Has Childhood Gone AWOL?

Both picture books and young readers seem to be disappearing as a new target market takes shape

Untitled #48 (2004) / Copyright Nicholas Prior, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

I didn’t really see the genius of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947) until after several readings. Initially, it seemed antiquated and simplistic (“Goodnight room, Goodnight moon, Goodnight cow jumping over the moon”), a mere 130 words spread over thirty-two pages. It is essentially a fugue, a few notes that are repeated with variations, eventually evoking something complex. She is describing the place between waking and sleep, a landscape that is magical for children and an unfortunate, semi-permanent state for parents. Goodnight Moon, like other children’s perennials (Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and the works of Dr. Seuss) have endured the way certain pop songs do, because they capture an essential rhythm.

There is no more democratic art form, other than perhaps finger painting, than the children’s picture book. Almost everyone, it seems, has an idea for one, or is writing one, or would if they had the time. But they are harder than they look. The first children’s book I wrote (The Trouble with Justin, 1993) was finished in a day, but that happy pattern was never repeated in the books that followed (among them When Vegetables Go Bad! ; Yuck, a Love Story). Now they take longer, as the subtleties of the form, the ruthless economies, present themselves. The publishers’ catalogue copy states that my books are for children between the ages of four and eight. On those occasions when I read to kids, I find eight is a bit old. They are distracted, often disarming, still sweet though flirting with early adolescence (two girls struggling over a Barbie pen, one of them saying through clenched teeth, “Fuck off, Madison”). There are moments when I’m reading publicly that I wonder if the children’s picture book is a dying form. I look at the children and sometimes wonder if they too are a dying form.

There are fewer children’s picture books being published these days, and the erosion of childhood itself is one of the reasons, though there are others. Historically, children’s books have largely been driven by library sales: 80 percent of the books in North America went to institutional markets. Librarians were the gatekeepers of kidlit, and who better? Educated, concerned, in touch with children. But budgets have suffered over the years, and book budgets now have to accommodate videos, dvds, and other multimedia formats. Canadian librarians also need to consider books in other languages that serve local ethnic populations. So the book budget is further diluted.

The retail market presents other challenges. Children’s books don’t have the same exposure as adult books—reviews, book shows, author interviews—and as a result, it can take six months for a new children’s book to find an audience. The selling cycle of chain stores is short and unforgiving, and while chain stores stock books in creative ways, the staff isn’t really equipped to guide you through the thousands of possibilities. Unlike independent bookstores, there is rarely anyone who can introduce you to a new author, who can create a bestseller. So the chains do better with recognizable series (Franklin the turtle), and franchises (Disney), and familiarity (Pooh). It is one of the reasons for the rise of children’s books written by celebrities; they provide instant recognition. That list includes Prince Charles, Madonna (who has written five now), John Lithgow, and Jamie Lee Curtis. This summer Ray Romano has a book (Raymie, Dickie and the Bean), as do George Foreman (Let George Do It!), and Jason Alexander (Dad, Are You The Tooth Fairy?).

It’s not that these books are particularly bad. What they are is safe, from the perspective of the publisher, the retailer, and, finally, the reader. There is little danger of their being commercial failures and little danger of finding the kind of energy that informs the late Shel Silverstein’s books (Where the Sidewalk Ends). Celebrity books are part of the homogenization that kidlit is especially prone to.

Another problem is that picture books, with their four-colour illustrations, are proportionally more expensive to produce than adult novels, but sell for less. They are a financial risk, a factor that invites conservatism. Some publishers try to pre-sell foreign rights to help offset production costs, following the model of Hollywood films. It helps to have a celebrity to front your book at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, where world rights are sold. Some of this decline is simple demographics; the baby boomers’ offspring are now heading into adolescence. There are a lot of market forces working against picture books, and finally, there is the issue of the reader: is childhood coming to an end?

Childhood is an invention, to a degree. In the Middle Ages, in the Eurocentric model, it was exclusive to the upper classes. Children of the less privileged had engaged the adult world by the age of seven, and there was little difference between what adults knew and what children knew. “The absence of literacy, the absence of the idea of education, the absence of the idea of shame—these are the reasons why the idea of childhood did not exist in the medieval world,” wrote Neil Postman in his 1982 book The Disappearance of Childhood.

The late sixteenth century ushered in the notion that people are innately evil, so children should be moulded or, even better, whipped into moral shape, which meant suppressing or punishing most childish impulses. In the early years of industrialization, children became an economic asset among the working class, with most members of larger families employed in the factory. The literature that evolved in this period was essentially oral and cautionary. The German folk tales that the Brothers Grimm famously collected, published in 1812–15, were useful parables that warned against the real dangers of forests and strangers and family. Greed and pride were punished with Teutonic efficiency, often involving something being chopped off.

Childhood was legally defined in the nineteenth century with child-welfare acts and labour reform, and a conceptual model flowered. As soon as the idea of childhood was established, the idea of escaping its realities appeared in books. Huckleberry Finn (1884), the fount of American literature, told the story of escape from a hypocritical, straitened society. As Huck told the Widow Douglas, hell sounds like a lot more fun than heaven. And then more escape: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. Childhood, Postman argued, was a creation of the printing press: books, or at least literacy, created children. And now they are in danger of disappearing, casualties of television and the Internet. The golden era of childhood, according to Postman, was between 1850 and 1950.

Since 1950, there has been an increased merging of the children’s world and the adult world. Pop culture produces a society where children grow up early and quickly, and adults are increasingly infantilized. A six-year-old and a fifteen-year-old don’t read the same books but they see the same images: Britney Spears’s choreographed sexuality, advertisements for toys and clothes, the frantic teen comedies on TV, ads for Internet porn. They know the same catchphrases and slang. As in the Middle Ages, children know what adults know. There is a parallel between the lustful, squalid folk revels seen in a Bruegel painting and the lustful squalid world seen on television, all of it witnessed first-hand by children. Back then the equality among adults and children was the result of collective ignorance; now, it is based on the unbridled dissemination of information.

The slow collapse of childhood as an idea is often rolled into the death-of-family-values mantra that has worked so well as a political slogan. Family values succeeds as a concept because it is wonderfully elastic and essentially devoid of meaning. Does it mean parents who stay together, or the embrace of (the right) faith or good table manners? The collapse of conventional morality has been a rallying cry for every generation of the last century.

When people speak of the death of childhood, they often mean the death of innocence. A three-year-old is the last connection to a pre-lapsarian world. By four, there are rumours of reality with all its baggage. Like Adam and Eve, four-year-olds prefer experience to innocence. We all do. Yet there is the strong desire for innocence to exist somewhere, in some form. As my three-year-old son loses his own innocence, it isn’t his loss that I mourn, a loss that is both inevitable and necessary. I mourn my own loss; he is my last visceral connection to that perspective.

Despite the warnings, childhood probably won’t disappear. It will continue to evolve though. From the child as labourer in the Industrial Age we now have the child as consumer. Capitalism is both a reinforcer of childhood, a profitable state, and an agent of change. As the child becomes consumer, the market has become more divided into mass-market and high-end books, the former appealing to the child, the latter to his dismayed parents. There is also less emphasis on back-list titles other than classics like Goodnight Moon; consumption is about the present. These days, picture books have a shorter lifespan, just like the children who read them.

If picture books are on the wane, Young Adult fiction is thriving. “You should write YA,” a publisher told me. “That’s where the money is.” Like childhood, the genre is an invention. In the 1950s, the book world was largely polarized into children’s books and adult books. There were books that bridged the gap (Anne of Green Gables, Huckleberry Finn), but not that many. The YA genre as we know it today didn’t exist. In most libraries at the time, the adult section was closed to children or else they had to make requests for adult books. Librarians appealed to publishers, asking for a literature that addressed this inequity. The result was YA.

It is a category that deals both in fantasy and in heavy doses of reality (everything from acne to aids). Young Adult can encompass chapter books (Roald Dahl’s work) and middle readers (Judy Blume’s books), and novels for older readers, with their darker themes. They are cheaper to produce than picture books, appeal to a larger audience, and are more profitable. With the extraordinary success of the Harry Potter books, everyone is following the money. Clive Barker has a fantasy series, Abarat, to which Disney has already bought the film, theme park, and multimedia rights. These books are intended to be read by both children and adults; the Potter books are available in an adult edition.

Part of the current success of YA may be due to the teenaging of the world. Six-year-olds are inching toward adolescence, and thirty-three-year-olds are retaining its traits (sullen, unformed, opinionated, useless, dangerous). Adolescence offers relative autonomy and no responsibility, an appealing combination. It is becoming the ugly meeting place for a large part of society. If J.D. Salinger were to write The Catcher in the Rye today, Holden Caulfield would be a plausible thirty-seven-year-old, ruminating on sex, love, and movies, prematurely grey (as the sixteen-year-old version was) and confused.

The Harry Potter series isn’t really fantasy, as one publisher pointed out, despite the sorcery and wizards. It is a clever reinterpretation of a genre that was once called British Boarding School fiction. A child, or a set of siblings, go to stay with wicked strangers, uncaring relatives, or cruel institutions, and find ways to cope. Lemony Snicket has explored the genre wonderfully in his multi-volume series on the unfortunate Baudelaire children.

The vast readership combined with the sheer size and relative complexity of the Potter books produced a collective relief that the New Child was still reading. He hadn’t been weaned away from books by images, by video games. What will she read next? There are a few hybrid forms out there, catering to a market that is by turns sophisticated and childish. Chuck Dugan is awol, by Eric Chase Anderson (brother of Wes Anderson, director and co-writer of The Royal Tenenbaums) is billed as “a novel with maps.” It is 224 pages and uses a typewriter-style font, so it gives the impression of amateurism, of a school paper. There are childish, idiosyncratic diagrams. Yet the hero is an adult. Chuck Dugan is an eighteen-year-old midshipman in the US Navy who has gone awol in order to follow a treasure map left by his late father, and to prevent his mother from marrying a weasel. A kind of postmodern Hardy Boys tale—treasure, adventure, muted romance—it reflects the childhood urge to both face our fears and leave them behind. We want to read our own story (having gay parents, dealing with school, being new to the city, unwanted, geeky), but we also want to escape our own stories and go to Oz, to Narnia, to Hogwarts, to Wonderland.

The death of the picture book would leave an unfortunate lacuna: the shared moment when parent and child explore some place magical. The McLuhanesque beauty of picture books is that the medium is the message. I read to my children and we come to inhabit that landscape together. While announcing the death of the picture book is premature, its decline has certain consequences. It is unlikely that the genre will produce another Seuss, for one. The era of having your picture book become a cultural phenomena, read by children, discussed by adults, may be over. As reality is becoming grimmer, as innocence evaporates, those places where Sneetches stroll and Flummoxes shuffle will become more and more valuable.

The Rose Garden (2001) / Copyright Loretta Lux, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York
Don Gillmor
Don Gillmor’s book To the River  won the Governor General’s Award for nonfiction.