Sophie Harrison defends her beloved childhood favorites from the literary snobbery they often encounter…
All books are equal. A great book is, quite simply, one that captures you and draws you into that world. This is epitomized by the best of Children’s literature, therefore why is it so often treated as inferior to the ‘great’ works of literature?
There is a growing culture of ‘book snobbery’; people, quite literally, judge a book by its cover. I am not looking to condemn “The Classics”; Jane Eyre and To Kill a Mockingbird are two of my favourite novels. However, the two key reasons I love them – the unforgettable characters and the messages they carry regarding justice, morality, and perseverance – are the very same features that made me fall in love with Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events and numerous Roald Dahl books. Dahl himself said that “the prime function of the children’s writer is to write a book that is so absorbing, exciting and beautiful that the child will fall in love with it.” This statement captures everything that, universally, literature should strive to achieve, so surely it shouldn’t be exclusive to the young reader?
If I were to choose my top ten quotes from literature, a fair proportion would come from texts that a highbrow literary critic would scorn. Up and down the country there will be English students reciting their favourite books, intentionally avoiding any novel that falls under the taboo “children’s fiction” category. C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, observed how, to associate a piece of literature with the adult reader is to give it approval. The label of ‘children’s literature’, the appearance of dragons and spells, is almost a poisoned chalice. It was therefore so refreshing that, when my Academic English Professor asked us to reveal our favourite books to the group, he clearly stressed that he wanted complete honesty… two thirds of us mentioned Harry Potter.
A couple of years ago the Booker prize was accused of “dumbing-down” for daring to have a short list of books that were readable. Isn’t there a bizarre irony to this? The messages in children’s fiction are spelt out in a simpler way, often embellished with fantasy. However, this does not make them trivial. The themes of loss and cruelty are at the forefront of Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events and Dahl’s novels. Far from idyllic, empathetic characters such as Matilda, Sophie (The BFG), and Charlie, are subject to intense suffering. JK Rowling has said that the Dementors are a metaphor for the depression she experienced when struggling as a single mother. The central character is an orphan, as with the Baudelaire children, and death is a pervading theme. These texts are all placed in worlds that are often bleak and unrelenting, but they also carry a common message: it can be overcome. How is this so far removed from the best of ‘great literature’?
I am unapologetic in my love for these books. To quote Rowling’s own Mr. Finch, Dumbledore: “we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” Maybe it would be easier to conform and declare myself an Austen fanatic. But why should the Matildas or Hermiones of the world be valued any less than the Elizabeth Bennetts or Daisy Buchanans? I deliberately picked the latter two heroines as I find them highly overrated! The first two are far more endearing, and part of the reason that I return to those books. If literature is defined by an ability to both transport the reader and shed necessary truths on the world we live in, then they are true literature. Consequently, for an adult to denounce children’s literature as superficial, without any deeper meaning, is to display the same naivety as the child who has never picked up a book.