Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Enduring Pleasure of Children's Literature

Do you ever read children’s books (not including reading them to your children)? Do you think children’s books have changed from when you were a child?

Happy Monday. Brenda Chapman kicking off the week.

An interesting question this week. I actually started my book-writing career penning a middle grade mystery series - the Jennifer Bannon mysteries. At the time, my daughters were twelve and nine, and I often spent hours in the children's section of the bookstore selecting books for them as gifts. I was also reading fiction with some of my students as I helped them improve their reading.

I remember reading many book covers that had a parent dying or dead from cancer. The heart of the stories was a family tragedy that the child protagonist had to deal with, and while I saw the value, I also wished for lighter, more entertaining fare. I searched for a mystery like the ones I had enjoyed at that age - Nancy Drew, The Secret Seven, The Famous Five ... kids on adventures. Eventually, I decided to try my hand at writing one and this turned into the Bannon series.

Unlike some of the mysteries I read as a kid, I gave Jennifer, her sister Leslie and best friend Ambie more rounded characters and current problems. Jennifer's parents are separated, she's starting high school and is struggling, she likes a boy who has a girlfriend. One mystery deals with an abusive parent and racism (Hiding in Hawk's Creek) but with a subtle hand. Like the older mysteries, every book had a mystery at its core that my young sleuth had to solve.

The focus on more difficult and current issues is one of the biggest changes from when I was a kid. Teen books tackle topics that never would have passed the censor back in the day. I even remember questioning whether curse words were acceptable when I was writing my series and ultimately decided they weren't even though kids often hear and repeat these words.

In any event, after my foray into writing children's books, I realized that the genre requires a dedicated focus. Each age-level has its own 'rules', trends, bestsellers, reviewers, awards, and an author has to be fully immersed to stay current. Publishers are in tune with what kids are reading and are looking for books that tick the boxes and will sell widely.

I stopped writing and reading these books, instead turning to the adult genre. I've continued to read the children's book reviews and cover flaps, however. From what I've gleaned, the authors are continually pushing the envelope, writing about difficult, confusing and topical issues, such as bullying, prejudice, sexuality, death and war. Science fiction and fantasy are also hugely popular with kids. I'm thankful for all the great books I read as a kid, which shaped my own writing and even  outlook on life and the world. Today's children's authors are creating the same wonderful memories for today's generation of young readers, feeding their imaginations and teaching valuable life lessons. Tales that spark creativity, entertain and instruct remain constants. More recent themes that celebrate diversity and differences and help children deal with a wider variety of difficult issues affecting their lives are moving the genre forward.


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Dietrich Kalteis said...

Interesting post, Brenda, and an interesting outlook — the books you read as a kid shaped your own writing and outlook on life and the world.

Brenda Chapman said...

Thanks Dietrich - I loved mysteries most of all as a kid and still do!

MarlynB said...

I looked on Amazon for the Jennifer Bannon books, and "Running Scared" is over $900. (US) for the paperback.
I guess I'll have to wait till the next time I come to Canada and hit up Chapters.

Josh Stallings said...

Thanks for this post, it reminded me how much I have loved children’s and YA books. My first bookish memory is my father reading to me and my sibling from Winnie-the-Pooh. It shaped my writing and world view.

Catriona McPherson said...

I hadn't read kids' lit since I was one, then I picked up PRIVATE PEACEFUL, wondering how a children's book would deal with war, death, and sex (for a soldier going off to war). Turns out Michael Morpugo . . .just wrote about how PP would feel in regards to sex and death and he just depicted the war. I was left wondering what makes a book YA at all. I'm still not sure.

Susan C Shea said...

I went shopping for my then-12 year old granddaughter - it seemed every YA book on the store's expansive shelf was about trauma of some kind, and how to come to terms with it. I get the power of books to help adolescents cope and I praise that, but what if your granddaughter hasn't been sexually abused, isn't transgender, hasn't lost a parent, doesn't have cancer, hasn't been (to your knowledge at least) cruelly bullied? I felt if I bought her a book about overcoming bullying, for example, I would be implying I thought she needed help with that. She wasn't a sci fi fan, but I bought her a fantasy fiction book and some poetry (Tupac's). My teen grandsons live online so I didn't even bother for them, but their dad had already read them every good book and series that was mythology, fantasy, etc.

Brenda Chapman said...

Marilyn - $900 is crazy. You can order the series directly from and will pay much less, I promise!

Thanks for your comments Josh, Catriona and Susan. Yes, I wanted just good old fashioned stories without the trauma or 'life lessons' for my daughters at the time and these were hard to find. I submitted another standalone YA book to a publisher and they said the story was good but lacked the 'big hook' necessary to be accepted. No major catastrophe or trauma or topical issue, I guess, just a straight-ahead story.