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Analyzing A Selection Of Childrens Literature English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3114 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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With the birth of the field of children’s literature over two centuries old, Carnegie Medal winners represent only a small part of the history and tradition of children’s literature. The Graveyard Book (2009), the most recent addition recipient of the award, follows some of the traditions of the field, and differs in others. In my attempt to discuss how The Graveyard Book fits into the history and tradition of children’s literature, I will be comparing it with other notable works in the field, specifically, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), and Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958). As a fellow Carnegie winner, Tom’s Midnight Garden, offers a comparison of fantasy fiction, and when considered with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone provides an interesting view of the changes that have occurred in the genre over the years. Treasure Island is structured similarly to The Graveyard Book, and both novels are good examples of the bildungsroman genre. In the course of this essay I will be referring to a range of critical material relevant to my discussion.

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The effect of children’s literature on children, and the reverse, is circular; as children’s attitudes to the world around them change, so too does the literature written for them, and as that literature changes, it again affects children’s attitudes. Furthermore, the evolution of adults’ understanding of childhood has affected which books are deemed suitable for publication. Children’s literature commonly exemplifies the beliefs and context of the culture in which it is written, however, since the majority of children’s literature is written by adults, it often reflects issues that concern adults, and not the intended audience. Adult-authors must make assumptions about the reaction of a child-reader or the behaviour of a child-protagonist, and in doing so, can sometimes offer a poor representation of a child’s perspective. This difference between the adult’s and child’s attitude to children’s literature can often be seen in the contrast between best-selling books, and those books that win literary prizes. Contrary to this, The Graveyard Book has won the Newbery Medal, Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the Locus Award for Best Young Adult novel in 2009, and the 2010 Carnegie Medal (Wikipedia contributors, 2011), spent fifteen weeks on the New York Times best-seller list for children’s chapter books (Rich, 2009), and has a film adaptation currently in production (Wikipedia contributors, 2011). Gaiman himself recognized the unusual nature of a book being both popular and prestigious, saying that typically ‘there are books that are best sellers and books that are winners’ (Gaiman quoted in Rich, 2009).

The popularity and prestige of a children’s book is dependent on a number of different elements; instruction and/or delight, and social, cultural and historical contexts (Maybin, 2009, p. 116). Maybin states that ‘prizes signify a book’s prestige in the eyes of the critics, but they are not necessarily an indication of its appeal to children’ (Maybin, 2009, p. 118). The division between the children’s books awarded literary prizes, and those that are popular with children is significant. An example of such division can be seen when comparing Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995) and Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; Northern Lights was the 1995 Carnegie Medal winner, while Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone only reached the shortlist for the 1997 Medal, but went on to win the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize, The British Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year and the Children’s Book Award, all of which, suggestively, have involved children in the judging process. Like The Graveyard Book, both books are fantasy-adventure novels featuring a young protagonist. All three novels are read an enjoyed by adults and children, but while Northern Lights is considered by adults to be ‘quality’ literature, Harry Potter is criticised being not literature but a ‘phenomenon’ (Zipes, 2009, p. 289). Nicholas Tucker (2009) argues that the criteria for judging the quality of children’s books varied according to conceptions of childhood; for those with a romantic conception, the emphasis is on an exciting, imaginative storyline, whilst those who view childhood primarily as preparation for adulthood favour books that are ‘truly representative’ (Tucker, 2009, p. 153). If compared to earlier children’s books, it appears that modern children’s literature reflects the development of a clearer concept of childhood.

The debate surrounding ‘instruction and delight’ in children’s literature is one that has occupied scholars for centuries. The first children’s book to combine the two concepts was A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), published by John Newberry, and featuring the motto, ‘deluctando monemus’ – ‘instruction with delight’. (Montgomery, 2009, p. 13) Prior to A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, the majority of children’s literature was Puritan in nature, and advocated children’s conversion to Christianity in order to save their souls from eternal damnation. Their concept of original sin resulted in explicitly didactic literature intended to educate children both religiously and morally. Newbery’s children’s book was, according to Jack Zipes, ‘the first children’s book in which amusement rather than religious indoctrination is the central concern’ (Montgomery, 2009, p. 13). In contrast to the clearly religious books generated by the Puritans, Newbery’s books appealed to parents more interested in social and financial improvement; ‘Letter to Sir’ declares that ‘learning is a most excellent thing’ and can raise a boy from ‘a mean State of Life to a Coach and Six’ (Montgomery, 2009, p. 14). A Little Pretty Pocket-Book marks the beginning of an evolution of the purpose of children’s literature into a concern more for the moral development of a child; with an emphasis on becoming a ‘good’ person for the sake of one’s emotional well-being rather than for fear of eternal damnation.

The Bildungsroman novel, considered to have begun with the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister in 1795-6, emphasizes this psychological development. The genre is generally distinguished by a number of topical and thematic elements (Iversen, 2009), and narrates the protagonist’s maturation over the course of the novel. The protagonist is usually young, and, following early unhappiness leaves home on a long and demanding journey, along the way maturing into a self-aware, socially-responsible young adult. Structurally, a Bildungsroman will often favour inter-character dialogue over extensive plot development, which causes the reader’s attention to be centered firmly on the protagonist. Whilst a Bildungsroman is deemed to be a German novel, many scholars use the term (spelled without a capital) to refer to other novels of a similar style that have been published elsewhere. With this in mind, it can be reasoned that The Graveyard Book follows the traditions of a bildungsroman novel.

The Graveyard Book incorporates a number of the elements present in other coming-of-age novels indeed, Gaiman himself has admitted that the novel was greatly influenced by Kipling’s The Jungle Books (1894), which may be considered one of the best-known of such novels (Horn, 2010). Gaiman described the idea as, ‘something a lot like ‘The Jungle Book’ and set it in a graveyard’ (Gaiman quoted in Rich, 2009). The similarities between the two books are clear; in the book titles, the protagonist, even in individual chapters, for example the comparisons between the third chapter in The Graveyard Book, ‘The Hounds of God’ and the second chapter in Book One of The Jungle Books, ‘Kaa’s Hunting’. Gaiman’s ability to take the premise of a popular book over a hundred years old and develop it into an enjoyable children’s book that is both modern and relevant, demonstrates how the traditions of children’s literature can be transformed to meet the demands of a new audience.

A further example of the on-going tradition of the coming-of-age novel is the Harry Potter series, specifically Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The protagonists in both the Harry Potter novels and The Graveyard Book are orphaned as babies when their parents/family are killed by a murderer who, after failing to kill them, continues to hunt them until the two meet in a final ‘show-down’. This premise features in numerous books for children throughout the history of children’s literature, from the already mentioned Jungle Books to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999-2006). The similarities between Harry Potter and Voldemort and Nobody Owens and the man Jack extend further than the latters’ desire to kill; the plots of both novels build from the murder of the protagonists’ family, and in both cases these murders are prompted by a prophecy that the protagonist would be the downfall of the antagonist. This concept of the child-hero is a popular one in children’s fiction and features throughout the history of children’s literature, from Wart in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (1938) to Percy Jackson in Rick Riordan’s Camp Half-Blood series.

Orphaned (whether literally or figuratively) protagonists appear frequently in children’s literature, from folk tales to contemporary fiction. A valuable literary device, an orphan provokes sympathy and can generate a perceived alliance between protagonist and reader. An orphaned child protagonist can also be convenient for the author since without parents, the budding child hero has more freedom to experience the, sometimes life-threatening, adventures that encourage his maturation. This can be seen in Tom’s Midnight Garden, the 1958 winner of the Carnegie Medal, and one of the Carnegie Medal 70th Anniversary top ten (The CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards, 2007). Tom is able to visit the garden partly because of the absence of his parents – whilst he is being cared for by his aunt and uncle, it is clear from the novel that neither adult is accustomed to caring for a child, and Tom takes advantage of this to pursue his nightly visits to the garden. Whilst Tom can be considered a temporary orphan in a figurative sense, Hatty is literally an orphan, having lost both of her parents at a young age.

Their status as orphans is not the only thing that Hatty and Bod share; as Hatty grows up, she ceases to see Tom, in the same way that Bod ceases to see the residents of the graveyard. Alison Waller (2009) argues that in young adult fiction the ending is always presumed to be a realisation of adulthood and maturity. (Waller, 2009, p. 54) This idea of maturation is reminiscent of Barrie’s Peter Pan (1911) and Wendy’s realisation that she and her brothers cannot stay in Never Land, but must return home to grow-up. Humphrey Carpenter (1985) compares Tom and Peter’s attitudes to their ageing, arguing that ‘the story’s conclusion describes Tom’s acceptance of what Peter Pan can never accept: that Time must be allowed to pass, and growth and even old age must be accepted as necessary and even desirable facets of human nature’ (Carpenter, 1985).

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Like his predecessors in the traditions of the coming-of-age novel, Nobody ‘Bod’ Owens is a likeable character, intriguing, and often contradictory in his behaviour; obedient, yet always questioning, determined, yet often managing to find trouble, courageous, yet sensitive. Happy as he is with his adoptive family in the graveyard, at the end of the novel, when he has become a young man, Bod declares that he ‘want[s] to see life… I want everything’ (Gaiman, 2009, p. 286). While this journey of maturation shares a theme with Treasure Island, Bod’s declaration is in contrast to Jim’s final words which, rather than being optimistic at the possibility of future adventure, are fearfully reminiscent of the ‘accursed island’ (Stevenson, 2008, p. 191). Structurally, The Graveyard Book and Treasure Island share some similarities; both novels centre around the adventures of a single, male protagonist, both novels can be described as being coming-of-age stories, and both novels have resolved endings. The novels differ in their point of view; where The Graveyard Book is generally narrated in the third-person, Treasure Island is narrated in the first-person, by Jim Hawkins. However, both novels do deviate from their standard narrative form – there are several parts of The Graveyard Book where the events are recounted by either the man Jack or by Scarlett, and in Treasure Island, for chapters 16-18, Stevenson shifts the control of the narrative from Jim to Doctor Livesey.

In an illustrated talk, Kim Reynolds suggests that children’s literature in its current state has been moulded by practices that began in the nineteenth century, and that whilst the content of books today differs significantly from those of the nineteenth century, there were still the ‘same kinds of divisions then, that we have now in terms of what we might call good literature’ (Reynolds, EA300 DVD1, no. 5). A recurring theme in children’s literature across the years is the idea of ‘home’. Central to the domestic and school stories popular with girls in the nineteenth century, and to adventures stories popular with boys during the same period, ‘home’ is either the setting for such novels, for example in Little Women, or a place of safety that the protagonist can return to after his adventures, like in Treasure Island. The Graveyard Book parts from this traditional notion of ‘home’; what should have been Bod’s ‘place of safety’ became the place where the man Jack murdered his family, so ‘home’ became a place that does not follow the traditional domestic image. When he leaves the graveyard as a young man, he realizes that if he does return, ‘it will be a place, but it won’t be home any longer’ (Gaiman, 2009, p. 286).

Contrary to many earlier children’s novels advocating the traditional correlation of home and safety, in The Graveyard Book Bod is in fact safer among the dead in the graveyard, a place that is stereotypically considered ‘scary’ or even ‘dangerous’. In the last two centuries, there has been a significant change in how ghosts are portrayed in children’s literature; early literature saw ghosts that were frightening, and used to teach children morals, while in contemporary literature they are just as likely to be friendly or even amusing. Both interpretations can be seen in the Harry Potter series, with the Bloody Baron representing the fearsome ghost, and Nearly Headless Nick representing the friendly. The tradition of friendly ghosts in children’s literature, such as those in The Graveyard Book, appears to have begun with William Pène du Bois’ book, Elisabeth the Cow Ghost (1936) (Pearce, 1995). The appearance of ghosts in children’s fiction increased during the 1970s and 1980s, with a number of novels that used ghosts to teach their readers about historical events, and others that a child protagonist helping a ghost to accept his fate and move on. This is in direct contrast to The Graveyard Book, where it is Bod that has to move on into the world of the living, while the ghosts are left in the graveyard.

The publication of The Graveyard Book follows a recent rise in the popularity amongst children and young adults of paranormal fiction. Fantasy fiction as it is today has been developing since the revival of folk and fairy tales in the early 1800s, advancing particularly during the First Golden Age of children’s literature. ‘Modern fantasy’ tends to reject traditional sentimentality, exploring instead complex moral and sociological issues. In a similar way to modern realism, modern fantasy fiction has broached a number of taboo subjects, the most significant in The Graveyard Book, being death. In the early history of children’s literature, when death occurred in a book, it was often as a punishment, used to illustrate where the ‘wrong path’ could lead. In contrast, in The Graveyard Book death is treated as a natural part of life – not to be either welcomed or feared. However, unlike other children’s fiction that handles the subject, death in The Graveyard Book is largely regarded light-heartedly, unlike for example in The Other Side of Truth, where their mother’s death acts at the catalyst for Sade and Femi’s subsequent ordeals. The acceptance of subjects that have previously been considered ‘taboo’ is, according to Rachel Falconer (2009) a result of ‘changing conditions of contemporary childhood’ (Falconer, 2009, p. 373).

The Graveyard Book encapsulates some of the major traditions of children’s literature and is reminiscent of some of the most noteworthy works in the history of the field. At the same time, the novel pushes the boundaries of what is accepted, unmasking a taboo subject and treating it positively but tastefully. A best-seller, the novel continues the current trend of paranormal fiction, and bridges the gap between the popular and the prestigious by winning numerous literary awards. Neil Gaiman’s description of his book as ‘a book about life and childhood and the value of childhood’ (Gaiman quoted in Horn, 2010), places it firmly amongst the field’s traditions, and the book’s double-win of the Newbery Medal and the Carnegie Medal gives it a significant role in the continuing development of the field of children’s literature.


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