Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of merely a descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these are the marks of childhood and adolescence […] The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth … surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?
– C.S. Lewis, 1966
One of the oddest things we do to children is to confront them with someone else who is also eight, or ten, or seven, and insist that they be friends … What concerns me is the misconception that people are fossilised at any particular point in a lifetime. We are none of us ‘the young’ or ‘the middle-aged’ or ‘the old’. We are all of those things. To allow children to think otherwise is to encourage a disability — a disability both of awareness and communication.
– Penelope Lively
These notes draw heavily 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.
‘Notions of the “child”, “childhood” and “children’s literature” are contingent, not essentialist; embodying the social construction of a particular historical context; they are useful fictions intended to redress reality as much as to reflect ideology of Romantic literature and criticism. These ideas have been applied to eighteenth-century children’s authors such as Maria Edgworth. The child constructed by Romantic ideology recurs as Wordsworth’s ‘child of nature’ in such figures as Kipling’s Mowgli and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Dickon in The Secret Garden and, as one critic points out, ‘many children’s books that feature children obviously wiser than the adults they must deal with — like F. Anstey’s Vice Versa or E. Nesbit’s Story of the Amulet — would have been unthinkable without the Romantic revaluation of childhood’.
– from History and Culture in Understanding Children’s Literature edited by Peter Hunt
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.]
The following passage from Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction, by Maria Nikolajeva, is an interesting glimpse into how just 100-200 years ago, children were seen as pure and untouchable. The idea that any adult could be sexually attracted to a child and cause them harm never crossed anyone’s mind in such a culture:
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.
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.
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.