Okay… but why children’s books though?

- Leander Duthoy

Us academics are regularly reminded of the significance of being able to communicate our research in plain language to a lay audience. In Flanders, this is seen as so important that we have a whole competition/contest about it: the PhD-Cup, which – as shared with you in a prior news item – our amazing colleague Frauke participated in.

Without going that far, there is a particular kind of lay communication that the vast majority of us are intimately familiar with, especially now that the holiday season is not yet far behind: explaining our research to family and friends at get-togethers – often triggered by some variation of the sentence: “So, like, what do you actually do and stuff?” In my case, I have refined my answer to a crisp 30ish words: “I am looking into how readers of different ages reflect on age in children’s literature. Like, do readers in their 70s have different views on grandparent figures compared to teenage readers.” Roughly half of the time, my summary prompts some variation of the follow-up question: “Okay but why children’s books though?”

And they have a point. 

Children’s literature scholar Peter Hollindale once argued that fiction for adults is “defictionalized” in terms of child characters. Though far from impossible, trying to list more than three books for adults that heavily feature child characters can be a challenge. Meanwhile, children’s literature focuses on child characters, but many of those characters hang out with older siblings, parents, teachers, professional adults and grandparents. In other words, by characters of a wide range of ages. As a researcher interested in age, that makes me ask questions: how is age constructed in these stories? What are adults like in literature written for a young audience? Do readers find that their age group is represented well in books for a younger audience?

It gets even better when you realize that books written for children are basically the only kind of literature where you have a built-in age disparity between producers, buyers and readers. And that has certain implications. Young children are not the ones buying children’s books, they get them through their parents. In other words, adult authors’ audience in practical terms – i.e. the ones who spend the money – are adults. As a result, the way in which age is represented in these books is often not necessarily a question of going for “realism”, but of portraying characters in a way in which adults “feel” like they are suitable for a young audience.

Some books have even been banned for what were considered problematic depictions of age. Alyssa Niccolini points at “untimely teens”: adolescent characters who “defy cultural expectations (or wishes) for the slow and steady unfurling of adolescence” (23). Of course priorities will be different depending on the specific age group a book is targeted at. An adolescent character who becomes entangled with underage sex and drug-use, is more likely to be accepted in YA-fiction, compared to the outrage it would draw in a baby’s first picture book.

The point is that books written for children are a hyper concentrated amalgamation of societal discourses on age, ranging from its characters, to the topics that it talks about and even in the way it is produced. For a scholar interested in cultural narratives of age, one could hardly hope for a more appropriate object of study.