Banal, Brutal and Bad: Stories of snobbery and children’s literature

There’s been a one-two punch in the news this week against children’s books. First, The Guardian posted an article from an author who thought children’s books were ’embarrassing’ until she tried to write one. She discussed how she’d banned her students from writing children’s fiction in order to give them ‘fresh and complex experiences’, which apparently you can’t get from writing or studying kidlit. The author did have a slight change of heart; she admitted that ‘Writing children’s fiction has made me understand how it can be worthy of study’, but still insisted that ‘good children’s fiction often does bad things’ – bad things that the super-serious field of adult literature, apparently, does not.

Then the second punch landed, this time from The Times, which featured a headteacher who had removed certain books – including the Alex Rider and Percy Jackson series – from his school’s reading list for being ‘simplistic, brutal [and] banal’. (Funnily enough, the simplicity of some of the replacement books, like the Just William series, wasn’t mentioned). He made a strange and baffling argument that reading “bad books” leads a person to develop less empathy than those who read “good books”, and claimed that he had chosen his replacements because they were ‘not just plot, plot, plot, but a slow opening-up of characters and their relationships, their arguments and how they resolve them. All the things that happen in real life, as opposed to decapitating zombies or staking vampires: those things do not happen’.

Well, no shit. But as anyone who’s read even a little bit of fantasy, sci-fi, or children’s literature knows, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The best made-up worlds have believable and relatable characters; a racing plot can push the protagonist to their limit and expose everything about their psyche; and zombies and vampires are a cultural barometer measuring the fears and concerns of whatever era spawned them.

I hate snobbery about children’s literature, to the point where I take it altogether too personally. I once left a conversation at a party without another word after the man I was speaking to told me that my PhD in kidlit was “literally a Noddy degree”. I write, read, study and teach children’s stories; they’ve become the way I process and interpret the world, and I can tell you for sure that while they certainly can be brutal, and sometimes simplistic, they’re anything but banal.

The children’s book I’m currently writing, Sigyn, has taken me three years to get right. In writing it, I’ve had to get my head around not only Norse myth and Viking history, but complex interpersonal relationships – there’s a toxic family situation, and a sister-sister bond that’s built on equal parts love and jealousy. I’ve read and listened to genderfluid people’s experiences, and attempted to learn how to (and how not to) represent trans people in fiction (something I am certain I will make mistakes on, and will always need to learn more about). I’ve considered and built up years of backstory and context for the fantasy world I’ve created. And I’ve also put in fart jokes, fighting, and a giant werewolf attacking a castle.

When I started writing Sigyn, I was also working on my PhD in children’s literature. I analysed representations (stereotypical and counter-stereotypical) of Native American characters in young adult fantasy. This led me to look at the Gothic, queer theory, postcolonialism, Native American literary criticism, feminist theory, and at various social and political movements. The books I was looking at? Teen romances featuring vampires and werewolves (and yes, that included Twilight).

Books contain worlds, and children’s books are no exception. A book may contain shorter words or less convoluted plots (and I say may, because there are many incredibly complex children’s books, and many incredibly simply-written adult ones). It may be about wizards or monsters instead of realistic people doing realistic things (but then again, realism is just as strong in kidlit as fantasy). It can still explore humanity, morality, politics, art, psychology and truth and freedom and justice and any number of Big Important Concepts. It can also just be a fun, entertaining read. It can even – brace yourselves for this, naysayers – be both.

The popular children’s books being targeted in these two stories aren’t “simplistic” or “banal”; they don’t do “bad things”, and they certainly don’t hamper a child reader’s ability to develop empathy. They’re loved, and it’s easy to see why. Firstly, they’re exciting; ‘plot, plot, plot’, when it’s done well, grips the reader and pulls them into a story that can become desperately important to them. And why is that a good thing? Oh, so many reasons. Look at the outpourings of fanfiction and fanart by young readers. Popular books spark so much creativity – and trust me when I tell you that a child who gets creative about someone else’s stories is almost certainly going to start scribbling their own.

By the age of eleven, most people have figured out that vampires and zombies don’t exist – at least, not literally. But there are other kinds of threats out there. The Spectre of Seriousness is a constant, looming presence when it comes to children’s books, sucking joy instead of blood, devouring curiosity in lieu of brains, and if we want to keep children reading, writing, creating and enjoying, we need to stake that monster good and hard.

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About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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