Once upon a time, I was in charge of the children’s department at the Giant Evil Bookstore. I loved running that department because it was like its own miniature bookstore. Except that everything was just a little bit sticky. But I don’t think that I’ve ever come quite so close to harming myself or others as I frequently did during that period of my life. Well, actually, that last sentence may not be entirely true. Anyway. Sometimes it was awful. And don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the kids. The kids were just being kids. It was the parents. Some of the parents, I should say. The sorts of people who look at you with contempt while you’re cleaning up a mess their kid made and who scuttle out of your way not to be helpful but to make it clear that you’re an untouchable. Or who just let their children loose in a public place and are pissed when they find out that you’re not a corporate-funded babysitting service for their kidnapper bait. Or who don’t understand why you keep bringing their kid regular-kid books when they’re obviously so far above normal kids as to be bright shining geniuses and why can’t you see that? I had one crusty hippie daddy who brought his daughter in all the time and I don’t think I ever laid eyes on that child when she wasn’t shrieking her damn face off. She had a stupid name like Fire or Twinkle or something. And he’d just smile his stoner smile and watch her scream and occasionally giggle or say something like “There’s that spark of life! I love it! Tell ’em, girl!” I wanted to rip his dreadlocks out and stuff them down his throat.
But I didn’t. Unfortunately.
Here’s the thing that really bugged me about that part of my Giant Evil Bookstore job: I love kids’ books. A lot. More than that, I love watching kids interact with books (when they’re not shredding them or chewing on them). I’ve never been good with little tiny kids. Before they have language, I guess. I don’t really have any way to relate to those people. But once they get to an age when they can appreciate a good story or get excited about learning a new thing, then they’re in my wheelhouse. When they would come in with a mom visibly sick of talking about tractors or spaceships or princesses or whatever and I could hand them a giant, slick-paged dictionary full of thousands of that thing that would keep the kid busy for hours at a time? Oh, such relief on the faces of those moms. And the giddy wonder on the faces of the kids. It’s awesome. Or, even better, when they’d finished a book and wanted more more more. I always loved getting kids hooked on a new series or a new writer, that happy junkie glint in their tiny eyes. I might’ve had a successful career in drug dealing instead of book-slinging, if I hadn’t had morals and a healthy fear of the law. And all the senseless messes and shitty parents and corporate fuckery that made me hate that job? All that stuff will never make those books any less special for those children.
What’s the point? Why am I babbling? Am I just trying to give myself a panic attack? Not today, no. I’ve been thinking a lot about kids and kids’ literature lately. Four out of the last five books I’ve read have had children in them, either as one of the main characters or as the narrator. It’s a weird little streak. And I’ve talked about this a bit in a couple of posts, but in a more English-majorish kind of way. Inside the books and not outside. The last novel I read turned out to be a children’s book, although I’m not entirely sure what age group it’s marketed to. But I didn’t know that until after I finished it. I just saw the author’s name and bought the hardcover at a thrift store for a dollar (score!). It was interesting, though, how I looked at the characters and the story from an adult’s perspective and then the whole thing changed when I realized that he wasn’t using just kid character logic but also kid reader logic. It’s a whole other set of parameters, isn’t it? Great book, though, either way (Summerland by Michael Chabon, check it out – really awesome worldbuilding). Who cares? A good story’s a good story’s a good story.
Which is how I’ve always been about books. See book. Pick up book. Read book. Move on to next book. Nom nom nom. When I was little, if I didn’t understand a book, that didn’t matter. I could ask questions and have it explained to me. Books were never self-contained items in our house. They were a part of an ongoing conversation. It was more important that I read at all than that I read things that were bottled up and labeled “just for kids.” I feel like this delineation between adult and children’s literature is relatively new. There were certainly sections for children in bookstores in the 80s, but I don’t recall ever having been taken only to those sections to get books. For the record, though, I also had the sort of parents who got me the complete works of Charles Dickens and an abridged OED for my sixth birthday. So there’s that.
The idea that kids won’t understand adult literature is somewhat offensive to me. I think that, in this country at least, we have a kind of hovering, overprotective thing going on about our kids. (Says the woman with no kids. You know what I mean.) Maybe it’s an offshoot of the whole Tipper Gore/MPAA rating/Just Say No thing that happened in the 80s and 90s. I understand that some degree of parental guidance is necessary so that your kid won’t read or see stuff that will turn them into a sociopath. That I get. But this litigious thing that’s happened where parents expect corporations and legislative bodies to set the rules for their kids blatantly ignores the fact that every child is different. Wildly different. Wonderfully different. And to say something like “no one under thirteen should watch this movie” or “the cutoff for these books is age eight” is ridiculous. I understand that they’re intended as guidelines, but it’s the parents who look at them as rigid and infallible decrees who cause problems. Kids are smarter and more flexible than we give them credit for.
An example: I had a regular customer in the children’s department who loved fantasy books. His mother was a little on the conservative side and was leery of fantasy in general. Because magic, I guess? I don’t know. But she would drill me about every book that her son wanted to read. Finally I just made her a huge list of things that I thought he would enjoy and that would meet her criteria as I understood them. (That is going above and beyond, Giant Evil Bookstore! That’s the sort of thing that people should get promotions and raises for! Do you hear me talking? Your employees know their shit and they know your customers better than you do. Trust and reward them for it. Assholes. Ahem. Sorry.) So a couple of weeks later she came back and had red-inked the living shit out of my list. I asked her what was wrong with those titles, so I could make another, more appropriate list. And she said that most were in the teen section (ages twelve and up, basically) so she hadn’t even looked at them because he wouldn’t be twelve for another month. One month. That was what kept this smart little guy, who actually read well above his level, from getting his hands on about fifty books he would have loved. Meanwhile he’d been blowing through stacks and stacks of books from the eight-to-twelve year old’s section because he was bored to death and she hadn’t even noticed. I hope he’s gotten to read a lot of those by now. I really hope that he found one with a rebellious protagonist who does whatever he wants despite what his crazy mother tells him.
If your kid is twelve (or almost twelve) and is reading from the eight-to-twelve section, how do you not see that that’s three levels below him? This is basic math, people. This is why America is falling apart. Both because mom can’t do math and because mom wants to stick her kid in some horrible ageist box created by a corporation who really doesn’t give a fuck about the kid’s well-being. They’re not setting these guidelines for your benefit or your kid’s benefit. They’re setting these guidelines so that they can file things easily in their computer system and put them on the shelves correctly because they don’t trust that their employees or customers are normal human people who can use the alphabet. They don’t love you. They love your money. And it makes me sad that so many parents would trust the judgment of strangers more than their own when it comes to their children. Really, really sad.
So saying that no kid will ever appreciate adult literature just because they’re a kid pisses me off. But what’s even more interesting about this demarcation, this division of labor, is that a lot of adults are missing out on a metric shit ton of really amazing books because they’re unwilling to read kids’ lit. Or they’re unaware that it’s there, perhaps. Or that it’s good. And yes, sure, a lot of it is crap, but that’s true of books across the board, adult or YA or whatever. There’s a lot of blah blah out there, but the percentages of what’s awesome hold pretty steady no matter the age group. And here’s what’s really cool: in kids’ books, particularly in scifi and fantasy, there are fewer rules. In adult books everything has to make logical sense and be explained. I think children are more open to absurdism, maybe? I’ve been thinking about this since I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some of my favorite books are the ones I call “weird shit happening to normal people books.” And some of the best of these are either for or about children. While kids have that “Why? Why? Why?” thing that they do, that instinct to learn about and to codify the world around them, they’re simultaneously much more open to the bizarre and the fantastic than adults are. That combination makes for damn fine storytelling. Bottom line: go read some children’s literature, guys. There are worlds upon worlds hidden away in that brightly-lit section at the back of the bookstore. And if you have any kids in your life, your own or someone else’s, ask them about books, about what they love in a story and why. I guarantee you that the answers will blow your mind.