What Is A Child?

These are notes from Fiction For Young Adults – the fourth in a series of units offered at Bendigo’s La Trobe University

delivered by Professor David Beagley, available on iTunes U


YA is now defined as a market, in fact it’s a market that defines most other fashion, including clothing.

The crossover novel is a concept that first became clear with Harry Potter, when Bloomsbury (the publishers) realised they should start publishing this children’s story with adult covers. The adult versions are dark and sombre. This was so successful that the final two books sold more copies with adult covers than with those designed for children.


What exactly is a child?

The labels themselves have the result of setting boundaries: child, adolescent, teenager, young adult.

Historically, during the Renaissance (1400s onwards), society’s thinking changed hugely, starting with religion, into ideas of government. Art changed, music changed. All of these things happened over a couple of centuries. The change in attitude towards the child is typified by this painted icon of Madonna and Child (1228), and conveys the idea that the child is simply a smaller version of the adult.

The baby Jesus is being held by his mother, in terms of the proportion of the arms/legs/head is an adult figure. [Might this simply be a bad painter, or reflecting the idea that the baby Jesus was never a normal baby? However, I get the idea.]


A different but related idea:

I think the way we’ve constructed adulthood against and alongside our construction of childhood is bad for adults. It’s bad for children, too, but it’s also bad for adults. In the same way that sexism is bad for women and men, so too is our adoration of The Child bad for the child and the grownup.

-          The Moving Castle


What is a naughty child?

When you see a child throwing a tantrum in the supermarket and the carer smacks the child – should you use violence on a child? Is the child being naughty or is the child simply doing what the adult doesn’t want? Does the child have the capacity to make the moral judgement between good and evil? Before the Renaissance, it was assumed. Humans were thought to be inherently evil, because we were descended from the evil Adam and Eve. Therefore every child ever since is sinful and accepts responsibility just like everybody else. John Locke and others presented the idea that the child became not the adult but the baby Jesus, essentially innocent and pure, corrupted by the world. This is a huge change in thinking.


Should children be treated differently?

A couple of the gospels from the Christian Bible: Mark 10:14, repeated at Luke 18:16. A group of children were trying to get to Jesus. They were being held back, but said that the children are special and let them come to me. The bible says unless we humble ourselves like little children we’ll never get into heaven. This was recognition that children could not and should not be treated as adults, but it took the rest of the Western world another 1500 years or so to wake up to this idea, but wake up they did, in the Renaissance.

Schooling became a structured, organised social activity, not just something parents passed onto their children. Before the Renaissance, if your father was a weaver, you were a weaver. Schooling became a social construct between the 1700 and 1800s. It was originally provided by the church, in Britain and then copied in Australia. Eventually schooling was compulsory – in 1872 both in Britain and in Victoria here in Australia. That separated children as a social group. They were not just part of a family, but part of the group of ‘school children’.

Before this were labour laws prohibiting children from being employed, originally when they were 12, then 14. Even in the 1930s and 1940s, most people left school after about the age of 14 (what we would call Year 8) and go to work. Only a few would go on to specific qualifications to become professionals. Anne of Green Gables finished school at about year eight. Next year she’s back as the teacher, teaching the class. After a couple of years of doing that she goes off to university to become a teacher.

There were laws about when a person could marry, engage in sexual activity, when they could inherit and so on. These laws gradually started coming in to protect the child and childhood. The middle class came about after leisure came about. People had money to buy books, for example.

Teenagers, or the concept of ‘teenagehood’ came about much later, in the 1950s.

[Rock around the Clock]

Huge social upheavals happened. Disposable income, compulsory schooling – all of those elements were leading to this point, and probably should have happened earlier, but the World Wars and Great Depression inserted turmoil. Gender roles were also important. Women were required in the workforce and therefore unable to look after the children as they were able to before.

All of a sudden there was a jump between the child to the 18 year old adult, fixed by warfare, because you were unable to fight before the age of 18. This gave birth to ‘the teenager’. Rock and Roll occurred because there was a group who couldn’t yet fight or do other adult things.

When do you pay full fare to the movies or on the plane? (When you fit into a seat rather than on someone’s knee.)

When can you leave school?

When can you work?

It’s blurred there, because there is an upper limit on hours for teenagers. When can you smoke, marry? Between 10 and 16 children can engage in sexual activity, as long as the two partners are both consenting and within two years of age. If you’re over 16 there are still some limits, if you’re over 18 open slather, with anyone. Anywhere between about 3 and 25 for certain inheritance laws. Is a 19 year old the same as a 13 year old? They’re both ‘teenagers’. The word ‘adolescent’ implies that there is growth but it is not yet there.


Bahr, Nan & Pendergast, Donna (2007) The millennial adolescent. Australian Council for Education Research, Camberwell, Victoria.

Allow Room For Imagination

Always think of your audience. Never think for your audience.

- Mo Willems

What Is Quality Children’s Literature? What Is Trash?

These are notes from Kid You Not Podcast Episode 2: ‘Quality and Trash

The concept of quality vs trash gets a lot of people quite worked up. Are these labels even helpful?

When the presenters asked a young primary school teacher how he determined the value of a book his answer was utilitarian. He said he had to consider what he was trying to achieve by using a particular text: decoding or inference and understanding.

Publishers pay attention to what teachers want because publishers know that schools and teachers will buy them. This is good for sales figures. [And crucial in a smaller publishing market such as Australia.]

In this way, teachers are influencing what is labelled quality and what is labelled trash.

People like and enjoy trashy books. They are made because they sell really well. The sales of trashy books support the production of literary texts, which don’t sell as well. Kidlit world is different because there are a lot of children’s literature awards, and if a book gets one of those awards, certain parents will buy that book because they want their child to be reading high quality literature in order to open their minds. Adult literary texts on the other hand only have a select readership.

But trash isn’t simply ‘what sells really well’. This isn’t a definition.

‘Trashy’ novels tend to feature princesses, ballerinas, ponies and at the moment vampires, zombies. There are football and monster stories for boys (at least in the 1990s with the Goosebumps series). Trashy novels don’t win the awards.

Trash is interesting for a literary critic. Like any piece of popular culture it says something about who we are and what is valued or not valued in our society. The attitudes towards love/sex/death within say things about our attitudes towards romance and what we value.

Literary critics tend to rehabilitate trash. The gothic novel is now explored because it says a lot about the time in which it was produced. Back when it was new, it was trash.

The most praised work of children’s literature in the past few years is Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. No one could contest its literary worth, with references to Milton, full of metaphors and images very challenging to young readers, and yet it’s sold extremely well. Every publisher wants to publish a book like this. People are worried that if a child only reads less literary texts they’ll somehow fall behind. The books of Patrick Ness are like this too – high quality and big sellers.

This educational dimension in kidlit is probably the most important part of the debate around quality and trash. Kidlit is all about being entertaining as well as educational; aesthetic as well as pedagogical. Unlike adult lit, kidlit isn’t allowed to just be.

Children read a wide range of different things. Adult tend to stick to the same sorts of books once their tastes have solidified. But children have an open mind about these different types of books and perhaps this is where the worry sets in: This is the time you have to ‘catch’ them before they settle upon reading nothing but trash for the rest of their sorry lives.

Taste is acquired and constructed. The literary canon is constructed by the West to perpetuate Western views, particularly white male point of views. Children are aware of what we as adults perceive to be quality or trash. A Where’s Wally book would not be aware during quiet reading time.

Should there be rules about what a child should read?

There is a strong argument for telling children what is trash and what is quality, but not limiting their access to either.

Should children work that out for themselves? The presenters disagree about whether children should be told that some works are better than others, but agree that children need access to both in order to know the difference.

There’s no such thing as an ‘independent reader’. Readers are always a product of the reading culture they grew up in.

Librarians can see their jobs as being ‘guardians of children’s books’ since they are the ones who decide what goes into the library. Librarians can also use the term ‘gatekeeper’.  So even the most independent of readers is not truly independent. Everything that pertains to children is filtered via adults.

Most of the books considered trashy by virtue of their genre are marketed at women and, in the case of kidlit, girls. The only unisex genre of trash is the horror, but even adult horror novels are geared towards women as well. There are football novels for younger boys but there are fewer of them. There is pink all over the shelves. One of the reasons kidlit is not respected in higher academia is that traditionally it was a women’s medium. Education of children was a woman’s job, and was therefore seen in itself as a trashy medium.

Girls read more than boys, especially fiction. Non fiction is a completely different story, not dominated by the female reader. The dominance of female books may simply be down to the fact that they buy them.

Isn’t this imbalance culturally constructed, thus leaving kidlit to be the realm of women? Why are young girls more attracted to books than boys?

Trash is formulaic, represent expected motives and tropes. Children like repetition. Even adults like formulaic genres such as romance and crime. This recipe is associated with certain motives and values. Perhaps the problem with trash is that it normalises a certain set of values, considered not daring enough , a bit too conservative, lacking in challenge and sophistication.

Princess books are the most obvious example of trash which reinforce ideals regarding patriarchy and monarchy and marriage, which addresses an overwhelmingly female audience and can be seen as toxic.

Literary work leaves more space for imagination and interpretation.

An analogy is made between ‘balanced food diet’ and ‘balanced reading diet’ in which you need a bit of both to achieve a balanced diet. [I personally have no time for this argument, because I don’t believe a ‘balanced diet’ for children needs to include added sugar, transfats and seed oils, just as it needn’t include alcohol and cigarettes. In reading, I am strangely more relaxed.]

Publishers aim to sell a lot of copies, and so a feature of the protagonists of trash is that they do not have many distinguishing features. The most obvious example of this kind of character is Bella from Twilight, who is a rather bland character. This allows the reader to project their own personality into the space, so they fell it is they who is experiencing the romance with the vampire. This contrasts with a character such as the narrator of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time in which the voice is autistic and therefore highly specific. Most children will never be able to see themselves in this character.

Most children would enjoy both.

Identification can lead to addiction. A lot of trashy novels achieve a high level of addiction – a certain percentage of the readers will need to read the next in a series – in which publishers are very interested.

What is wrong with a child identifying with a character and wanting to buy the next book? Children like to return to the same.

What is quality? Quality leaves gaps for the reader to imagine. The reader experiences something new and unexpected. They are taken out of their comfort zones. They tend to deal with big themes: Patrick Ness’s novels are all about war and what that does to society. They use language that is complex and demanding. Quality books sometimes have open endings, or character personalities that are complex. We don’t necessarily understand their motivations. The ending of Phillip Pullman’s trilogy (not revealed here) is about the only example of such an ending in the history of children’s literature. Endings can challenge the reader’s idea of what they want to happen in the end. These books resist easy meanings. They’re closer to the complexity of real life, which again ties in to the safety that is often there in commercial or trashy books. In quality books, as in real life, anything can happen.

Therefore, the reason both quality and trash are important as part of a balanced reading diet is because the quality allows children to explore the new world, while trash allows them to retreat back to safety.

Trash and quality seem to depend on each other, from a business perspective, from a literary criticism perspective and from a teaching perspective.



See notes from David Beagley’s lecture on evaluating fantasy for children.


Colour Is Important But Can’t Fix Everything

First you have to catch them

Heroes Must Die So That They Can Be Reborn

The dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth. In some way in every story, heroes face death or something like it: their greatest fears, the failure of an enterprise, the end of a relationship, the death of an old personality.

- Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

Talking Animals In Picturebooks

A new study by University of Toronto researchers has found that kids’ books that feature animals with human characteristics not only inhibit factual learning, they may also hinder children’s thinking and reasoning about real-life animals.

Children’s books that feature animals with human traits create confusion in young minds about nature and biology: University of Toronto study, National Post

Books Before Bedtime?

A friend from tennis has adult children. A librarian once told her to never, ever, under any circumstances read books before bedtime. Books are not for putting children to sleep.

This is an extreme view, and perhaps what was lost in translation is the librarian’s full reasoning.

There are perhaps two kinds of books — one is designed to put children to sleep with its rhythm and repetition, which doesn’t necessarily make it a bad piece of literature. After spending last night dealing with nightmares, there’s a strong case to be made for gentle cuddles of books.

I do have an issue though if books are only ever read in this way. Certainly, many books are exciting and thought-provoking and stimulating, and not necessarily good bedtime fare. That said, if the only opportunity for reading occurs before bedtime, I see no huge problem with this, especially since backlit screens are apparently bad for biorhythms.

David Beagley, in his introductory lecture to Young Adult Fiction (a series available via iTunes U from LaTrobe University) has this to say about YA being used in this way:

Read YA fiction as a proper intellectual, aesthetic experience. Don’t read it to put someone to sleep at night, or to tick off ‘this is one of the classics that I ought to have read at some stage’. Read these books because they are books worth reading, and regard the public appearance of age categorisation as external.


Are picturebooks being dumbed-down, or are they just changing?


I don’t know the answer to this.


E B White On Writing For Children

In his Harpers essay, White mused, “It must be a lot of fun to write for children—reasonably easy work, perhaps even important work.” After Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) pointed White’s essay out to Anne Carroll Moore, she sent White a letter. If it’s so easy, why don’t you do it? “I wish to goodness you would do a real children’s book yourself,” she wrote. “I feel sure you could, if you would, and I assure you the Library Lions would roar with all their might in its praise.” (Moore often inscribed her letters with a return address of “Behind the Lions.”) White replied that he had started writing a children’s book, but was finding it difficult. “I really only go at it when I am laid up in bed, sick, and lately I have been enjoying fine health. My fears about writing for children are great—one can so easily slip into a cheap sort of whimsy or cuteness. I don’t trust myself in this treacherous field unless I am running a degree of fever.”

- The Lion and the Mouse, The New Yorker

Who Are Picturebooks For?

Picture books are synonymous with Children’s Literature. But is this is a necessary condition of the art form itself? Or is it just a cultural convention, more to do with existing expectations, marketing prejudices and literary discourse?

- from an essay by Shaun Tan