Half-Baked Theories: On Culture and Children’s Literature (aka: Why So Many Amazing British Kids Book Authors?)

This theory really is half-baked. Here we go: Amid all the Hunger Games hoopla, it struck me that there is something peculiarly American about books that get labeled YA. Could this be due to U.S. culture's adolescent nature? We are quick to indignation, self-righteous, dramatic, self-absorbed, full of a sense of our own drama—does this sound like any high school kids you know? Does it sound like any country you know?

Yes, it's an oversimplification. And I don't mean to sound damning: sure many kids have some of the qualities I describe, but it's also what makes them passionate. It's what makes them fervent (sometimes) about social justice, and righting wrongs, and calling out hypocrisy. 

This particular half-baked theory actually has another half (quarter?), which is that if U.S. writers have a gift for YA, then British writers seem to have a gift for children's literature. Which stems from…I don't know, their youthful culture? Old, but youthful somehow. Earnest, wishful, naive? Yeah, it doesn't exactly hold up, does it? 

But how does one explain it? And by "it" I mean the amazing floods of amazing magical children's books that pour from the British Isles. I had a long and interesting conversation about this with an English person, who believed that the problem with English literature was that it never really grew up. Hence sentimentalists like Dickens and Trollope (side note: I don't think he's just a sentimentalist, I love Dickens and Trollope, and am just trying to explain his argument), while France got to have all the real grown-up books, those with cynicism and sardonic wit, like Stendhal. (Incidentally, Stendhal is the writer about whom my friend Emily astutely said "Oh, this is why they're always worrying about young girls reading French novels in Victorian books.")

Some of the problems with this theory:

1) What about Chinese novels? Egyptian ones? Essentially, any cultures that don't write in English? In my oh-so-American way, I don't know because I can't read in any language other than English.

2) There are loads of counterexamples—for every Beatrix Potter there is a Dr. Seuss, for every Terry Pratchett there is a Louis Sachar.

3) And besides, isn't this an awfully simplistic way to look at writers? And cultures? And everything?

Here's the thing: Despite all the half-bakedness, I think there is, somehow, something to all of this. I just can't quite explain to myself what it is. Are teen books in some way quintessentially American? Or is America quintessentially teenaged? Or do we scrap all that and say, "Boy those Brits have a real way with the kids books," and be done with it?

What do you guys think? Has this phenomenon (have these phenomena?) ever made you wonder?

3 thoughts on “Half-Baked Theories: On Culture and Children’s Literature (aka: Why So Many Amazing British Kids Book Authors?)

  1. What about Chinese novels? Egyptian ones? Essentially, any cultures that don’t write in English? In my oh-so-American way, I don’t know because I can’t read in any language other than English.
    Slightly off-topic but I have to say that you don’t know because you can’t read in any other language AND because there seems to be very little interest in translated literature in English. Growing up in Greece I read many books written in Greek but also many books translated into Greek, from all over Europe and even other parts of the world. It was a wonderful window into the lives of people in other cultures. What can I say, the English-speaking world is rather insular…

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  2. In regards to translated children’s literature, I don’t think it’s simply a lack of interest on the part of publishers, I think it’s also due to a difference (a perceived difference, anyway) in “values.”
    My kids go to a German immersion school, so some of the reading they do (for pleasure and otherwise) is in German. Last year in 4th grade, my elder daughter read the German “Die Wilden Hühner” (The Wild Hens) series by Cornelia Funke of “Inkblood” fame. In the last book, one of the main female characters has a crush on and kisses another girl. When my kid told me about it (neither I nor my husband speak German ourselves, so we haven’t read the books) I thought it was rather refreshing for a first love relationship to be portrayed in a non-hetero way. I also remember remarking to my husband that I couldn’t imagine American publishers lining up to translate this book for American kids.
    Regardless of what the majority opinion toward LGBT people actually is, we’re living in a country where the collective voice of intolerance is VERY loud. I mean, look at the political success of Rick Santorum in the Republican primary process. These opinions and ideals sadly hold a lot of sway in the retail market and I think they present a barrier for some books being made available in English.

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