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“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not,” J. K. Rowling said to Harvard’s class of 2008, a group of millennials she called “the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.” Fourteen at the time, I was in front of the section where members of the Class of 1948 sat in their wheelchairs and bright crimson hats, staring at my hero, the woman who wrote the “Harry Potter” books. J. K. Rowling continued speaking, and I drank in her every word. “In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, [imagination] is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
I was then just at the age where I saw myself in every character in every book I picked up. Rowling had it right—imagination led me to understand the challenges of a girl warrior in Tamora Pierce’s “The Song of the Lioness” books, the bravado of Ponyboy Curtis’s older brother in S.E. Hinton’s novel “The Outsiders,” and the parched, sweltering experience of Stanley Yelnats in Louis Sachar’s novel “Holes.” The books I read begged me to enter into another life. I learned empathy from these books, as Rowling suggested in her commencement address.
My experience is not unlike that of my peers. Our generation grew up during a boom in books published for children and young adults, and as we have aged, academic interest in the field of children’s literature has also increased. This trend exists at Harvard too, with approximately 600 students lotterying for Germanic languages and literatures professor Maria Tatar’s class Folklore and Mythology 90i: “Fairy Tales and Fantasy Literature” in February 2013. In Boston in particular, the world of children’s literature is flourishing. Simmons College has a Master of Arts program in Children’s Literature, which many students combine with a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Writing for Children. Candlewick Press, a children’s book publishing company founded in Massachusetts in 1991 and currently based in Somerville, has grown to publish and distribute books on three continents.
But what has caused an increased academic and business interest in children’s literature? Why should we care about picture books, and what is the proper way to take apart and examine a story written for children? Are children’s books uniquely written to help us “empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared,” as Rowling said?
“We are living in a post-‘Harry Potter’, post-‘Hunger Games,’ post-‘Divergent’ world,” Simmons professor Cathryn Mercier says. Mercier—who currently directs Simmons’s Center for the Study of Children's Literature and the graduate degree programs in Children's Literature and Writing for Children—is sitting in her office at Simmons, surrounded by shelves filled with picture books and thicker YA novels.
What does it mean to live in a post-“Harry Potter” world? The playing field has changed, Mercier says. More people are writing fantasy books, and older children—even young adults as well as a new intra-industry category of college-age readers called the “New Adult” group—are reading them.
Karen Lotz ’87, president and publisher at Candlewick Press since 1999, says that she notices a similar boom in writing for young people. “We are living in a bit of a golden age,” Lotz says. “The writing that is going on in our field is of superior quality…. It’s very caring and painstaking.”
Working in children’s literature for many years, Lotz has seen her world change. She says that, recently, adults have been more interested in children’s literature and suggests that the e-reader contributes to why adults continue to read books marketed for children; they are easier to download and read quickly, and there is less of a commitment involved when the book is on an e-reader. But, according to a Pew Research Center study on e-book consumption, compared to the way adults choose to read, the e-reader has not changed the publishing world of children’s literature quite as much; younger readers and parents of new readers still prefer print books.
The increased adult interest in YA and children’s books also means that writers publish more reviews in major media outlets. For children’s literature, which, Lotz says, is perhaps a more review-based business than adult fiction, the careful and professional reviews have kept children’s literature honest, original, and of high quality. Adults review the books, and adults also choose what children are reading. It is the adult author who depicts childhood on the page and expects the young reader to accept that version and even to identify with the child characters. Mercier says that this type of relationship represents an imbalance of power. It is the publishers who shape the genre, and it is the publishers who decide which kinds of stories are marketed at certain age groups. In order to approach the children’s book in an academic context, then, Mercier says that it is important sometimes to separate the audience, the marketing process, and the reviews from the book itself. “We try to look at the books and not the reader,” Mercier says.
“I have to have some hypothetical of what the reader might be,” children’s book author Uma Krishnaswami said to a room full of school teachers, librarians, and booksellers. “I don’t always think that’s the case for adult books.” Krishnaswami was speaking at the “What’s New in Children’s Literature” morning conference at Lesley University on April 11. The conference was organized by Wondermore, an organization focused on bringing children’s books and their authors into underserved K-8 schools in Boston, according to its website. For Krishnaswami, reminding herself about the young readers of children’s books is important to her craft. But this approach begs the question: does a writer have to consider the reader when she is creating a story for children?
“Stories, for children, are both a mirror and a window,” children’s book author Dana Alison Levy says. According to Levy, child readers see themselves in the characters in their books and want to live through the characters who exist within worlds entirely different from their own. Levy’s theory is not unlike the one Rowling raised during her commencement address.
But learning about worlds different from one’s own depends not only on elements of escape but also on understanding the experiences of children who come from different backgrounds. “We Need Diverse Books,” a campaign started in April 2014, for example, seeks to promote diversity children’s books. Through social media campaigns, awards, and festivals, the group encourages readers, publishers, and authors to support a variety of literary characters, “including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities,” according to its mission statement. Levy is the author of “The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher,” a realistic novel for middle-grade readers, a term in the publishing business for children reading at a middle school level. “The Misadventures of Family Fletcher” made waves in the children’s lit scene last summer because of its humor—various references to cat barf, ice rinks in the backyard, and the everyday follies of growing up—and because of its depiction of a family with four adopted sons and two dads. Even though Levy says that she does not draw from her own family experiences when she writes about what it is like to live with gay parents and adopted children, she does not see this as a barrier or an excuse. “Not writing books with diverse characters because you’re not of that demographic—that’s a cop-out,” Levy said at the “What’s New in Children’s Literature” conference.
Krishnaswami also says that she believes in the importance of emphasizing diversity in fiction. “I read a lot by British writers who were dead,” she says of her own reading experience. “I wasn’t British and I certainly wasn’t dead. So I didn’t know I could write books.” When Krishnaswami eventually picked up a pen, she wrote about India and America, the land of her childhood and her adult life, respectively. “I was reaching for a different kind of story, where [the protagonist’s] identity is not the issue…where her non-hyphenated American friend could be a Bollywood fan,” she says.
“The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic,” one of Krishnaswami’s books, follows a young girl who has to handle a Bollywood actress let loose in the United States. As Krishnaswami reads an excerpt—in which the girl-protagonist watches the movie star navigate Washington, D.C. and its world of adults—the adults in the room chuckle, causing Krishnaswami to pause. “Children’s stories are about getting a grip,” Krishnashwami says wisely. “Adult stories are about letting go.”
Children and adults may look for different things in the books that they read. To that end, Carol Stoltz, the children’s book buyer and manager at Porter Square Books, an independent bookstore in Cambridge, constantly has to make decisions about which books belong in her section of the store. “The storyline often has a protagonist that is a young person so the readers can identify with whom they are reading about,” Stolz says. “The language is probably less sophisticated…. There is usually more action. It’s unusual to find a children’s book where you are just reading about atmosphere.”
Lotz also bumps into boundaries when trying to separate adult fiction from children’s literature. “I would put the determining factor as the age of the protagonist,” Lotz says, trying to categorize the reading audience. If the main character in the story is 10 years old, for example, then the book likely will be published and marketed as a book for middle-grade readers, according to Lotz.
Gregory Maguire, author of the “Wicked” series (targeted at adults) as well as many books for children, takes a different approach to the question of genre. He says that he does not have a preference about the age of his readers. “Who are my books for?” Maguire asked rhetorically at the conference. “I don’t really care. My books are for people who like to read Gregory Maguire books.” Maguire added that his books have themes pertinent for all ages. His most recent book, “Egg & Spoon,” discusses inequality in a semi-fantastical, semi-historical world. Maguire described this world as similar to Russia in 1907, except everything is melting. Though his publisher has placed “Egg & Spoon” in the children’s market, the book is about 200 pages longer than another book he has in the works, which he plans to release for adults.
Even though Maguire most often writes about fantastical worlds with green witches and unfaithful wizards (indeed, he calls himself a “fantacist”), he acknowledges the universal questions that pervade his writing for both children and adults. The only difference, according to Maguire, is that the books that children read are often more fun. Krishnaswami too speaks about the energy with which she imbues her characters and plots. “Children are the ultimate eccentrics,” Krishnaswami says. “If we keep that in mind, we can’t go wrong."
Especially when considering picture books, readers are adamant in their views concerning the print-versus-electronic debate. For some children, the tactile experience of running their hands over the face of a page and turning pages is part of the pleasure of reading. Rather than the children readers, then, it is the illustrators who are now confronting the trend toward incorporating digital media into their work. Illustrators used to spend more time than they do now creating the art on each page of a picture book, Mercier says. There were several layers of images for a single illustrated page, and each layer corresponded to a different color that would appear in print. Now, with the ease and artistry of digital drawing, picture books have gained new life.
While speaking about the art of illustrated children’s books, Mercier pulls out a large picture book from a teetering stack next to her. The book, “The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse,” contains brightly colored pages and is a story about the painter’s boyhood in northern France. Mercier says that she might use “The Iridescence of Birds” in one of her classes because of the illustrator’s characteristic style and intentional mimicry of Matisse’s paintings. She also says that she appreciates the text of the book, the placement of text on the page, the pace of the story’s words, and the timing of each page turn. Author, illustrator, and designer thus work together to create a reading experience for the adult and the child.
Charlotte W. Robinson, an adjunct lecturer on education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, says that she values the performative aspect of reading a picture book aloud. Robinson has a background in graphic design, and, among other careers, was at one time a preschool teacher. She says that her experience of reading to a class of two-year-olds made clear the importance of the layout and pacing of a given book. “For me, looking at a picture book…is very similar to looking at a musical score,” Robinson says. “The book really hasn’t reached its potential until it has performed, once it is shared with an adult and the child.”
Robinson also spoke about the interaction between the artwork and the text in books meant to be read aloud to children. In that situation, the listening child likely does not yet know how to read, and so the look of the typeface—weather it is bold or squiggly or larger—is an indication to the adult as to how [HE OR] she should read the text. And, Robinson adds, it is important that the text and the pictures each tell a different story.
“There are some cases where the text is acting as an unreliable narrator, and then the art is showing you what’s really happening,” Robinson says. This tension between artwork and text is not present in picture books intended for early readers. In those books for early readers, text and pictures are meant to depict the same concepts so that the pictures can act as clues for young readers trying to decipher the semantics of a set of words on the page, according to Robinson.
“The Horn Book Magazine,” based in Boston since 1924, is a national periodical that reviews children’s literature. Published bimonthly, it features short reviews for a variety of children’s books as well as young adult literature. The process of reviewing children’s literature is one sort of conundrum that those involved in studying and publishing children’s literature have to consider. Questions may arise since the intended audience, children, are not the people who write the reviews, make publishing decisions, or even buy the books for libraries and bookstores. That is why, according to Mercier, it is important to understand the context of the books written for young people. Reading and analyzing children’s books can reveal the way that society constructs childhood, or the ideal childhood, she says.
In recent years, interest in the academic component of children’s literature has grown. When Lotz, Mercier, Stoltz, and Robinson were in college, there often was only one course in the study of children’s literature—or sometimes none at all. In Boston today, however, there are several “Writing for Children” masters programs, including at Lesley University and Simmons College. The Boston Book Festival, a free and annual celebration of reading, also has special events featuring children’s book authors and publishers. In addition, in the last few years, Harvard has offered more classes on the study of childhood and literature. “Over the past decade, I have taken note of a variety of courses in the English Department and in the Freshman Seminar Program that include texts ranging from the Harry Potter series to ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,’” Tatar says. And the choice to have Rowling speak at Commencement reflects the prevalence of children’s literature at the College.
In Massachusetts, children’s literature abounds. The official children’s book of the commonwealth is Robert McCloskey’s classic “Make Way for Ducklings,” a story whose bird protagonists have brass statues in their image in Boston Commons. A popular city myth purports that the grave of “Mother Goose” lies in Boston’s Granary Burial Ground. And Louisa May Alcott, author of “Little Women,” lived her whole life in nearby Concord, where her house still stands as a historical museum. Indeed, the city of Boston is steeped in children’s literature and remains a fruitful place for children’s literature writing, publishing, and scholarship to grow.
But publishers, book buyers, and academics have various ideas about whether or not Boston is particularly receptive to children’s literature. Mercier, for her part, cites the prevalence of universities in the city as a reason that there are more than the average number programs devoted to the study of children’s literature. Robinson says that Boston may be less intimidating to publishers than New York and that the “not-New-Yorkness” of the place allows their companies to take more risks. Lotz said that there are a large number of independent bookstores in the area, including Porter Square Books, Harvard Square Book Store, Raven Used Books, and Trident Booksellers & Cafe, in addition to Brookline Booksmith and The Curious George Store, which focus solely on children’s literature.
Whatever the role of this particular city in the study and production of books for children and young people, one thing that stuck from conversations with children’s literature experts is the need for imagination and enthusiasm while writing, publishing, teaching, or reading books written for children. “Playing in the backyard is the beginning of writing,” Maguire, who lives in Massachusetts, says. “Dreaming and having a nightmare and knowing you can survive it is the beginning of writing.” That enthusiasm for stories starts in childhood and continues for those who love children’s literature. It can happen anywhere in the world, but Boston seems especially primed to foster stories for young people.
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