It seems obvious to say that children’s literature exists as a genre of its own, separated from general literature or literature for adults, and yet, there are ongoing debates about the existence of children’s literature. The debate is in fact centred on the definition of “children’s literature”.
There are two opposite thesis that tackle this problem: there is, on one hand, the thesis that negates the existence of a children’s literature and supports the idea that there is just one unique literature for all humanity; on the other hand there is the thesis that assumes that kids and young adults are a specific kind of reader with their own features different from the adult reader, which entails that their literature will also have characteristics that differ from the adult literature. In this blog –of course– we agree with the second thesis, although there is indeed a series of problems with the definition of children’s literature, like the age range or its origin.
There is no consensus about the moment that originated the appearance of the children’s literature, although some researchers suggest that the end of the 17th century and, more specifically, the beginning of the 18th was the start of the children’s literature as we know it. Until that time, all that was written to be read by children (or aloud to children) was religious, educational or moralistic. Those books aimed to instruct children in different areas of life, trying to shape them into the men that they should become. The emergence of fairy tales and books like the ones from the Grimm Brothers – even though they can be fiercely violent and cruel – would mark the commencement of a separate genre of literature, dedicated to children and their world.
However, what is the age range of the readers of children’s literature? It is not an easy question to answer since it depends on so many aspects. For starters, children’s literature has two main audiences – that is, the kids of course, but also the adults, since they are the ones who write, edit, publish, buy and ultimately read the books to the children. Not to mention that many adults (including me!) read children’s books for fun, own their own. There is also the case of ambivalent books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Are they written for children and read also by adults or are they adult books that children can read too? We can’t forget about adaptations, which are abridged, simplified versions of adult books.
It’s fairly easy (sometimes) to take a picture book and classify it as children’s literature, since it will very unlikely entertain an adult unless it’s intended to be read to a child. But if you take the Harry Potter books, a series that has attracted so many readers from the whole world -both kids and adults- the conclusion is more complicated.
In the end, is it really important to classify children’s literature? Academically it has a sense, but in practice, do we need a name for it? I think we all agree here that we don’t care if a book was written for children or for adults – we are just going to read it anyway.