Children’s literature is often lumped into two broad groups: treasure and trash. The former is sometimes called ‘literary’, the latter ‘commercial’.
Many of the following 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?
THE INFLUENCE OF CONSUMERS ON PUBLISHING OR, WE GET WHAT WE BUY
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.
A few months ago, I heard a story on NPR about a study that found reading literary fiction, rather than popular fiction, could help people be more empathetic. I have no doubt that this could be true. But I did take issue with ending the story there.
The story seemed to conclude that because literary fiction had the effect of making folks more empathetic it was better than popular fiction. Now, I just don’t believe in the idea of one genre being better than another. I do not believe in story hierarchy. There are well-told stories and there are poorly told stories, that’s it. And empathy is just one thing we can learn from them.
Trash isn’t simply ‘what sells really well’. This isn’t a definition. It’s not all that easy to define rubbish…
it may not be rubbish after all. The adult eye is not necessarily a perfect instrument for idscerning certain sorts of values. Elements — and this particularly applies to science fiction — may be so obviously rubbishy that one is tempted to dismiss the whole product as rubbish. But among those elements there may be something new and strange to which one is not accustomed, and which one may not be able to assimilate oneself, as an adult, because of the sheer awfulness of the rest of the stuff; but the innocence — I suppose there is no other word — of the child’s eye can take or leave in a way that I feel an adult cannot, and can acquire valuable stimuli from things which appear otherwise overgrown with a mass of weeds and nonsense.
– Peter Dickinson, ‘A Defence of Rubbish’
‘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 formulaic, represent expected motives and tropes. Children like repetition. That said, even adults like formulaic genres such as romance, Westerns 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.
Alison Lurie makes an excellent job of distinguishing trash from treasure in her essay on Frances Hodgson Burnett:
A few writers produce what economists call consumer durables. Their works, like a house or a silver teapot or a Grecian urn, will last a lifetime and often longer. Other authors, the great majority, manufacture “soft goods” — sometimes highly profitable but hastily and flimsily made, intended to be used and thrown out. They may be courted by publishers and booksellers and receive a lot of fan mail, but after their death, or even sooner, they are forgotten. They are not mentioned in biographical dictionaries, and their books molder unread in the spare bedrooms of country cottages.
For most of her lifetime Frances Hodgeson Burnett was this second sort of writer. Her sentimental magazine stories and romantic novels were the Victorian equivalent of acrylic authors like Elizabeth Ward and Mrs. E.E.E.N. Southworth are forgotten, because at least twice in more than half a century of constant and often exhausting commercial productivity (fifty-four published books and thirteen stage plays) she happened to tell one of those stories that express concealed fantasies and longings; stories that are the externalized dreams of a whole society and pass beyond ordinary commercial success to become part of popular culture.
— Don’t Tell The Grownups: The power of subversive children’s literature
Marion Lloyd uses the terms upmarket and downmarket books:
The children’s book world made a clear distinction between upmarket and downmarket books. I shared an office with Rosemary Sandberg, editor of THE QUALITY lists, Lions and Picture Lions. She published writers who were reviewed and won prizes – Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Robert Westall, Lloyd Alexander, Richard Scarry, Judith Kerr. She was friends with the great children’s publishers like Tom Maschler at Cape, Margaret Clark at The Bodley Head, Judith Elliot at Heinemann. They looked down their noses at pony books. Which I didn’t mind, as WE were reaching millions of children, and lots of them wrote to us about their favourite Armada titles. My dear friend and colleague, Alyx Price, still has a letter from me replying to her question, aged nine, about when were all the Chalet School titles going to be in print, as she needed to collect them all.
TRASH AND LITERARY CRITICISM
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 IS ALLOWED TO READ?
There is a strong argument for telling children what is trash and what is quality, but not limiting their access to either.
There is a need for heroes in children’s literature … There is no particular harm in children’s reading rubbish as long as they also have plenty of good stuff available for comparison. But it has to be recognised that the [Superman-type] presentation of the concept of hero could also be pernicious rubbish in that its equation of might with right elevates the use of force to a prime ethos.
— Mollie Hunter, Scottish writer
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.
Writing of the work of Roald Dahl, John Rowe Townsend’s attitude seems to be in Written For Children that children can ‘make their own way’ to books of lesser quality; that it’s the job of adults to introduce the worthy ones:
There are deep divisions among adults over the children’s books of Roald Dahl (1916-90), a writer of peculiar talent and strong individual flavour. While popularity is not the ultimate test of worth — if it were, the maps both of “adult” and children’s literature would look very strange — it is a quality that naturally appeals to parents and teachers who wish to get children reading.
The Dahl books are fantasies unlike any other. That they go down well with children is unquestionable: that Dahl was a gifted writer on a different plane from the mass purveyors of junk is also undeniable. I am however among those who would leave children to find his books for themselves, rather than take pains to introduce them. They appeal, I think, to the cruder end of childish taste: to a delight in rumbustious rudery and in giving people one-in-the-eye.
Reading trash can turn kids into avid adult readers…
Adults tend to look down on books [which are predictable and repetitive such as those by R.L. Stine]. Many people call them ‘trash’ and believe that they hinder children from learning to enjoy good literature—that is, literature that less obviously fills the reader’s expectations. As it happens, however, we’ve been told by many people who have become ardent readers of serious literature as adults that they spent part of their childhood absorbing every book of a popular series. Young readers of formula books may be learning the basic patterns that less-formulaic books diverge from. It’s possible that everyone needs to read formula fiction (or watch it on TV) to start with, to learn the basic story patterns and formulas that underlie all fiction. Perhaps readers can’t appreciate the divergences of more unusual books until they first learn these underlying patterns.
– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman
GIRLS AND TRASH
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?
A BALANCED READING ‘DIET’?
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.
CAN TRASHY BOOKS BE ADDICTIVE?
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.
A MUTUALLY SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP?
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.
“Flowers in the Attic” Is the Best Book Ever* And Here Is Why from Beauty Redefined
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is an example of a website written by articulate, literary people who love the books most often designated as ‘trash’. There is also a podcast. This website may well introduce you to terms and concepts otherwise unknown: ‘Ugly Cry Books‘, ‘milky pirates‘, ‘triad erotic romances‘, ‘plot and pet moppets‘, etc.
The Harsh Bigotry of Twilight Haters from Time
Books Without Lumps, Or, Are Some Books Trash? from Stroppy Author’s Guide To Publishing