The Child Reader V. The Reading Child
I'm interested to see that it is my post on Jeanne Du Prau's City of Ember which is currently attracting comments. Lazygirl points out that her students loved the book.
This is always a problem when discussing children's fiction. I've not forgotten a panel on Harry Potter which was demolished when a child stood up to say that they were his favourite books ever. We all resisted pointing out that his "ever" wasn't very long.
Children's points of view do matter. We can't say a book is a wonderful book for children if children don't like it. Or we can, but you end up with writers like William Mayne who are marketed for children but as far as anyone can tell, enjoyed much more by adults. But there remains that difficulty that children may not have much against which to test a book.
What I want to do though is to get away from this kind of discussion in a very specific way. I want to challenge this group, "The Child Reader" which crops up in so many texts, because I have begun to think it a very sloppy term which hides a multitude of problems and very many fascinating questions.
To state the obvious: not all children are the same.
To begin with, I think it is long past time that children's fiction critics began to distinguish between the Child Reader and the Reading Child.
The Child Reader is all children who are being "encouraged" to read. These children read artificially in that they read because they are given books. They may do so willingly (and move themselves into my other category) or they may read only the books they are given and never read a book independently after the age of ten. It is these readers who critics discuss when they see children as something different in the market, a group for whom books will be chosen by adults.
Then there is the Reading Child. You know who this child is. If you are reading this blog you probably were one. You were the child who went from non-reader to reader almost over night (this often happens young but I know of one person for whom it happened at the age of ten). You don't remember the stage where you halted over words, because you were too busy falling over the next one. Francis Spufford writes of this brilliantly in The Child that Books Built and incidentally suggests that checking children understand what they read may destroy the pleasure in the act of reading--that reading is not about content but about form.
The Reading Child is the child who has to be steered around lamp-posts, who consumes books the way most kids consume candy. The Reading Child is the child who is a market, and who acts like an adult in the marketplace, because for this child, only a fraction of their books come from their parents, from teachers, or from librarians. This can occur in a range of contexts: Diana Wynne Jones frequently recalls her father's mean-ness with books which ensured that if she wanted to read she had to go beyond his choices. For myself, my mother was inordinately generous, pegging my pocket money at the cost of a paperback (if I bought second hand I could buy three), giving me books at birthdays and Christmas, but by the time I was eleven I was a member of three libraries and Saturday was a glorious round of choosing books. I reckon adults chose less than a tenth of what I read. The only adult influence was the same as it is on adult readers, what the librarians or book shop owners had chosen to stock.
The Reading Child is on the way to being an adult reader and will probably, eventually, make choices about what s/he thinks s/he likes. And it is in this context that I am asking, 'if the first piece of fiction ostentatiously labeled "science fiction" they read does not represent the adult genre, what are the consequences?' What bothers me is less the child who reads this kind of book, reaches for adult sf and discovers it's not for them, but the child who would like sf--often interested in a rational world, a world which can be worked out, a world in which stupidity gets you killed, less interested in sentiment and romance--who might read such a book and not find the elements of sf which interest them.