We have only very imprecise information about children’s responses to the children’s books published for them. But if we knew more about how adults read children’s books, would it increase our understanding of how children read them? Margaret Meek sheds new light on a hoary old topic.
This is a hoary old topic. As grown-up readers of Books for Keeps you know how it goes: in terms of production, distribution, sales, reviews and other critical activities, books, as material objects, are in the hands and brains of adults. Children as readers come late to the scene to claim what has been made on their behalf. Constrained by cost and inexperience, their choice of what they might like to read is foreshortened, so they rely on adults also for access to libraries and other collections, in school, perhaps, where reading is again limited by budgets and controlled by Orders. If these restrictions are circumvented, then helpful adults are to be praised and children pleased. So why not just say, as Victor Watson suggested, that ‘children’s books are always, inevitably, adult books, though not straightforwardly, adult’? (1)
How do all those who are involved in children’s books actually read them; I mean, really read them? Or does the division of labour grant this privilege to the few whose opinions count in the early stages of their publication? It ought to be possible to find out how adults read children’s books; we can ask the questions directly. Young readers can be quite explicit when they think adults are really interested, but there are few reports of their views of the task of making meaning from print. I’ve begun to ask friendly adult readers how they read what they have to read and what they choose to read. Unlike the children, experienced readers want to assure me that they know what they are doing. Not many people think that the questions are difficult; few believe my inquiry is particularly relevant to helping children to read better or more. Am I wrong in believing that an increase in our understanding of how interested adults read children’s books would help us to know more about how children read them?
When I began reading children’s books as an adult, seriously, I discovered a whole new literature that gave me an English childhood to add to my Scottish one. I needed this in order to interpret the early experience of my students, the reading history they brought with them to their A-Level set texts. Some of my colleagues found my lingering in the fiction library with Angela Brazil both lazy reading and childish taste, but I had some catching up to do. That was a very long time ago, but these notions hung around until children’s books came into their own, or so I believed. But when I heard someone in a recent discussion about the appeal of Harry Potter say emphatically, ‘Even adults are openly reading these books’, I realised that the subtle, probing analysis of this topic by Peter Hollindale in Signs of Childness in Children’s Books was still specialised reading. (2)
Hollindale illustrates carefully the ‘doubleness’ that all those interested in children’s books have to live with. ‘Children’s literature is characterized both by textual status and by readership, and its uniqueness is evident at the point where they meet.’ (p30) Adults often defend their reading of children’s books as recovering the child they once were. Authors sometimes say that this is the reader they write for when they write about childhood. But it is quite clear that when adults and children read the same book they are not both reading the same text in the same way. We investigate children’s readings for evidence of their inefficiency, by adult standards. We also assume that, because a group of reading adults can discuss a text they have all read, there is no need to inquire into the nature of their different ways of reading. So the emphasis on ‘even’ in the utterance I overheard revived my curiosity about how adults actually read children’s books. What now follows is the first ground-clearing exercise. If you skip from here to the end of this piece you won’t get any answers, just a few hints as to the direction a closer inquiry might take.
Adult readers reading
A short roll/role-call of unabashed professional adult readers of children’s books now includes authors, artists and poets as their own first readers. Thereafter they may read each other’s work, collaboratively or critically, making comparisons of techniques, styles, content and point of view. (Poets really do discuss metre and rhyme, intently). Then come editors, designers, publishers and booksellers, whose roles distinguish what and how they read and the extent to which they have a vested interest in the book as a product. Editors single out one manuscript from a heap of hundreds, or privilege the offerings of literary agents. Happy the writer whose editor is the friend of the text rather than a representative of the finance department concerned with ‘what the market will stand’. All this is fairly common knowledge; reading is not an issue.
Specialist professional readers include those who claim intellectual rights over certain ‘properties’ in children’s books which they investigate by reading the readings of others. They include media and film persons, teachers and assorted academics, social historians and psychologists who read children’s books in ways related to salaried writing and research. You see them in grand libraries, where they consult ‘sources’. They call on the skills of some of the most experienced readers, librarians. Since the technological revolution, librarians have had less time to talk about reading, but they are adepts at reading screens and keeping track of books out of print. Many of these readers of children’s books understudy each other. Their combined operations have helped to produce important books about children’s literature, notably histories, essays and studies, a huge Encyclopedia and (next year) a great new Guide.
Reading as choosing
As with books for adults, children’s books appear as the result of selection procedures that lead to publication. The need to replenish and diversify the stock with new books and new versions of old ones means that editors sift through piles of manuscripts, mostly unsolicited, with great skill and patience, the marks of their craft. The majority of editors of books for children are women who read with pleasure and discernment. Reading is their professional accomplishment. Editors are powerful readers, but there are fewer of them nowadays to help inexperienced writers to realise their early desire to write for children. Instead, editors read the readership, children who see television every day and long for novelties; adults who are keen to help but wonder where to begin. Checking the political correctness of texts; keeping the imaginative wholeness of the story in mind, while they deal with particular words and sentences, a kind of to-ing and fro-ing between the big shape of the book and the little shapes of the letters on the page are different kinds or editorial reading that constitute text-making. A glance at the contents of BfK will show just how diverse are an editor’s reading skills, and suggest that they might be more clearly understood by others in the business of choosing books for children.
‘Publishers have only very imprecise information about the readers of the children’s books they publish.’ This is the view of Margaret Clark, one of the most renowned editors. She continues: ‘on the whole publishers have to rely on anecdotal evidence from teachers, librarians and parents about children reading their books’. (3) However, publishers are interested in book prizes and the publicity and media attention that accompany them. Here reading as selection is at its most visible. Juries are called on to exchange opinions in terms of the criteria associated with the name of the prize. Having described their reading to each other and expressed their preference in private meetings, they produce a short list of potential winners, but are rarely called to explain in detail how they read the books. At the moment of the announcement of the winner the books are described, but not in the terms of the judgement. (Discord or disagreement are sometimes more illuminating about the reading process than unanimity.) Exceptionally, the Signal Poetry Prize is seen as an opportunity to consider poetry for children as a literary endeavour, and the Kurt Maschler (Emil) Award is based on the premise that picture books distinguish themselves by the ways in which ‘texts and illustrations enhance and extend each other’.
Reviewers are a class apart. In this publication they explain themselves and their perceived role in reading children’s books by what they write. When they have scope and can take time and space to explain their readings at length they demonstrate reading. Reviewing in a short paragraph is much harder than it seems. Elite reviewing journals rarely give space to children’s books, so that when The London Review of Books, included Harry Potter, I collected other notices, with the ‘even adults’ phrase in mind, to see how the readings compared. My impression was that the praise focused on the author’s narrative skill and on the fact that boys who rarely read were refusing to come to meals in the middle of a chapter. It was interesting to find the intertextuality of the story described as ’plagiarism’, in one account and the same details admired in another.
In The New Yorker of July 31 there is a Gerald Scarfe drawing of Harry Potter as the Pied Piper followed by a procession of book-carrying children who dump their televisions on a heap as they join the line. Over ten columns of print, Joan Acocella gives a reading of all four books to initiate readers into the epic and to the ways by which the writer works her effective enchantments. The account is detailed, interpretative in a way that avoids all condescension; you know, the wink to the adult over the head of the reading child. She praises Rowling’s treatment of adult topics: sex, politics and the psychology of slavery and finds the ‘main virtue’ of the stories in their ‘philosophical seriousness’. She doesn’t shrink from pointing out inconsistencies and minor confusions. I enjoyed this shared reading of the book, the opening up of its delights and its challenges, the demonstration of its ‘utter traditionalism’ in its links with Propp’s morphology of the folk tale. Good reviewers offer their reading to their readers who also get significant glimpses of the reviewers’ accumulated reading experience. As yet, reviews offer the strongest clues to how concerned adults read books for children.
Without a doubt, picture books are at the heart of children’s literature. As an art form they are part of a wider scene of ‘reading pictures’, in a visual world where word texts are now only a third of a page of any newspaper. As books to read to children, they seem short, easy to finish in a bookshop, attractive to look at and attentive to a dual readership of adults and children. In Japan, they are collectors’ items.
Imagine then, a Cambridge college with more than three hundred enthusiasts from all over the world at a weekend conference on Reading Pictures, with an exhibition of original art work at the Fitzwilliam Museum. This was serious business and a unique chance for listeners and speakers to share readings of words and pictures, the textual condition of contemporary imaginative literature. Artists describing their working practices enlarged their listeners’ experience of seeing reading. What seemed easy now became challenging interpretation. In this context it was possible to discover how picture books ‘read’ their readers, and how, in our approaches to these books, we discover that we need to redescribe reading when we give an account of how young readers encounter them. The breakaway from linear texts results in a different textual condition that demands radial reading. Adult readers adapt to changes by assuming that making meaning is the general function of reading. But now I am not convinced that we have fully grasped, consciously, just how different are many kinds of reading in a social context where visual texts predominate.
Adults learn most about reading when they share books with children. As I said at the beginning, this is old-saws time, so I can acknowledge again the importance of narrative fiction in linking young and old with the voice and vision of an author. (That word includes the artist.) The impediment in discussions of reading is that one is apt to leave to one side what the reading is about. This must be for another time, but we must at least acknowledge here the gap between adults and children in the topics that now appear in books for the young, notably in the social realism that young readers seem to take in their stride. Or do they? Perhaps the readers are more read by the texts, where readers know the words mean more than they say. Do young readers discover whether or not writers are trustworthy in their world making?
Whose reading counts?
I’ve left the trickiest bit to the end. Whose reading counts and why should it matter? The quickest way into this is not to rerun old arguments about who has the right to declare that a text has literary value, but simply to say that the books children are prepared, or helped by adults, to read more than once and still find more to interest them are books likely to be ‘of value’ to their development as readers and also as writers. I haven’t exactly made my case for it. But, after a period when my belief that reading to and with children is one of the most important kinds of reading for adults to do has been scorned, I return to it with more conviction than ever. Adults reading children’s books professionally need to be aware, consciously, of what they are about, if they are to do it as well as the texts demand and the listeners and readers deserve.
(1) Styles, Morag, Bearne, Eve and Watson, Victor eds. (1992), After Alice: exploring children’s literature, London, Cassell
(2) Hollindale, Peter (1997), Signs of Childness in Children’s Books, Stroud, The Thimble Press
(3) Clark, Margaret (1993), Writing for Children, London, A & C Black
Margaret Meek is Emeritus Reader at the University of London Institute of Education.