What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

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What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby KnightOfFewWords » Sat Apr 06, 2013 11:48 am

This something I've been musing over for a while - what exactly defines a work as a 'children's book'? It's a nebulous term, which covers a lot of ground, from The Gruffalo and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, through Roald Dahl, to more nuanced works such as the Earthsea trilogy, His Dark Materials and The Book Thief.

I firmly believe that a good children's book should be thoroughly enjoyable to adults, with the exception of some books for very young children. Given that, I would define a children's book as 'a book which is best appreciated by a child, regardless of whatever merits it may have'. Note that there is nothing derogatory about the term, and it allows the work to have elements which are best appreciated by adults. If you accept the definition as worthwhile, it leads to a slightly different view of what is and isn't children's literature.

A famous example of a book which is often said to fall between children's and adult literature is The Lord of the Rings; under my definition, it is simply a children's book. I'd justify this by saying it's a work better experienced rather than reflected upon, and many of us become less able to immerse ourselves in fiction as we become older. I certainly haven't lost that ability, but my inner critic fires up more readily these days, often to the detriment of enjoyment. My preference is to read and watch - where possible - fairly passively, then think about the work later.

So, what are common hallmarks of children's literature? I'd say the primary emphasis is on storytelling over deep characterisation or complex themes, although the latter certainly aren't precluded. It's also generally more permissible - although often not desirable - to take more liberties the story in terms of coincidences, stereotyped characters and unrealistic behaviour, as the primary audience is likely to be less critical.

Other examples I'd put forward of what I consider to be children's books would be To Kill a Mockingbird, most of Stephen King's output and - applying the same principles to film - Star Wars.

I'm interested to hear what people think of the above. Do you think it's a useful way of thinking about the genre, and can you offer more examples of works that aren't usually thought of as being for children? Also, can people think of counter-examples which break the definition, such as a genuinely good children's book which is almost wholly unsuitable for adult readers?

(Caveat: as with almost any attempt with taxonomy, there will always be edge-cases which don't really fit any category.)
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby Tonyblack » Sat Apr 06, 2013 12:26 pm

It's an interesting question and I'm not sure the answer is so simple. If you look, for example at Terry's so-called Children's Books, you'll see that there is often quite an adult undertone that children will either 'get' or 'get' eventually when they have a little more experience of life.

In some ways it might be better to ask what isn't a children's book? Although, even then it will depend on the child.
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby KnightOfFewWords » Sat Apr 06, 2013 1:06 pm

I agree that it's not really that simple, but taxonomy is about striking a balance between making useful generalisations and over-simplification. My definition needs an important tweak:

'A book which is - on average - best appreciated by a child.'

Tonyblack wrote:If you look, for example at Terry's so-called Children's Books, you'll see that there is often quite an adult undertone that children will either 'get' or 'get' eventually when they have a little more experience of life.


I think the line between 'adult' and 'child' Pratchett books is very blurry indeed, although my preferences for certain books have changed as I've grown up with them.

Tonyblack wrote:Although, even then it will depend on the child.


Indeed, any two people will experience a work differently. Or even the same person - I have to be in the right mood to tackle some things.
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby Alanz » Sat Apr 06, 2013 4:38 pm

I think it all depends on the Childs age bracket, because there are some really good Childrens books out there that can be enjoyed by adults but also there are also books that are soley for the very younger readers, If that makes sense :D
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby =Tamar » Sun Apr 07, 2013 7:23 am

It might be useful to consider it from the other direction: aside from the obvious (degrees of violence, cynicism, and/or sexuality), what makes a given book an "adult" book, not really suitable for a bright child to read? Not necessarily that it would hurt them, but simply that it would require an amount of experience of the world and culture to understand it at all.
For instance: Animal Farm, by George Orwell. I actually read it when I was eight years old. It didn't hurt me, but it was puzzling, because although I had heard Napoleon's name, I didn't know anything about the French politics of that and the subsequent era. so I had no idea what was going on. When you read only the surface story with no historical connection, it's a very strange book.
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby Alanz » Sun Apr 07, 2013 7:56 am

We read Animal Farm during English lessons at School and i thought it was very good and i also just thought it was about a Farm where the Animals came to life, it was only later that i found out it was about teh French revolution :D
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby Tonyblack » Sun Apr 07, 2013 10:20 am

I also read it as a child and didn't 'get' the significance. But my understanding was that it was about the Russian Revolution leading up to and into the Stalin regime. Orwell had been a fan of the ideas of Communism but became disillusioned during his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He saw Stalin as having turned the ideals of Communism into a brutal dictatorship.

The various pigs represent Russian revolutionary characters with Old Major being like Lenin and coming up with the ideas that fuelled the take over of the farm. Napoleon and Snowball are Stalin and Trotsky, respectively. The various other animals represent aspects of the Russian people, such as Boxer the horse who is determined to make the take over work with his own sweat and blood - he's the Russian workers. Promised a wonderful retirement when he is unable to work any longer, he works his hardest with that in mind, only to be literally 'sold out' when he can no longer work.
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby Alanz » Sun Apr 07, 2013 10:52 am

Oh yea well something to do with Communism, wrong country that's all :D
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby Catch-up » Sun Apr 07, 2013 7:36 pm

In the most general sense, it's about age-appropriate content.
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby Alanz » Mon Apr 08, 2013 7:17 am

Yes i agree with you there Catch-up :D
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby =Tamar » Tue Apr 09, 2013 7:46 am

Catch-up wrote:In the most general sense, it's about age-appropriate content.

There's also something different about the writing. Sir Terry says he would be hard put to define it, but he knows there's a difference when he's writing for children. I recall he came up with something about not having to disguise the big concepts when writing for children, because they can handle it better than most adults. What I have noticed is a tendency to define words (unobtrusively) in the text that would not have been defined in a book for adults. I suspect that there are some adults who have trouble with the advanced vocabulary that Sir Terry uses in his usual Discworld books.
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby KnightOfFewWords » Tue Apr 09, 2013 1:57 pm

Tonyblack wrote:In some ways it might be better to ask what isn't a children's book?


=Tamar wrote:It might be useful to consider it from the other direction: aside from the obvious (degrees of violence, cynicism, and/or sexuality), what makes a given book an "adult" book, not really suitable for a bright child to read?


Yes, that's another way to look at it.

=Tamar wrote:For instance: Animal Farm, by George Orwell. I actually read it when I was eight years old. It didn't hurt me, but it was puzzling, because although I had heard Napoleon's name, I didn't know anything about the French politics of that and the subsequent era. so I had no idea what was going on. When you read only the surface story with no historical connection, it's a very strange book.


I also read it as a child, my experience was a little different. I read it as a story and I think it may have had more impact as such; however, I was told afterward that it was a commentary on the Russian Revolution. I needed to be given that crucial piece of information to fully appreciate it. This ties in with what I was saying earlier, that I like to experience works and then critique them later. Personally - and with caveats - I would classify Animal Farm as something of a children's book.
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby Square12 » Wed Apr 10, 2013 1:09 pm

Surely the greater question is how do you define "child"? Depending on the culture and religion a child can become an adult anywhere from 13 - 21 that I can think of off the top of my head.
I think essentially though a children's book is one that can be enjoyed regardless of life experience and with basic acquired vocabulary, as opposed to studied vocabulary. Incidentally on the latter point adult speakers of Romance languages usually find more formal language, often more prevalent in adult books, easier to read than colloquial English, more prevalent in children's literature. Likewise they usually find broadsheets easier to read than tabloids.
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby Alanz » Mon Apr 15, 2013 11:00 am

It all has to do with the Adult content of the Book and how it's written, plus if it's illustrated or not , Because there are some very good so called Children's books which are better written and have more of a story in them than some Adult ones :D
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Re: What is a 'Children's Book' Anyway?

Postby Square12 » Mon Apr 15, 2013 11:15 am

Illustration is not a defining factor, but I'd agree that it's much, much, more likely to appear in a children's book.
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