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February 23, 2011

A Brief Mediation on Books and Comics for Kids

"People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book.  I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book' . . . I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write." -- Martin Amis (from this article; Amis, if you don't know him, was named by The Times as one of the 50 best British authors since 1945)



(picture of small child from the University of Washington Digital Collection)

As emblemified this past week by Martin Amis, there's a general perception that writing books for kids takes less skill, talent, sensitivity, reach, [insert any additional positive attributes you can think of here], than writing books for adults. 

Whenever I hear this argument (and I hear it pretty frequently), I think about the books I read in middle school about the Holocaust, about child abuse, about assisted suicide, about parental abandonment, about homophobia and other kinds of prejudice

You probably read all those books in middle school, too.

Take a minute to think about them.

While you're thinking, consider the following: no matter how distasteful and uncomfortable and not-good we all find things like the Holocaust and suicide and all kinds of prejudice, they do exist.  People have to find out about them at some point.  If kids are lucky in their friends and family and community, perhaps the first time they'll discover the existance of something like child abuse is through a book.  And if kids are unlucky in their friends and family and community, perhaps a book is the first time that they'll discover there's a name for what they're going through, that they're not alone, and that it's not okay. 

Wouldn't you want that book to be the best book possible?  Wouldn't you want that book to be well-written and sensitive and thought-provoking and transcendant? 

If you don't think that pulling all of that off takes all the time and energy and care and dedication and skill that writing adult fiction does, then you are wrong. 

Working in comics, we get an even shorter end of the stick here, because traditionally, comics for kids: full of superheroes or funny animals!  Policed by the now-defunct Comics Code Authority! Produced for reluctant readers: no serious content allowed!

So there's a continually lingering conception of comics for kids that rides the coattails of Martin Amis' assumption about kids books: they're simplistic, infantile works not fit to be read by the Common Man (or Woman). 

Of course, most of these people are not the ones on the internet, who are engaged in the discussion and actively reading the books.  But if you went to your local middle school and surveyed the parents, I wonder how many of them would agree with the statement, 'Comics are quality literature; my kid needs to read Smile just as much as he or she needs to read A Wrinkle in Time." 

Not as many as I'd like. 



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Great commentary - especially the idea of getting parents to realize that a book like SMILE is as valid, important and transformative as A WRINKLE IN TIME. I have been a children's bookseller for the last 15 years and have always read kid's books because I love them but also so I could speak passionately about them and inspire kids to read good books. I have watched as the graphic novel section in the kid's department has grown from one shelf to four and I also watch to see which parents are willing to spend (usually) twice the cost of a kid's paperback for something that their child might consume in less than half the time it takes to read a traditional kid's novel. I think that most parents are so grateful that their kids are reading (and not reading Diary of A Wimpy Kid, or, more often, wanted to keep reading once they have finished the Wimpy series) that they are happy to buy them a graphic novel, especially if it is a series. Now, we just need to get them to appreciate the artwork and the craft of creating a graphic novel. And, while there are plenty of Dan Brown-grade graphic novels for kids out there, the cream of the crop definitely stands out and gets extra shelf space at my store.

Oh, and Martin Amis is a git.

Gavin, that's exactly what I do and have been doing since 1984. I agree that there should be more of us, but the number is growing. I now work in a preK-8 school, and I'm getting lots of good quality and fun comics into the school's library collection. And the kids love it.

And Gina, my students LOVE Smile and made it my best-selling title in last year's book fair. I don't know that I can convince parents that books such as Smile and the Bone series are just as great as the award winning novels, but I've got the kids convinced.

This is an important distinction that I wish more people would recognise -- and having Amis spout such misinformed snobbery only sets the cause back further -- children's literature is very different from children's books. I could point to any number of children's books that are exactly as Amis portrays them, but then I could also point to the same number of adult books that have the exact same qualities (Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, David Baldacci, etc.).

The fact you mention the books you read in Middle School is telling. You had teachers and librarians to help you turn-on to good YA literature - they're the best defense against mass-marketed crap. But, how many teachers and librarians are there turning-on kids to good YA comics? How many can tell their Aaron Renier, Metaphrog and Gene Yang from Rob Liefeld and Geoff Johns? Not enough.

We need more "pom-pom shakers" to make these works more visible and spark the same conversations that Lowry et al did back in the '90s.

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