Peter Hunt looks at the perennial problem of deciding what we mean by a ‘good’ children’s book.
We are teachers, librarians, publishers, parents, writers, reviewers, booksellers. We are also male, female and, usually, adults. We all want books to do different things for different children of different ages from different cultures in different situations and for different reasons.
And yet we all want to know - as simply as possible - what is ‘good’?
Confronted by an avalanche of around 7,000 new books a year, and a huge backlist to choose from, what criteria should we use in making our selections? After all, nobody really wants to accept anyone else’s opinion about what is ‘good’.
How often have you bought a book on the strength of a rave review (‘all children will love ...’) only to find that you do not like it, or, if you do, that the children you work with or live with perversely refuse to love it. The ‘all children will love’ approach is no use to us, even if it could ever be true, because most of us have the difficult task of bringing individual books to individual children in individual circumstances.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) there are no reliable short cuts. But we can clear the ground by each of us deciding what we think is good and why. ‘Good’ does not belong to somebody else - to the great ‘they’. Arguments about what is good often collapse into a rather weary ‘well, it’s all a matter of taste’ - but people are usually a little uneasy - or defiant- about that, as if somebody, somewhere knows better than they do about what is good. After all, some things have to be better than others, don’t they? Jane Austen is better than Judy Blume and that’s that. Even if far more people enjoy Blume than Austen ... they shouldn’t really, should they?
The tricky truth is that what is ‘good’ is only a matter of taste, and the sooner we get rid of the myth that there is some absolute ‘good’ in these matters, the better. ‘Good’, after all, does not belong to a great ‘they’.
Children’s books are different from adults’ books: they are written for a different audience, with different skills, different needs, and different ways of reading. Children experience texts in ways which, because they can rarely communicate them, are unknowable, but which must, because of the nature of language and the infinite variety of individual experiences, be very rich and complex.
Let me emphasise: children and children’s books are different, not lesser. Why, then, do we judge children’s books by the same value systems we use for adult books - where they are bound by definition to emerge as lesser. To say that Judy Blume is not as good as Jane Austen is like saying that this apple is an unsuccessful orange because it is green, and that oranges are innately superior anyway.
In the November issue of BfK in a Poetry round-up, Jack Ousbey wrote: ‘There are some poets writing for children whose work is of such quality that adults, too, find their poems engaging and challenging ...’? It is amazing how deeply ingrained the idea is that children’s books are necessarily inferior - even in those who purport to support them. Most of the problems about judging what is ‘good’ arise with discussion of what is seen as ‘literature’. ‘Literature’ is a useful concept if we want to educate children into a particular kind of culture: but it is a pernicious one if it devalues any of the other million things teachers, librarians, parents do with children’s books. What is valued as ‘literature’ in the adult world is the choice of a self-elected elite (usually male and adult); children’s literature debate too often mirrors this approach which also implies that there is something called ‘literariness’ that you can detect on the page - ‘good’ writing. Reviewers and students sometimes try to indicate the ‘goodness’ of a book by referring, in a hopeful - and always vague - way to its ‘literary style’ (Alan Garner has it; R L Stine doesn’t). This is a dangerous myth: you cannot tell if a piece of text is literature by looking at the words alone. One style cannot be abstractly ‘better’ than another. Some books may be more complex or more subtle than others - but that should not lead to an automatic placing of them on some ‘literary’ scale of ‘goodness’ running, perhaps from Jan Mark and Aidan Chambers, through Gillian Cross and Anne Fine down to ‘manufactured’ series, like ‘Animal Ark’ or ‘Goosebumps’. Both ends of the scale lose out then, one end rejected as elitist, the other rejected as junk - and neither is seen for its own kind of ‘goodness’. (The ‘safe’ middle ground may suffer from over-praise - as when one reviewer described Gillian Cross’s The Great Elephant Chase as ‘writing at its best’.)
Equally, we have to be careful that we do not give our prejudices the mantle of cosmic truth. Take tradition: are children who come to the images of Tony Ross or John Scieszka or Walt Disney before they come to Grimm or Perrault or Milne having a lesser experience than previous generations or merely a different one? What about originality? Just what, precisely, makes the 1911 The Secret Garden‘more original’ than the ‘novelisation’ of the film? After all, the most derivative book is original if you read it first.
Away with absolutes, then! And away with judging all children’s books against some adult books: books are for different purposes at different times. ‘For’ is the key word. What are books ‘good’for?
They are good for readers - real, individual readers, us, not another constructed ‘they’. Why do we think a certain book is ‘good’? Because of those hundreds of things that made us: our sex, race, class, home town, TV, our own secret shelf of childhood reading and the rest. Let us start with our selves as the true bases of judgement.
Once we know where we are coming from, then we can go on to make judgements about whether a book might be ‘good’ for the children we know. Reviewers who say - ‘my class fell about laughing’ are fine with me - as long as I know something about their class. Those who try to be universal (‘six-year-olds will ...’) are not fine: lumping ‘children’ together may be convenient, but it is demeaning and ultimately pointless.
‘Good for’, then, but ‘good for’ in what way? Some children’s books are ‘good’ time passers; others ‘good’ for acquiring literacy; others ‘good’ for expanding the imagination or ‘good’ for inculcating general social attitudes, or ‘good’ for dealing with issues or coping with problems, or ‘good’ for reading in that ‘literary’ way which is a small part of adult culture, or ‘good’ for dealing with racism ... and most books do several things. This is not a scale where some purposes stand higher than others - it is a matrix where hundreds of subtle meanings are generated: what you think is good depends on you, the children, and on what you are using the book for - and every reading is different.
Having said all that, there is the disconcerting fact that any one reader may well read in total contradiction to another: it is not difficult to find someone who thinks that Anne Fine’s Madame Doubtfire is a tragedy rather than a comedy.
This whole approach to ‘good’ can be taken as refreshing freedom or bewildering anarchy. I would rather have a book judged in relation to every other book, than to a canon produced by other people! And as to anarchy: although we are individuals, we are all part of groups, with norms and responsibilities, and we understand general cultural values and local necessities - value-judgements are never free-floating.
But, practically, we are left with that pile of 7,000 volumes and diminishing resources. Even if we are clear and confident about how we select, we still need help. The short cuts we have are dangerous: after all, pity the poor reviewers with 50 words to say something we can understand. To trust such reviews, we need to have confidence in the reviewer and/or the journal they are writing in. Can we join a community of like-minded souls, and rely on the fact that if a reviewer works for BfK, or if it is, say, Julia Eccleshare, then we can relate to their idea of ‘good’? Perhaps that is the best we can do in an imperfect world; or should we ask for a declaration from each reviewer about who they are, what they value in books, what they stand for? As Oscar Wilde said, ‘All criticism is a mode of autobiography.’
In the end, the search for ‘good’ should be a matter of delight rather than faction. My own personal ‘good’ in children’s books involves, above all, expanding the mind: encountering the new, the different, the stretching. But I also believe that just as there is no such thing as a dull or insignificant person, so there is no such thing as a dull and insignificant book: good is what we make it. That may be idealistic - but doesn’t it sum up the whole business of children’s books? As I said, it is impossible to agree. Good!
Peter Hunt is the first British Professor of Children’s Literature (at the University of Wales, Cardiff). Among his most recent books are An Introduction to Children’s Literature (Oxford, Opus Paperbacks, 1994) and the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature (Routledge, 1996).