C.E. Bauer at
acebauer at gmail dot com