Read the damn books

A bit over ten years ago, I was writing a Master’s thesis on feminist retellings of fairy tales in novels for teenagers. My interest in fairy tale retellings was to analyse the books through the prism of both narrative theory—to investigate the robust shape of these stories over the centuries—and that of the strong feminist criticism of fairy tales that emerged during second wave feminism.

I’d never had cause to question the idea that fairy tales are bad for women, that they entrench sexist attitudes, reinforce the trope of the helpless woman, that they inscribe beauty as its own reward and marriage as a woman’s only marker of success. But to my surprise, my research led me to question the very foundation of that critical position.

There’s a seminal paper, Marcia R. Lieberman’s “Some Day My Prince Will Come: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale” (1972)  that is, in a sense, the über-text of feminist criticism of fairy tales. But what I discovered during the course of my research, and numerous close readings of the paper itself, was that Lieberman mostly wasn’t talking about the tales themselves—the written versions of oral tales, or the original literary tales by writers such as Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Charlotte-Rose de La Force, Charles Perrault or Hans Christian Andersen.

She was talking about the Disney animated feature film versions.

Lieberman’s argument, which was to become so influential on feminist literary theory and criticism, was not based on centuries of versions and re-versions of the stories—many of which were told or written by women from all cultural traditions—but on films that emerged from and reflected a particular 20th century, western, patriarchal and capitalist view of the world. It was a bit like reading the English essay where the student had skipped reading the book and had obviously only seen the movie. I have to assume, of course, that Lieberman was familiar with the written texts, but that’s not what her argument was based on, and the discovery seriously challenged my unexamined feminist prejudice against stories I otherwise secretly really loved.

And it reminded me again of a lesson I would have hoped all critics would have learned by now—don’t criticise something you haven’t read.*

I came late to this week’s brouhaha over Helen Razer’s anti-YA diatribe in Crikey’s Daily Review because when it hit the interwebs, I was actually spending the day with children’s author Stephen Measday and twelve 9-13 year olds at a writers’ camp we delivered this week at the day job. That’s what I do. I work with kids and teens who love to read, and who love to write. I’ve been doing it for nearly 30 years, one way or another, and in the course of that time, I have read thousands of children’s and young adult books, and I’ve written about them quite a lot, too. Books by writers from all around the world, everything from wordless picture books through the simplest series fiction for reluctant readers to challenging literary fiction for older children and teenagers. It’s a huge field, and a broad church, which includes books for young people of all ages, from pre-literate pre-schoolers through to sophisticated older teenagers. And it’s one that attracts some of the most rigorous literary study from academics all around the world.

But there’s one thing it has—or ought to have—in common with any other art form, literary, visual, performing, whatever. And that is, you don’t get to, with any credibility, write about it unless you’ve read it.

So I’m not going to critique Ms Razer’s article on that very basis—I haven’t read it. Because, seriously, why would I. (Plenty of other people have, though, and I will link to their responses at the end of this post.) Because I’ve read maybe dozens of similar uninformed and insulting arguments about children’s and youth literature, and the people who read it—including its primary audience, kids and teens. So I feel like I’m in a position to offer would-be commentators on the topic a few words of advice. So here they are:

Top Ten Tips for Writing about Books for Children and Teenagers.

1. Read the books. No, not just The Fault in our Stars or Hunger Games or whatever happens to be on the bestseller lists at the time. Read widely, read historically. The first books published specifically for children emerged in the 18th century, so you’ve got some catching up to do. Start now, and maybe in a  few years time you’ll have the basis for some informed commentary on The Latest Big Thing.

2. Children’s and YA are not interchangeable terms. Children’s Literature and Young Adult Literature have well-examined and defining tropes, themes and forms. Yes, there are grey areas, but you won’t be able to write authoritatively about them until you know the parameters. Start with some of the excellent introductory academic texts on the subject: Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer’s The Pleasures of Children’s Literature or Michael Cart’s From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature

3. Do not patronise the readership. Young readers can be remarkably acute, astute and critical in their reading. And if you don’t actually like children and teenagers, then you won’t be sympathetic to their literature, so find something else to write about.

4. Don’t assume they read the same way adults do—they don’t. And don’t generalise about what all young people do or do not like.

5. Try and find some points of reference beyond Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Same goes for writing as if JK Rowling invented the “witches at boarding school” genre. You are simply demonstrating the limits of your research and reading. In other words, see Point 1. 

6. Be aware of the implicit sexism in your dismissive attitudes towards children’s and young adult literature. Despite the public profile of a handful of male writers, the field has long been dominated by women at every level; writers, publishers, teachers, librarians. This is not always reflected in awards or magazine feature profiles, but it’s the truth, and like all female-dominated professions, it attracts a lack of respect at best and out-and-out contempt at worst. 

7. If you know your stuff, you may well be in a position to make some actually important and well-founded criticism of literature for young people, such as: the lack of cultural diversity in books for young readers, the heavy gendering of books, fat-shaming in kids’ and YA books, the lack of representation of characters with disability, and shamefully, in this country, the lack of LGBTQ characters and stories. Deduct points, however, if you ever entertain using the phrase ‘political correctness’ in your review/opinion piece/brain fart. 

8. Remember that reading is a democratic pastime and stop being a fascist about what people can or should read. The truth of the matter is, there are more books now for readers of all ages, abilities and interests, and that is something to be celebrated, not condemned. 

9. None of this is to say that children’s or YA books should be above thoughtful, critical analysis and discussion. On the contrary, those of us who have made children’s and YA literature our life’s work wish above all else that the books were treated with the same critical respect and rigour of any other form of literature. Honestly. Why else do we bang on about the lack of review space for them? We’re not masochists. We’d rather be reading.

Which brings me to:

10. Read the damn books. Thanks. 


Look. I get it. We’ve all been guilty of bluffing at some point in our careers, but the truth is, you never get away with it, and when you’re taking someone’s good money to do so and trashing the status of a whole artistic and professional field you know nothing of and care less about? Shame on you.

Here are other people’s takes on Razer’s piece. They obviously have stronger constitutions than me.

Danielle Binks in Kill Your Darlings.

Ellie Marney at her blog hick chick click

Updated 3/10/2014 to add this direct link to Alison Croggon‘s excellent comment in response to Razer’s original article.

*Again, I am quite sure Leiberman read the damn stories. However, her interest was more socio-cultural than literary and the distinction between the numerous written texts and the Disney films was clearly of less interest to her than her overall thesis about fairy tales from a feminist perspective.  If you want to know what conclusions I came to in my MA thesis, ask me, but I’ll have to go excavating for the file!