C.S. Lewis: Reading children’s literature is anything but ‘childish’
June 7, 2014 | 3:24 pm
So, someone else has come out with the whole stupid “you shouldn’t read young adult books because they’re beneath you” argument. Earlier this year, we saw that kind of thing with Lynn Shepherd blowing off J.K. Rowling’s children’s books and declaring Rowling should stop writing to leave some success for everyone else.
The latest idiocy to come down the pike is Ruth Graham in Slate, telling people “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” She claims children’s fiction is too simplistic and maudlin, and only stuff written for adults can be truly great.
But if you only read one rebuttal, you should read the one that was written 62 years ago.
You see, people like Ms. Graham have been with us for far longer than you might expect. You could say they’ve always been with us, and Graham is fooling herself if she thinks the sentiment she’s expressing is anything new. Fortunately, this means we can call upon one of the greatest writers of the 20th century for the only counter-argument we ever need. I refer, of course, to the great Clive Staples Lewis, whose Chronicles of Narnia are one of the gold standards for great children’s literature and great literature.
In a 1952 essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (PDF), C.S. Lewis discusses how children’s literature should be written and demolishes the argument that children’s literature should be confined to children, or in any way “written down” to them. I strongly urge you to go read it in full, but here are a few pertinent excerpts:
I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.
Critics who treat “adult” as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
Nothing seems to me more fatal, for this art, than an idea that whatever we share with children is, in the privative sense, ‘childish’ and that whatever is childish is somehow comic. We must meet children as equals in that area of our nature where we are their equals. Our superiority consists partly in commanding other areas, and partly (which is more relevant) in the fact that we are better at telling stories than they are. The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man.
And that’s really all that need be said in regard to the childish Ms. Graham.
But on a related note, see also this treatise by fellow Inkling G.K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls”.