Children’s literature is not a genre

Guus Kuijer, The Book of Everything (2004; Translation by John Nieuwenhuizen, Allen & Unwin 2006)
David Greenberg & Victoria Chess, Slugs (Pepper Press 1983)

There’s a way of talking about children’s literature as if it’s a genre, like detective stories or police procedurals or thrillers or vampire stories or fantasy novels. I think this is quite wrong. A genre has acknowledged conventions, that can be followed flexibly or even violated in any particular specimen of the genre. The conventions change and grow with time. But they still rule. It’s not a vampire movie if no one sucks blood. It’s not a detective story if there’s no major crime in the first quarter of the book. Children’s literature isn’t like that. It’s defined entirely by the imagined readership. I like Margaret Mahy’s definition, which I remember as: Children’s literature is literature that you can start enjoying while a child. The two books I’ve just read illustrate my point.

0316326593 I read Slugs for the first time in years the other night. My five year old great-niece was staying with her father. At bedtime, having scoured our bookshelves, she emerged with this unpleasant little book and asked me in her sweet, shy way to read it to her. Evidently she’d fallen in love with the book earlier in the year when they stayed here in our absence. I complied with as much gusto as I could muster. I find the book profoundly unattractive. It has rudimentary rhymes, describing a huge variety of slugs, many being subjected to would-be comic indignities, tortured and murdered in hideous ways, all with images showing the brown creatures impassively accepting their fates, until in the last pages they come and wreak a horrible revenge on a child (known in the book as ‘you’), ending:

And after how you’ve treated Slugs
It surely serves you right!

My great-niece seemed to enjoy having this horror read to her, and when I’d finished she sat for maybe half an hour studying the pages intently.

Clearly she is the reader the creators had in mind – she and my sons twenty or so years ago. I am not that reader.

1kuijerThe Book of Everything is definitely a children’s book, but it couldn’t be more different. It has more in common with J M Coetzee’s Boyhood (which I’ll blog about during the week), in subject matter, point of view, even tone, than it does with Slugs. A lonely boy, helped by apparitions of Jesus and an old woman who is almost certainly a witch, finds a way to free himself and his family from the dominion of his harsh, violent, religiously extreme father. It speaks in particular to literate children. The hero,Thomas, finds inspiration in Emil and the Detectives, Joanna Spyri’s All Alone in the World and the Book of Genesis. The narrative assumes familiarity with literary conventions (OK, there are some conventions!), particularly those about witches in children’s literature. I found my adult-reader self wanting explanations of Thomas’s visions: ‘Please be clear about this. Is the poor child hallucinating from terror, or is this a world where such things really happen?’ Such questions are just plain irrelevant to the book’s imagined reader, and once I moved over to occupy that position the book opened up to me – or I opened up to it.

It occurred to me that just as Pixar animations, among other children’s movies, tend to wink knowingly over the heads of the children in their audience, both these books are winking at the children – ‘Don’t tell the adults.’ If we have to talk genre, the first is something like Perversely Cautionary Verse (which may be a genre found only in children’s literature), the second Domestic Magic Realism (and I doubt if that is limited to any age readers).

I read The Book of Everything on Richard Tulloch‘s recommendation. His dramatisation of it will be playing at Belvoir Street at the end of the year. It seems to me that one of his challenges is to take the story away from the children and give it to the adults who will presumably make up the bulk of the Belvoir audience.

10 responses to “Children’s literature is not a genre

  1. Yes.
    YES.
    This is pretty much what I’m studying and the literature is pretty accepting of this position.

    The young adult ‘genre’ as a definition is slightly narrower than that, but you set it out so well here that I may be forced to quote you (and perhaps Margaret Mahy).

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  2. This is a great post, Jonathan. I wish you would share it on Facebook. I’ll be very keen to see Richard Tulloch’s adaptation — you know what a fan I am of his dramatisations of children’s books!

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  3. Thanks for the Book of Everything review, Jonathan. Yes, I wasn’t sure what to make of Thomas’s visions either – are they really happening and only he sees them, or is he slightly unhinged by events?

    But I’m also guessing that the story is autobiographical, and it’s even possible that the diary 9 year old Thomas is writing really exists. Mr Kuijer would then be justified in just including what he wrote as a child without comment, even if he imperfectly understands it himself.

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  4. Hi Richard: I ended up deciding that the lack of certainty was just something to be accepted, and once I stopped worrying it became a pleasure — like those ambiguous images where it’s an old woman’s head or a young one’s whole body depending on which you happen to see at the time. I hadn’t thought of it as autobiographical, though now you mention it the introductory paragraphs do invite us to think that.

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  5. Hi Jonathan,

    Just reading your blog. Great stuff.
    Just one spelling mistake in
    the author of “The Book of Everything”
    his name is Guus Kuyer – not Kuijen.
    See you soon
    Love
    Agnes

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  6. Now I made a mistake in his name
    I wrote KUYER but is should be KUIJER

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  7. Thanks, Agnes. How embarrassing! It’s now fixed.

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  8. I hardly ever understand exactly what i write, and certainly not what i wrote a long time ago. What is literature about? Is it about understanding things or is it about finding your way through the mysteries of life?
    Guus Kuijer

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  9. Mijnheer Kuijer: I’m honoured that you should comment here. I think you have confirmed my sense of how the book should be read. Your remark reminds me of the motto of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, ‘Get lost along with us.’

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