Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A little Christmas rant

I was in Nashville’s most popular bookstore today, looking for gifts. I was happy to see that the place was fairly mobbed with shoppers. I enjoyed browsing, although as usual half the things I wanted weren’t in stock. Every time I go searching for titles in a brick and mortar store, I am amazed at all the good books that don’t merit shelf space. And all the crappy books that do.

After diligent hunting I did find suitable books for all the adults on my list, then I ventured into the children’s section to get something for my niece’s little boy. He’s almost nine, and I was happy to see that there was a whole wall devoted to fiction for kids his age. He loves sports, has been an amazing little athlete since he was a toddler. Surely there would be plenty of things to interest him.

Nope. There were precious few books about sports, or anything else that would appeal to a kid like my great-nephew. Instead there was volume after volume of what can best be described as the demon spawn of Harry Potter. I swear more than half the books were blatant Potter rip-offs. It was ridiculous. I felt a faint sympathy with the Christian loonies who rail against J. K. Rowling. Hell, I’m a witch and seeing all those books kinda gave me the creeps.

Believe me, I’m not opposed to magical fantasy for kids. I wish there had been more of it when I was a girl, I would have loved it. I just don’t think a steady diet of it is necessarily a good thing, especially when everybody’s getting a steady diet of it. It’s all a little too grandiose, too fixated on power struggles. I think it encourages an unforgiving, oppositional view of the world.

Of course, you can find fault with just about any literature for children. When I was ten I loved Black Beauty, which is a pretty twisted book in its fascination with cruelty. But the shelves in libraries and bookstores weren’t filled with dozens of Black Beauty clones. When I’d wallowed in all the suffering I could stand, I moved on to something a little happier—I had to, if I wanted to keep reading. Kids now could read nothing but wizard fantasies, and obviously a lot of them do or the store wouldn’t keep so many in stock.

Another problem with the glut of Potteresque books is that they don’t leave much space for books to suit kids whose imaginations don’t run in that direction. Not every kid digs wizards. Think how disheartening a visit to the bookstore would be if you were one of those kids.

I wonder what those of you who have young children think about this. What do your kids read? Am I being unnecessarily cranky?

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith for A Child's Garden of Verses, R.L. Stevenson, 1905.


stella p said...

My answer will not help so much, since I belong to a different language culture, and my children are older. But: My 15 year old son is an avid reader, and read adult novels - has done so for at least some years. As a small boy he (also) began to read the Harry Potter series, but grew faster than the books, the last book he didn´t bother to read since he didn´t like the language. My daughter, 13, reads a lot too. At the moment the books in The House of Amber series - in English.
My stepson, 13, doesn´t like to read book at all, although. At least if they are not about facts. Just the thought of reading page after page after page is too boring for him. I think a lot of boys are like him,

Mark Evans said...

Just looking at the books we bought for our 8 year old daughter for Christmas... a Merlin illustrated story book and a book about dragons (which has dragon models that you can build). Hmmm, I didn't even realise.
I have noticed before that there is a large amount of mythical and Arthurian based story books on the shelves nowadays, but I think it is just a temporary phase. Next to come will be a glut of vampire books, following on from the success of the twilight stuff, you watch.

chayaruchama said...

You are not being grumpy.

Books were the one thing with which I spoiled my boys -

And you know how they turned out.

We revelled in variety;
admittedly,I made it more seductive, utilizing cuddling, voices, and imagination to bring Thmoas, Shakespeare, e.e. cummings, Eliot, Gertrude Stein, etc., to life...

You start EARLY.
You make it FUN.
Kids aren't stupid- they can enjoy the flow of language, couched in an appropriate context.

I ain't no teacher.
But I done gooood.

And anyone can, really.

BitterGrace said...

stella p, I have never read any of the Amber books. They sound pretty interesting. I am all for kids getting into adult books as early as they develop an interest. I'm so glad nobody discouraged me from them when I was young.

You're right, Mark, the magical craze will give way to something, likely vampires. I just wish the publishing industry was a little more willing resist the trends.

Chaya, I am imagining you reading Gertrude Stein to your boys--priceless! You are the ultimate mom.

jmcleod76 said...

Speaking as someone who has sold children's lit for one of the two major book behemouths for the past four years, I can certainly sympathize with your concern over the glut of Potter wannabes. I do have a hard time, sometimes, recommending books for kids who don't do the fantasy thing. For sports books, I can usually recommend Matt Christopher to the younger kids, Dan Gutman or Mike Lupica to those your nephew's age or older, but once they've exhausted those, I'm usually at a loss. Gary Paulsen is good, too. It's not sports, but good boyish adventure tales firmly rooted in the here and now (ish). erry Spinelli is also a good bet for down-to-Earth everyday boyish stories. I think the real blame for the lack of variety lies with the publishers, though, not the stores. Everyone is looking for the next billion dollar hit. The fact that Percy ackson and the Olympians was such a big seller won't help to cure the situation any time soon.

I would like to quibble with your "unforgiving, oppositional view of the world" charaterization, though. Much of the fantasy fiction I've read, especially that menat for young adults, has focused much more on reconciliation and self-sacrifice than on hard black and white heroics. Two of my favorites are the His Dark Materials Trilogy and the Bartimaeus Trilogy. Both very thought-provoking. J.K. Rowling was no slouch in that department, either, for my money.

Oh, and @mark42, the vampire thing is already huge, but in the teen department, not juvie. There are at least a dozen series out there about mopey, sexy vampire teens. Blech.

BitterGrace said...

Thanks for chiming in, Jaime. I wondered if this might just be unimaginative management by our local merchants, but clearly it's not.

I'll defer to you about the ethical thrust of the books, since I've read fewer of them than you have. Still, I do think the books appeal to the strong power fantasies of kids that age, which seems potentially problematic.

BTW, I wound up getting John Ritter's "The Boy Who Saved Baseball" for my niece's son.

Mary said...

It does seem as though one has to mine even deeper for literary gems these days (or maybe it was always that way?).