Volume 21 Issue 22 2013-06-14
Jemima Puddle-Duck is disappearing. So is Heidi, and it looks like Pippi Longstocking could soon follow. Are these classic children’s characters the victims of some dastardly plot? No, but they’re rapidly vanishing from the literary landscape as fewer children read the classics.
A recent Guardian article highlights the growing trend. The question, of course, is whether we should be concerned about it. Will today’s young readers somehow be less curious if they’ve never enjoyed the escapades of Peter Rabbit? Are they missing valuable life lessons if they never dive into stories about Pollyanna’s selflessness? No, and the challenge here is to not confuse literary value with nostalgia.
It’s only natural that we put our favourite childhood things on a bit of a pedestal. We look back on cherished books, films, and games through a sort of soft-focus mental lens. True, those things brought us countless hours of pleasure. Earlier generations went on thrilling adventures through the stories in The Jungle Book, or with popular characters like Honey Bunch, Roy Rogers, and the Five Little Peppers. Then there were Trixie Belden, the Hardy Boys, and many others.
Yet the popularity of these tales doesn’t automatically endow them with moral merit. Though they often reflected more innocent values (the good guys were clearly good and the bad guys clearly bad), it doesn’t mean the world was a kinder, gentler place then. It simply means that it wasn’t acceptable to discuss tough social topics in children’s literature (at least, not unless those topics were heavily cloaked in allegory, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s war experiences reflected in The Hobbit, or the Biblical metaphors in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).
For the most part, though, classic children’s literature reflected the moral values of its particular time. It might have stressed the virtues of being “good” within the confines of mainstream Western society, but a children’s book that openly challenged the widespread racism and sexism of previous decades would likely never have been published.
As for literary merit, many children’s classics are indeed carefully crafted. They’re well edited, well illustrated, and contain vocabulary that demands something from young readers. But many of the more modern classics, like the original Hardy Boys books of the 1920s and 1950s, were stilted to the point of being wooden.
In contrast, societal changes in the latter half of the 20th century led to more realistic kids’ books being published: titles like The Outsiders and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. And Lisa, Bright and Dark, which tackled the topic of mental illness.
There are many different yardsticks by which to measure children’s literature, but perhaps the most important one of all has nothing to do with the way adults view it. Instead, when deciding whether to ensure that our kids are exposed to Jemima Puddle-Duck and Heidi, we should ask how well those books speak to the kids themselves.
If your 10-year-old protests the very thought of Robinson Crusoe but devours every last book in the Heroes of Olympus series, the fact that the Riordan books aren’t classic literature won’t stop them from instilling a love of reading. Indeed, that’s exactly how Jemima herself got started—once an unknown little duck, she grew in popularity among young readers and quickly became the well-loved literary matriarch she is today.
So rather than worrying about yesterday’s classics, let’s pay attention to the quality of children’s literature today. After all, they’re probably the classics of tomorrow.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).
To comment on this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Search The Voice:
Receive weekly notices when The Voice is
Go here if you no longer wish to receive
our email notifications.