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The virtuous medlar circle
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a monthly column by A.C.E. Bauer

January 2006
"It's just a children's book"

“It’s just a children’s book,” he said, “nothing else.”

I cringed.

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 books.

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 college, and 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.

One of 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


Write to A.C.E. Bauer at
acebauer at gmail dot com

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"It's just a children's book" copyright © January 2006 by A.C.E. Bauer.
This essay appears here with thanks to A.C.E. Bauer, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 - 2006