Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Reading Child--Call and Response

I'm not going to actually close threads but when--as has happened with this thread--I turn on to find so many comments, I'll try to respond as a post. Please do keep disagreeing with me vociferously. It makes me think harder about my arguments. I expect some will fall by the wayside as I proceed, others need honing and refining.

Zhaneel said...
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.

Oh, it happens. I'm a Reading Child who once ran so short of books while staying with my Dad that his friend Gordon came round with a suitcase full that he had collected from someone for Oxfam. On the off chance he is reading this, Gordon, this blog is all your fault. The suitcase was almost entirely sf and as I had nothing else to read, I started in. Several Haldeman's, Stableford's, Joan Vinge's and Heinlein's later I was hooked.

Jeff V pointed out that the Reading Child (as I describe him or her) is often an indiscriminate reader, and that many of those books don't hold up in adult eyes. I think the confusion in the second part of that (not Jeff's but more generally) is between "will read anything" and "reads uncritically". I don't think children do read uncritically, and I think the Reading Child often has very high standards, but that what these standards are varies from child to child. As many of the posts here and also at Over the Sea indicated, there are children who read for the sheer sound of words in their head and go on to become hooked on words and the sound of words (these, I suspect, are the children most likely to become writers); there are children who read for story; and children who read for "relevance" or even for "irrelevance" (I've always thought "Problem Books" to be much more escapist than fantasy--who hasn't fantasized about their death bed, or being orphaned as a child?).

Jeff also wrote; . 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.

And again, I think this is true of some children, but talking to the children I buy books for, it's astonishing how early they know "the kind of thing" they like. Their genre divisions don't necessarily match up with those of the book shop but try buying a book on trains for a child who likes dinosaurs and see how much thanks you get.

This is where things get interesting, because sometimes we can misunderstand why children like a book (or adults for that matter).
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 I want to know is why that child loved the book, What grabbed him or her? marsha said. of her son's range of reading... t 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 This for me is in at the heart of the genre debate, in that a book is categorized as much by how it is read and what the readers take from it as it is by what the writer thinks they are doing. I'm right with you on this one.

One of the issues that came up with Harry Potter is that readers like me/us steeped in fantasy and science fiction, got told off when we pointed out the inconsistencies and the derivativeness. I don't think the "dog in the manger" accusation entirely unfair--lots of us were pissed off on behalf of our favourite children's fantasy writers--but I think at the heart of this was the issue that we were reading these books differently, partially because we were adults, but over and above all because science fiction and fantasy has taught us a Way of Reading: we demand internal logic, we demand that a world could hold together (the epitome of this is the two Science of Discworld books), and the more we read, the more we demand that the people we read be aware of all the other people we read. Science fiction and fantasy is astonishingly inter-textual because that is how the genres built their irony of mimesis

Andy Sawyer brought up Karin Lesnik-Oberstein (Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child, 1994) who is a critic I admire a great deal, and asked: " Two questions there: are you are yourself reconstructing "the child reader" here?

To which the answer is "yes" but I am trying to suggest that there are many kinds of child readers, and that in the current critical "child-first" literature, and in many of the books produced between 1970 and 2000 (we may be seeing a change again) the "child reader" was constructed as being socialised to a particular type of society, one which looked inward, spent a lot of time in therapy, and thought aspirations to change the world was Utopian (and used the word in a pejorative sense).

But in terms of which side of the debate am I? It depends on which book I'm writing. My forthcoming book on Diana Wynne Jones is of the "text is all that counts" variety.

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.

My problem was with the sheer stupidity of the premise, and the degree to which everything the children achieved was luck or coincidence. Compare this to the gold standard, Heinlein. In Have Space Suit Will Travel Kip is told very firmly that there is no such thing as luck there is only being prepared for the opportunity. I bet if you turned out the average handbag/backpack in any science fiction convention you will find that there is some reflection of that ethos.

One thing that really puzzles me is the number of children's sf books in which careers are decided by lottery (David Stahler Jr.'s excellent Truesight which I'll talk about tomorrow is another. Is there some deep metaphorical issue here that I'm missing?

I don't mind the protagonists being ignorant. I mind the idea of "found knowledge". In Moore's and Blish's books, knowledge has to be worked at and created.

I'm interested that Zhaneel at least agrees with me that a bad experience with a "labelled" book can put one off the label. For me this happened with horror, hence I have just started reading Stephen King for the very first time.

marsha said.... He likes the Heinlein youth sci fi cause of it's adventure and independence of the children.

This is a point that I think lies at the heart of good sf. And probably a lot of other good children's books as well for that matter, but to write it, you need to believe that leaving home is a good thing. Not all cultures do. I wish I read Italian because I would love to see what their YA fiction looks like, given that a court has just ruled a "child" has the right to parental support until he marries.

And finally:

sturgeonslawyer said...I was a "reading child," and an obsessive one at that....Nonetheless, I was very definitely a fussy reader from an early age who knew what _kind_ of stuff I wanted.

Absolutely, And this is what I am getting at. I think children do know the kind of stuff they want, and what bothers me is when books with a label (sturgeonslawyer's rocket ships, Gollancz sf yellow jackets) which would connect them to the kind of stuff in the adult genre, is actually not that stuff at all. It's like thinking you've bought chocolate and biting into carob. Carob may be nice as carob, but it ain't chocolate.

sturgeonslawyer said 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.

And onto my next notion. There is a popular idea now about children being "reading ready". I bet we could work out some ideas about how a child is "sf ready". Like sturgeonslawyer, I'd been reading can do books, and collections of myths and legends long before I fell over genre.


Blogger JeffV said...


Everything I said in my comment was true of *me*. And of others I know. And I'm sure it's not true of others. I think you'd have to do a pretty significant statistical survey before making a generalization about any of this. Perhaps one has been done?


6:38 PM  
Blogger Karen Traviss said...

I came to this thread late, but it got me thinking, and then it got me worrying.

What of the Reading Child who doesn't read fiction?

I've always made my living by writing, so I think it's fair to assume I enjoy the written word and can use it. I don't read fiction at all now, unless forced by someone paying me, but I had thought I read plenty as kid. Then I took another look at what I had actually read, though, and the reality is very different to my recollection: I actually read very little fiction indeed. The books that I most recalled reading - and I read SF exclusively - weren't the headline books, but pretty well the only books. (I kept the books: I can count them.)

This is worrying me, because I can't recall exactly how much non-fiction I actually read, either. I now wonder how I ever acquired any facility with language at all, because it wasn't at home (I come from an unskilled manual background, with primary education to match) and it sure as hell wasn't at grammar school, where they did everything they could to turn me off both reading and writing. And yet now I make my living as a novelist. How? If I largely missed out on fiction, where did I get my "norming" in language, or structure, or theme? Damned if I know. I'm looking for the implanted chip even as we speak.

My mother now shames me by reading three books a week, of course.

6:12 AM  
Blogger tom said...

The other issue that 'sf ready' brings up has to be related to the 'nannying' that a great many parents do with regard to their children's reading. Neil's anecdotes about the adult/child perceptions of 'Coraline' come to mind, as do my own recollections of 'Marianne Dreams', which I ploughed through in an afternoon as a child (with no ill-effects on my world outlook), but encountered parental discomfort when I announced that I'd read it and wanted to read more books like it. Deciding when a child is ready to read whatever we may decide is 'challenging' is surely a matter of making that material available and encouraging them to pick and chose.

I share Farah's (I'm guessing here) views of Harry Potter (from an adult perspective), but have tried to make sure that there's a wealth of more intertextual and 'realised' fantasy and sf available to friends' children who want to 'read more like this'.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

Sorry, Jeff, I didn't mean to assert you were making generalisations. One of the problems is that there are no statistical surveys. A friend (Kim Selling of Australia) has just done a small survey for me which I'm going to use to develop one for this blog. Even that will produce only qualitative rather than quantitive results.

Karen's point about children who read mostly non-fiction is very interesting. Teachers and parents often don't seem to regard these children as Readers (at least if the wording of the requests I receive to advise parents on what they can use to tempt their children to fiction is anything to go by).

One issue that might be relevant to Karen's comment is that after years of dismissing narrative history in the teaching of the subject, it has come back into fashion. Popular histories (of tulips, longtitude, the telegraph system) are brilliantl constructed narratives.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Andy Sawyer said...

Haven't got time to stick around and really get involved with this at the moment -- too much cataloguing to do -- but you say

"One thing that really puzzles me is the number of children's sf books in which careers are decided by lottery (David Stahler Jr.'s excellent Truesight which I'll talk about tomorrow is another. Is there some deep metaphorical issue here that I'm missing?"

I've not read TRUESIGHT and it sounds interesting. It might well be (although this doesn't explain why the adults who *write* the books use this trope)that to many children what you do "when you grow up" is either fixed and determined (I recall with some chills a primary school children in the 1970s who said to me quite calmly "when I leave school and go on the dole I'll . . .")or the subject of some unexplained set of random chances. The idea that "this is what I want to do when I grow up" implies knowing enough and having enough confidence to make the choices, and overome the obstacles, which will get you there. A career choice set by lottery may be comforting. It may also explain why some clear incompetents end up in important and influential positions . . .

6:59 AM  
Blogger sturgeonslawyer said...

I _don't_ agree with the received (well, in SFF fandom) wisdom that the "Harry Potter" books are somehow sucking juice from the writers who've been powering the genre for years. Yeah, there are derivative bits, but that's true of most SFF - even writers powered by really original "ideas" still tend use a lot of stuff derived from other SFF to put their original ideas _into_. And, honestly, I think that the basic idea of "Harry Potter" - which is crossing over the British "school story" with secret-world fantasy - is both original and well done.

As for the "SF ready child": I think that this is less of a problem _in some ways_ than it used to be, due to the vast amounts of media SF out there. What a new SFF reader (adult or child) still has to learn is the tricks ("rhetorical tropes") by which the SFF writer deploys information about the fictional world, how to attend to the text to spot and decode those tricks. You know -- the old "The door dilated" bit.

2:46 PM  

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