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Too Smart for Kids: A Promise to the Readers of Fairyland
c is for cat
catvalente

Today, the paperback edition of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland comes out. It’s also very nearly exactly Fairyland’s birthday: the big red book is one year old.

So today I thought I would talk about the Thing. The Thing that gets criticized most often about Fairyland, the Thing I am called on to defend on panels and at conventions but have not written about online until now.

It’s the idea that Fairyland is somehow “too smart for kids”, the words are too big, the folkloric references only comprehensible to adults. That I did not, in fact, write a book for children at all.

Are there big words in Fairyland? Yes, there are. Are there references and jokes about fairy tales, folklore, classic children’s literature, politics, science, 20th century history? Yes, there are. Is Fairyland a simple, breezy story to be gobbled down without thinking, that will never challenge a child who reads it or stretch him or her beyond their comfort zones?

No, it is not.

Middle grade children actually rarely come across a book that doesn’t require learning new words and concepts. That’s kind of the whole point of being a kid. Everything’s new. Everything requires explanations. Certainly no child understands every math joke in Alice Through the Looking Glass, nor every dig at British Parliament in Peter Pan–and I rather think many kids have had to ask what the word “orgy” means when Barrie uses it. Many of us never even noticed the Christian allegory that lies at the heart of the Narnia books. If you watch the old Muppet Show, they make jokes about postmodern performance art, beat poetry, theater management, economics, and every kind of adult pop culture. The complex words they use sometimes surprise even me. There is always a balance in literature for the young–you write to teach and entertain the kids, to delight their older selves, and to amuse their parents while they read aloud or watch along. The best books, to my mind, accomplish all of these at the same time.

The thing is, young readers and viewers are pretty amazingly good at stitching together a story they love, skipping over the parts they don’t get or making up their own explanations. They like to learn new things, especially when they involve giant herds of living bicycles and stompy red dragon-type things. Nearly every “big” word I used in Fairyland can be found somewhere in the seven books of Harry Potter. Yes, kids will need to look some of them up, or ask their parents what they mean. This is part of the joy of reading as a child. Kids shouldn’t be surrounded by stories that only reflect back to them what they already know–and neither should adults.

And part of the pleasure of books like Alice, Peter Pan, Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Phantom Tollbooth–a novel that earned Norman Juster a heap of grief for being too smart for kids and way over the heads of any young readers, by the way–is rereading them as one grows up. Children’s novels can be like intricate puzzles, showing us more and more of themselves with every year we grow. I remember in college realizing that the famous Carroll line: the rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today was a fairly complex Latin pun–the word for “now” is “iam” (J and I were interchangeable in the Oxford classical system–as Indiana Jones teaches us, in the Latin alphabet Jehovah begins with an I), but “iam” is only used in the past tense and future tense–in the present tense, “now” is “nunc.” Therefore, jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

No child could possibly understand this without explanation, unless they were a linguistic genius or a scion of the Oxbridge system. But the joke works on the level of nonsense humor, which children tend to dig all the way. They don’t have to get every level of it to giggle at the idea or never getting to have jam today, to identify with it because of the injustice of parents always promising treats tomorrow. And maybe they grow up and major in Classics and one day they laugh for fifteen minutes because holy cats, that’s so clever! And it’s hardly the only massively obscure line in Alice–a book beloved of children in ever generation since it was published. I could only hope to be half as good and smart as that book that requires an annotated edition for an adult to understand everything in it. It’s always a balancing act, trying to write a book that plays to kids but appeals to their older selves, too. Do I always pull it off? Probably not. But I strive.

I want kids to be able to grow up with Fairyland. To giggle at the nonsense now and see the layers later.

That said, A lot of the complaints I’ve had come from people who give Fairyland to a reader who is just too young. I’ve known five and six year olds who love Fairyland, who ask for A-Through-L birthday cakes or listen to the audiobook while they play with their toys. Those children are exceptional. The recommended age on the cover is 10-14–and I do believe by that age many kids can “get” all the macro-level awesomeness of September’s adventures. Certainly by 12 or 13. The micro-level will come with time. Sometimes a kid, even an advanced reader, isn’t quite ready for one book or another. Sometimes an eight year old isn’t quite up to a middle grade book. That’s ok. Fairyland will be there for them in a couple of years.

And in the meantime, I want to make a promise to parents. Fairyland has many adult fans, of course, but this is for parents and teachers who might be concerned about giving the book to a child. Fairyland is going to be around for awhile–we’ve sold three more books in the series after the sequel that will be out in October, The Girl who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. This is a long-haul promise, a promise for as long as I’m writing for a young audience.

I will never talk down to your kids. I will never with my text treat them as anything less than the imaginative, capable, eager, excited creatures that they are. I will never give them less than my best work, because I understand that when you give your child one of my books, you are trusting me with a little piece of their development as humans, having faith in me to caretake their hearts and inner worlds. That is a breathtaking responsibility, and I will never take it for granted. I will tell them stories that will stretch their minds and challenge them, that will make them ask you a lot of questions. I will try to communicate to them what I believe is real and true about life in this world, I will not make it a parade of sunshine and daffodils–and I will not make it a grimdark cautionary tale about the essential terribleness of everything. I understand that even if I’m wrong, I owe you and your kids my total sincerity and honesty, my most hard-won wisdom–even about the nature of fairies and wyverns and families and time. I will try to make them laugh. Sometimes I may make them cry. But I will never hold something I think is beautiful and important back from them because it might require a trip to the dictionary. I  don’t think dictionaries are scary. I think they’re magical. And I think kids are magical, too. I owe them all the magic I’ve got, because I know how books become part of you no less than DNA, how they change your brain and affect who you will become, and that’s magic, too. I promise to take that seriously, and try with each novel to live up to the wonder and power of that. I promise to use all the tools I have to create the kind of books I longed to read when I was young.

I promise, now and forever, to write stories that are smart enough for your kids.

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.


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One of the awesomest things is going to be when the kids get older and read Palimpsest and OH MY GOD THE BOOK IS IN THERE AND IT'S HER FAVOURITE TOO AHHHHHH.

Also, massive congrats on selling 3 more Fairyland books! It really will be the big kids' series from Palimpsest.

I deeply admire you as a fine human being. I look forward to reading your books.

I gave your book (The Girl Who...) as a 14th birthday present to my best friend's daughter in March. I always give books as gifts and she's always politely thanked me but this one was the only one I got a really strong reaction from her about.

She said in an email to me, and I quote, "It's seriously one of the best books I've ever read. Every paragragh I come across something I want to quote on facebook! It's lovely! Thank you so much!"



Edited at 2012-05-08 02:41 pm (UTC)

THANK YOU! I work in textbook publishing and I HATE the way writing is dumbed down for children. We need to challenge kids, not spoon-feed them!

As for your other comments, I argued with my mother when she handed me Narnia books at eight because I saw straight through the Christian overtones. I put Narnia back on the shelf and returned to Tolkien and ElfQuest.

...but I didn't understand what an "orgy" was, and after having it defined, I STILL missed that was the actual purpose behind the "slumber party" before the Great War in ElfQuest book 4.

Also, that Lewis Carrol pun was very helpful when I eventually took Latin in High School. Which I studied because characters on Gargoyles cast spells in that language. Gargoyles is another thing I can go back to as an adult and see so many shades and implications that I MISSED as a teenager.

I'm just right now reading Fairyland for the second time for my kids. The first time - when you were publishing it online - they were much younger and only got bits and pieces. Now they are listening to it again and getting so much more out of it and they LOVE it. Do they get everything? Nope. But are they enjoying what they do get out of it? Oh yes.

When they don't understand a word they either ask me or skip it or figure it out on their own. That's how you learn!

Kids are so very much smarter than so many people give them credit for.

Thank you for your promise. I promise, in turn, to make all of these books freely available to my children as they are ready (my kids are 5 and nearly-3). The 5-year-old has already had Alice in Wonderland read aloud, chapter by chapter, and we're on Through the Looking Glass. I rather think Fairyland might be next. :)

When I was a kid (and an avid reader), so many children's books tended to annoy me because I felt so often like they were taking me for an idiot. Those books would be the ones I'd put aside without a second glance, vague entertainment without consistence. The books that I really loved at 8 years old are the ones I can still pick up today and think "this is good".

A breathtaking promise. It makes me want to turn circles and leap.

Looking forward to Morgenstern being old enough for this!

(A rather wondering what kind of complaints I'll get when/if agent sells my pre-YA dark age adventure.)

YES! Never talk down to your readers, especially not the children. How will they know how smart they are if everyone treats them as if they are stupid?

*slow, wildly appreciative applause*

Dammit, Cat, you made me cry first thing in the morning.

Thank you so much for this post. My child-self, who went to the adult section in grade one because the children's books were too insipid, just wants to hug you forever.

In a few years my nieces will be old enough for Fairyland (they're 8 and 6 now) and I am doing all I can to help prep them for the experience.

I wish I could wake every day to something that makes me feel so good about the world and the people in it.

These are the books I needed as a child, the books I remember best as an adult, the books I still reread. I wish Fairyland had existed when I was a kid so that I could have grown up with it, but I'm still hugely thankful that it exists for young audiences now.

Bravo! We need another hundred writers who will make this promise, and then we might have a stronger basis for education and delight in reading to give our children.

What a sad and fitting day to make this declaration.

As a young gifted reader in a school system that had no idea what to do with me, I lived on Carroll, on The Phantom Tollbooth, on old book versions of Disney-fied stories before the big words were stripped out, and then, all too early, ran out of anything that interested me and challenged me, stuck between too-easy drivel and uninteresting adult topics. (Luckily, I eventually found the library's world myth section, and comics.) The world needs more books like Fairyland and more authors who know it. So now, as a chosen-family crazy auntie of a tribeful of young gifted readers I can happily throw books at, thank you.

Yes. Here are two things:

1) Children are not stupid. No child may get all of the references, but most children will get some of them, and occasionally, a child will get most of them, depending on the child.

2) Most adults don't get all the references in Joyce's Ulysses the first, or even the second time through. Does that mean it's not really a book for adults?

When I was a child, I loved to have my mind stretched (still do). Blogging this.

And more applause.

It just makes me so sad when someone - anyone, of any age - says they don't like to have to look up words they come across in the books they read. Seriously - there's something wrong with them. That was one of my greatest pleasures when I was a kid! I don't get it.

Thanks for this. Keep up the good work!

I never looked anything up. I just went by the context and made a guess -- or filed it "insuffcient data". Great practice learning to "live with uncertainty".

You can get the point of something -- or at least one of the points of something -- without having to know all the details. Then years later there are still surprises.


No fair making me cry at work.

Thank you. This is why I read Fairyland out loud to my girls, who are 7 and 3 now. And yes, they didn't get everything. But the bits they did, they loved. And I was able to tell them, "This was written by a dear lady I know by the name of Cat. She wrote it for girls like you."

And the book sits on their shelf in their room and it Means Something to them. It's next to Alice and Oz and Middle-Earth and Narnia. Where it belongs.

Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

That's an excellent essay-- I remember the same issue being discussed thirty years ago or more, and I think Dr. Seuss was the example of a well-loved children's author who used words which weren't already in the kids' vocabulary.

I'm not sure how much the idea of age-appropriate books is just an irrational desire for control, and how much is that a lot of adults don't like learning, so they assume children will find it stressful.

I could kiss you for this.

My mother was a librarian, and according to my CAT tests, I had a 4th year college reading level by the sixth grade. I was reading classical Greek mythology in elementary school, and NOT the "age-appropriate" versions. (Yes, I first read "Metamorphoses" in the 4th grade.) When I came across a word I didn't know, my mother's invariable response was "Look it up".

"Too smart for kids", my ass. People need to stop thinking that kids are brainless idiots, and start challenging them to expand beyond their perceived boundaries again.

This made my day and made me cry, all at the same time. I cannot tell you how much this means to me, so I won't even try, but thank you, thank you so much! Books like Fairyland is the reason that keeps me going although I have not been able to put into words to puzzled friends and family members why they mean so much to me, and I feel like I've gotten a glimpse of myself when I read this post.

And thank you for "Fairyland is in for the long haul" - all I can say is Oh YAY!!!

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