Children’s Literature can’t be Great Literature? Says Who?

Lifted directly from The Guardian’s Book Blog, by SF Said, December 3, 2013

Who says children’s books can’t be great literature?

The University of Kent did. But any serious reader should know that this is preposterous
Philip Pullman

Serious literature … Philip Pullman. Photograph: Sam Frost

It’s been a strange few days. On Friday afternoon, I uploaded a screenshot of a university website to Twitter. A few minutes later, it went viral; over the weekend, the internet went ballistic. On Monday, the university changed its website.

It was all started by Richard Cooper (@RichardHCooper), a University of Kent graduate who was considering taking a creative writing course there. But he was troubled by a statement on their site.

“We love great literature,” it said. “We are excited by writing that changes the reader, and ultimately – even if it is in a very small way – the world. We love writing that is full of ideas, but that is also playful, funny and affecting. You won’t write mass-market thrillers or children’s fiction on our programmes. You’ll be encouraged to look deep inside yourself for your own truth and your own experiences, and also outside yourself at the contemporary world around you. Then you’ll work out how to turn what you find into writing that has depth, risk and originality but is always compelling and readable.”

By the time I saw this, a number of children’s writers including Philip Reeve had already protested. At first, the University couldn’t see the problem. I tweeted the screenshot so everyone could see it and judge for themselves. It was picked up by the Guardian Children’s Books feed, then by writers such as Patrick Ness and Michael Rosen, and is still being retweeted every few minutes, often accompanied by expressions of outrage and dismay.

It’s not hard to understand why. The statement sets up a rhetorical system that places “great literature” in opposition to children’s fiction and thrillers, making them mutually exclusive. It implies that children’s fiction cannot be great literature, and appears to belittle children’s fiction as a form that by definition cannot do the things great literature can.

And yet, by every criterion listed, children’s fiction is entirely capable of being great literature. Indeed, if you’re looking for writing that changes the reader and the world, there may be no better form. I work with the CLPE (Centre For Literacy in Primary Education). I’ve visited countless schools and seen for myself the life-changing power of children’s books. It’s impossible to overstate the transformative effects they can have upon individual readers – and collectively, across generations, upon the world.

I already suspected this from my own experience. The books I read as a child shaped my deepest beliefs. When I was at university, my friends and I were thrilled to discover that our childhood favourites seemed even more powerful than we remembered. This was true of classic authors such as George MacDonald, Rudyard Kipling, E Nesbit and Tove Jansson; or 1960s writers like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Peter Dickinson and Ursula Le Guin.

In the work of such authors, we found stories that were compelling and readable; that had depth, risk and originality; that offered all the imaginative space and possibilities we wanted from literature. Garner and Cooper made connections between ancient myth and contemporary reality; Dickinson dealt with human origins, with politics and war; Le Guin with the interconnectedness of all life. These books were tackling the biggest ideas and questions imaginable.

That was the kind of literature I wanted to write, and that was when I made the choice to do it in children’s fiction. I may or may not succeed, but I’ve never doubted the form itself. That’s why I found the Kent statement so hard to take.

The twitstorm showed me how many other people share my feelings. Authors, critics, publishers, teachers, booksellers, librarians, readers around the world: suddenly, there were hundreds of voices expressing exactly these beliefs. I’m far from the only one enthusing about Philip Pullman and JK Rowling, David Almond and Meg Rosoff, Malorie Blackman and Jacqueline Wilson, MT Anderson and Sally Gardner …

The list could go on. But Kent has now apologised for its statement, changed it, and asked for children’s literature recommendations. If you have some, please tweet them @UniKentWriting. I’ll be following them on Twitter, but now I think it’s time to get back to actually writing books.

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