Tolkien and Writing for Children
by Kevin Ridgon (@pralix1138)
In writing, we draw inspiration from what we read, and naturally, our styles of writing will reflect the styles we love, and consume. But because of the gross over categorizations that we lump stories into, it’s hard to get a handle on who one’s supposed audience will be.
In a letter written in 1959, J.R.R. Tolkien writes his refusal to participate in a symposium on Children’s Books. It is not only an inspiration in writing, but it is incredibly insightful in our societal understanding of storytelling and children, and the convergence of the two. In particular, I’m interested in how we treat our children in terms of their personhood, and what this leads to with regards to their reading of various kinds of stories. This has far reaching implications outside of stories, and should lead to a healthy discussion.
I write things that might be classified as fairy-stories not because I wish to address children (who qua children I do not believe to be specially interested in this kind of fiction) but because I wish to write this kind of story and no other.
First of all, we have relegated those things classified as “fairytales” to cradles and nurseries. When Walt Disney set out to make stories that the entire family could enjoy together, I’m sure it wasn’t with the intent that they’d only be loved by children. In the beginning, he set out to create stories that have no classification, that are intended for everyone. These days, a “family” movie is another term for “children’s” movie, and therefore only suitable and enjoyable by children of an undetermined age. Likewise, a book that is “suitable for the whole family” is classified as a children’s book, or young readers, or some other classification which risks putting off others who may enjoy the story, but won’t try it because of the classification. As Tolkien points out, there has never been any indication that children insofar as they are children are drawn to specific genres, or stories, that we tell them are children’s stories. He writes, “Children’s tastes and talents differ as widely as those of adults, as soon as they are old enough to be differentiated clearly…” Children are sponges (not ontologically, of course, but you knew that), and they will soak in all manner of stories or information that we share with them.
But Tolkien’s letter, and this post, isn’t so much about the genre of story, but rather the damage we do to our children through the classification and editing of stories that we “classify” for them. In doing certain editing in the name of making them easier for children to understand, certain publishers actually do harm to children by robbing them of the opportunity to work out context and therefore developing a vocabulary.
Life is rather above the measure of us all (save for a very few perhaps). We all need literature that is above our measure – though we may not have sufficient energy for it all the time. But the energy of youth is usually greater. Youth needs then less than adulthood or Age what is down to its (supposed) measure. But even in Age I think we only are really moved by what is at least in some point or aspect above us, above our measure, at any rate before we have read it and ‘taken it in.’
Here we reach the crux of the problem as Tolkien views it. Because of the categories that lump everything into, children are not generally exposed to literature that is “above” them. Speaking as a father, I know I want my daughter’s life to be easy, to be painless and so on. But if we, as parents, prevent all difficulty, they grow up not knowing how to cope. In the case of reading, if we deny them literature, and allow them only so-called age appropriate reading, they stagnate in learning vital lessons. As an example, when my daughter was in 4th grade, we had to make a special request the school librarian to allow her to check out any book in the library. She was not allowed to read books above her grade level even though she was perfectly capable of doing so.
The books, categorized by color denoting grade level, weren’t objectionable in content. Rather, the thought was that the student of lower grades could not process sentence structure and vocabulary in books considered to be above their grade level. In other words, this particular system robs children of engaging in literature that is “above” them, which means they never have to work out vocabulary through context. As Tolkien notes, “A good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one’s age-group. It comes from reading books above one.”
This keeping children focused in stories that are their “level” could have other detrimental effects. Let’s take one of the most widely read book series, the Harry Potter books. They are another example of what’s wrong systematically with the publishing world. It’s been thoroughly documented that words, and sentence structures were altered when the Potter books were published in the States. One could certainly make an argument that certain words within the UK versions might confuse American readers, but by altering the text, those readers are robbed of the opportunity to have their vocabulary expanded. It limits their gaining insight into British culture, and the British use of the English language. It makes a destructive assumption about children in the States that they are incapable of reading the originals.
Therefore do not write down to Children or to anybody. Not even in language…But an honest word is an honest word, and its acquaintance can only be made by meeting it in a right context.
Part of the problem is that this supposed protective categorization is actually making us all dumber. I don’t mean to be harsh here, but when reporters, and preachers, are told to write or sermonize down to a 6th grade reading level, we’ve got a serious problem, especially when those who are actually in the 6th grade are discouraged from reading above their level. If we continue to write down to children, as well as adults, the process becomes a never-ending one because we never have to grow. We never have the opportunity of figuring this stuff out. We never get exposed to truly great stories because we get used to not working for it. We get used to it being too easy, and as we grow into adulthood, we have less energy, and less desire to reach above ourselves.
As adults, how would we feel about this? If I, or anyone else, told you that the book I’ve written has to be altered because your tiny brain is incapable of extrapolating concepts or words? If I told you that you were unable to think, or were too lazy to put forth effort? These are precisely the messages we send our children when we scrub their stories of words, concepts, and structures, we deem to be above them. Imagine your indignation at such. Now, imagine you are told this your entire life. At some point you start believing that you can’t handle things above you. At some point you stop asking questions. You stop trying. You stop growing. You stop loving to learn. Ultimately, you stop truly living.
As the bar gets lower and lower, lazier we become as a culture, and the fewer significant stories we have. We miss out looking for nuance and significance. We learn less and less about ourselves, our culture, our history, the histories and cultures of others. All because of this system of categorization. If you’re a parent, or going to be, do your child a tremendous favor, encourage them to read, not just the grade appropriate stuff. Expose them to stories that they may have to work a little to get through. In doing so you will open the world to them.