Thursday, January 06, 2005

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.


Blogger JeffV said...


But the whole point, it seems to me, of what you're saying about the Reading Child, of which I was one, is that the Reading Child devours almost everything with equal fervor. There is an age (or a range of ages) at which, other than "boring"/"interesting" in some cases, you simply read it all and enjoy it regardless of whether it even makes much sense or is any good--and it doesn't matter. It all becomes mulch, so to speak. When you grow up, you seek out that sense of freedom in reading again, but with your critical faculties turned on, and so it is just the memory of the childhood reading experience that is of importance rather than the actual content of what was read.

Much of what I loved as a child doesn't hold up, even as children's entertainment, now, but it didn't once discourage me from reading later in life. I like to think of children as piratical rogues who care as little about genre and boundaries as we should as adults, swashbuckling from one adventure to the next, soaking it all up and adding it to the totality of who they are or want to be. Making the imperfect in what they read perfect in their imaginations.


8:00 AM  
Blogger Fish Monkey said...

Hi, Farah. I think you are absolutely right -- even though, as Jeff pointed out, many reading children read indiscriminately, they acquire taste as they grow. Now, most of Harry Potter's reader will not acquire the habit of reading -- they grow up to become adults who read maybe a book a year, from some bestsellers list. These are the people who love The DaVinci Code.

Your previous comparison with fast food is especially apt -- most books on bestseller list are literary equivalents of overprocessed hamburgers, devoid of any nutritional value but attractively packaged and easy to chew. Eating healthy food is an acquired taste, just like good books. One does not do it but having one salad a year, but through a steady diet of greens (or books). OK, I think I took this metaphore as far as it would go. Cheers!

10:14 AM  
Blogger Lazygal said...

I agree, there is a *vast* difference between the Reading Child and the Child Reader. In the case of City of Ember, it was Reading Children that loved it (the child that brought it to my attention is severly dyslexic but struggled his way through and then raved about it to friends and classmates).

What saddens me are the children like this one, who have the potential to become Reading Children (and Reading Teens/Adults)despite real difficulties yet don't persevere because of what they're forced to read for class. I keep hoping that they'll read no matter what.

C.S. Lewis said that just because something was written for children didn't mean that it couldn't also be a good story for adults. He felt that a good story was a good story, no matter when it was written. I'd add to that the concept of reading as a child would read: are you critical because it's not a good story, or because it's not a "sophisticated" one? If the former, quit. If the latter, you're missing something.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

I don't know, Farah. As Jeff said, the reading child is often the child who reads everything. I read cereal boxes at breakfast as a child, advertisements, virtually anything that appeared before me (still do). I read a lot of crap quite happily, crap both in the sense of bad fiction (ie. Burroughs, DC comics, etc), but also those awkward, educator-approved controlled vocabulary reading sets, the kind where each child is tested and assigned a set of readings on some wholesome topic at exactly their reading level. I loved those things in elementary school and was pleased every time I finished a set and moved up to another level.

There's no way that reading the kind of books that you don't want to see as science fiction would have turned me off to Heinlein and Norton.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Andy Sawyer said...

I agree with you that there's a serious problem with considering the "child reader" and without repeating at length what I wrote in the Children's fantasy issue of Foundation, I note that Karin Lesnik-Oberstein (Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child, 1994 writes that “children’s literature criticism views itself as split between critics who are quite sure that they have a knowledge of the child sufficient for their purposes and critics who claim they cannot predict the way children read.” I'd also point out that a neglected part of this circle is the adult reader who is reading as an adult, not (or at least not consciously) trying to re-create any sense of nostalgic child-ness but reading a book as any other book.

You write "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." Two questions there: are you are yourself reconstructing "the child reader" here? And what are the elements which cause the movements towards the kind of sf that we consider "good"? In this particular book the two children are solving a problem which the surrounding world has either forgotten or is actively trying to cover up: very much the pattern of the kind of sf which I grew up with. I recall Patrick Moore's "Mars" sequence which has 16 year old boys chosen to go on Mars missions despite their appalling ignorance of basic science (there, so that WE can have the science explained to us, via older and wiser characters in the books explaining, and thereby learn something). Or James Blish's WELCOME TO MARS which has a teenager marooned on Mars and some kerfuffle at the end about a teenager being chosen because teenagers are best able to cope. All complete nonsense, but it makes you feel good at the time. (That's a bit harsh: I enjoyed those books and they're part of my journey into adult sf).

I'm not saying you're wrong about the book as you describe it and you are certainly right about the "best book I ever read" nonsense (only an old cynic like me would ask "How many other books have you read?)But it would take more than one book to put "The Reading Child" off a genre. If you're a "Reading Child" you read anything: if you're not reading something it's because it's thoroughly, unspeakably bad or boring. It's the "Child Reader" who may have difficulties here and this category, I'd suggest, is also problematic, because there are children who "read artificially" for a number of reasons, from lack of access to "real books" to severe problems in perception.

4:38 AM  
Blogger AFM said...

I'm a new reader of this blog and a child who read three to four books a day. My son is nine and similar. He's also very clear on what he does lik and what he doesn't, whether I hand it to him or he picks it up. He likes the Heinlein youth sci fi cause of it's adventure and independence of the children. He likes the newest Dune Book, machine crusade, because of it's robots and brains in canisters and the boy hero he identifies with Selim Wormrider. He tells me Inspector Gadget is a cymek and how he would run up and off a worm.

He loves Harry Potter because he can just read it and be in another world, once again a world where children save the day, have power and fix the bad stuff.

Even more important to me is the fact that books aren't about the language or style to him, it's about understanding other's points of view from inside their own thought processes. His grief in life is mirrored in Harry Potter's. The understanding of human motivation from the Dune book is astounding.

And as an almost exclusive sci fi kid my reading as an adult has grown in subject matter as my life is impacted by things. I read Herodotus Histories due to the Neil Gaimen book it was referenced in. Similar to reading blogs on the internet, I relate to what is written and follow the "links" to an author's influences.

My point being reading itself is the influence and if a child can find another world in a book it will lead her further and further because of the pleasure of reading, not because she's been handed great liturature.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Alison Scott said...

My daughter is a seven-year-old of the steer round lamp-posts type. She mostly reads fiction, mostly relatively easy fiction (Fave authors are Jacqueline Wilson and Anne Fine). Today she came home with a fictionalised account of a Jewish child who escaped from Germany on the kinderstransport, not her normal sort of thing at all. But her name is Marianne, and the book is 'Goodbye Marianne'. And that's all it takes to excite her in a book at the moment.

She's highly resistant to the book analysis that the school encourages. They want her to write about every book she reads; I'm not very supportive of this because I know firsthand from people who found that terribly destructive, and there's no evidence that being forced to write about a book before you get to read another one either develops children as critical readers or encourages them to read more.

Recent research suggests that very few British 11-year-olds read books for pleasure; even the ones that read well don't choose to do it on their own time. We're missing a trick somewhere.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Zhaneel said...

Having read only the post and not the comments. And this Dawn B. Forgot I had this blogger account.

I was a Reading Child. Forget being steered around lamp posts, I read while shopping with my mother, dodging people, babies and carts along the way.

I full agree that asking a child to think critically about a book ruins the joy of reading. I loved Witch of Blackbird Pond. I first read it in fourth (?) grade and read it at least seven to ten times between then and when it was "assigned" reading in seventh grade. I haven't read it since. The book I loved became homework and I was asked to overthink the plotlines, the portrayal of history and find vocab words [which is a challenge for a Reading Child, incidentally]. I loved school and I didn't hate homework, but my pleasure reading became 'work' reading, and so I never re-read the book again. This happened with several books over the course of my schooling. Exceptions being where we were allowed to chose a pleasure book for a book report or essay work in addition to the assigned reading. For whatever reason, having the book be assigned to me resulted in lessened pleasure.

And in regards to SF and a first experience. My first exposure to SF as a child (I was around 11, I think) was a really bad juvie SF novel. No, I don't remember what, I've blocked it out. I decided right then & there that I hated SF. My father, wisely, chose not to inform me that ET [my favorite movie] and Star Trek [my favorite TV show] were SF. He slowly introduced me to fantasy, through Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest books and then Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders. THEN he told me I was reading SF and found the Asimov juvies (Norby the Misfit Robot or somesuch). I devoured SF/F after that. But the one bad experience as a child did almost put me off the genre as a whole.


11:24 AM  
Blogger Zhaneel said...

As a note: I disagree that Reading Children will pick up anything and everything. Many Reading Children have tastes a young age. Several want much the same story again & again [hence Boxcar children, Nancy Drew, Babysitters Club, etc.] and will seek out simliar authors & styles. If they read something they don't like, unless there is nothing else to hand, they won't seek out more of the same. And, IME, it is very hard for a Reading Child to have nothing else at hand, as they often have access to libraries and/or relative's collections so always have several books to choose from.

11:31 AM  
Blogger sturgeonslawyer said...

Okay, well, look, you're right that the whole thing needs to be more nuanced, but a simple bifurcation such as you propose doesn't really dilute the pungent yellow-brown condiment.

I was a "reading child," and an obsessive one at that. There was no time when I could be reading that I wouldn't: this included in bed with the proverbial flashlight, or by the light in the hallway; it also included the ingredients on the cereal box. Nonetheless, I was very definitely a fussy reader from an early age who knew what _kind_ of stuff I wanted.

I didn't know it was SFF at first - I had the idea that "science fiction" was scary stuff about monsters that I wasn't up for.

In retrospect, though, I moved directly from the weird critters of Doctor Seuss to things that were SFF but didn't say so: what probably made me an SFF reader more than anything else was my discovery in kindergarten of a book called "You Will Go To The Moon," a semi-non-fictional account of what it would be like in a much very hard-stfnal vein, that explained a _lot_ of the difficulties and how they would be overcome at a level a (bright) five- or six-year-old could grasp and grok.

From there to a lot of books about kids with gadgets, and things like Dr Doolittle (though never, oddly, Tom Swift), and then on to the Heinlein juveniles when I finally realized that what I was reading was actually "science fiction" and not those monster thingies. The first paperbacks I recall buying with my own money were Murray Leinster's "Time Tunnel" adaptation and Ted Sturgeon's "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" adaptation. This would be third grade.

So my point is: not all child readers are the kind of Catholic reads-anything type you seem to assume. Some of them very definitely know what they want to read and, if they have a choice, will read that and very little else.

Remember those books with the rockets and atoms on the spine in the library? Andre Norton and John Christopher and so on? Sure you do... Those stickers were there so us protonerds could find the stuff we wanted. And we did.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Matt McIrvin said...

I was a Reading Child, but of an odd variety. I was also very much a compulsive rule-follower, the books in my first school library were segregated by age level, and I refused to read the books that were categorized as too old for me because that would be against the rules (even when my parents specifically got a variance for me).

In retrospect, one of the best things that happened to me as a byproduct of entering the county "gifted/talented" program was that (not because of the G/T program, but completely by coincidence) the new school I went to didn't have its library organized this way. So between the ages of eight and ten, I was suddenly able to read anything without breaking any rules, and I switched over to an oddly eclectic range of literature that covered children's fantasies about Moomintroll and Paddington Bear, Heinlein juvies, the Narnia books, adult stories by Isaac Asimov and lots of pop-science nonfiction.

I remember being frustrated by some things that were labeled as science fiction but had rank implausibilities in them, such as one of the later books in the "Mushroom Planet" series. But I also remember deeply loving "Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint", which was not exactly hard SF but was hard enough for me. I suppose that the problematic ones didn't turn me off the genre because there were others available. And, obviously, I was also an avid fantasy reader.

2:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a child reader, and I still remembmer the book which made me one. It was called "Wait till Helen Comes." it was a ghost story and i was in the 3rd grade. that was around 1987

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