Comparative literature

Watching the preview for Narnia a few nights ago I was struck again by differences between British/European and American children’s literature. In the Narnia and Harry Potter books, and even in the Lord of the Rings series (if I remember correctly, Merry and Pippin are younger than Frodo and thus still in their “tweens”), children find themselves in or willingly enter situations that are very palpably dangerous; these seemingly ordinary young men and women fight against tremendous odds in situations where the risk of death or injury is real and the opponents aren’t just bullies or angry principals but menacing representations of ultimate evil. I can’t think of comparable situations involving children in American books, though I have to admit it’s been a long, long time since I’ve read any children’s or young adult fiction (except for The Phantom Tollbooth, which I finally read this year). I think I would be at least surprised if not somewhat unnerved to find children in real life-threatening situations in American literature – unnerved not because I think it’s wrong for an author to create these situations for young characters, but just because it seems to be unprecedented in American literature.

But I could be wrong about that. Not all American children’s literature is as benign as the Babysitter’s Club books, and the Baudelaire children in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events see relatives and friends die and frequently find themselves in real peril. I still think this is unusual, though, and remember feeling vaguely disoriented when I first read The Bad Beginning. Moreover, the children in the British books fight in adult wars steeped in earnest sincerity and grim determination; they’re actively engaged in a cause, not trying to escape from demented relatives.

This is not to say that I think one style is inherently better than the other, or that I even prefer one style over the other. I don’t. I just think it’s interesting that the two literary traditions seem to be so different.

3 thoughts on “Comparative literature

  1. Neither the British nor the American children’s lit you mention (LotR doesn’t count–it was written for a college-age audience–though The Hobbit does) are within the last 20 or 30 years of the field. Both sides of the pond have been undergoing a renaissance in children’s and young adult literature for a good 10-15 years now, so you’re doing yourself a high disservice to not be familiar with them. (Can you hear the offense just dripping that you aren’t as familiar with children’s books as someone who works in the field? Oh, the pain!) But seriously, there’s some great literature out there right now, and there are some not-so-great-literature-but-romping-good-tales too.

    I don’t know that I’d agree with you that 1) it’s a good thing that the villians are so utterly evil that they’re cause–or a caracature of a villain (though the Queen in Narnia isn’t quite a caracature, so that’s a good start) nor that 2) American children’s lit characters don’t fight for a cause. I think comparing a parody to sincere children’s lit isn’t exactly comparing apples to oranges, either.

    I’ll have to think of some good suggestions for you, as it’s 5 am my time (I’m in Atlanta for a show) and I’m not quite all there yet. But there’s some great stuff out there that would fit the bill for your description of Narnia to compare to, and then again there are just some great books out there. 🙂

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