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What's Happening to Juvenile Literature?

Guest Author - Lorel Shea

The children's book publishing industry has become a big business over the last few decades. 100 years ago, kids progressed quickly from consuming simple readers to reading adult literature. There were comparatively few books written expressly for children, and many of these were religious or morality tales. Louisa May Alcott, in her glorious novel, “Little Women”, frequently refers to John Bunyan's “Pilgrim's Progress”, a Christian themed book written in the late 1600's. It was considered appropriate reading material for children, despite the fact that the lengthy allegory would challenge all but the most gifted young readers today. Little Women itself was once considered a children's story, though today most first time readers are teens or adults.

It's a wonderful thing to have options, and we are fortunate to live in a time when there are so many books for every sort of taste and ability level. I have a concern, however, that with the exception of too few modern gems such as “Harry Potter”, “Inkheart”, “The Chronicles of Narnia”, and “The Lord of the Rings”, our kids are reading books that challenge neither their intellect nor their attention. I hesitate to get too specific, but groan inwardly every time I see another popular picture book starring a flatulent animal or containing toilet humor. Sure, kids like potty talk, but who needs to read a book about it?

Today's kids are also liable to read endless formulaic series books that number far into the double digits, yet never vary their content enough to make “Dog Sitter Club” number 89 any more difficult than “Dog Sitter Club” number one. It is comforting to have familiar characters and predictable plot lines, but how many months or years should be spent languishing at the introductory third grade reading level?

My kids are avid readers, and I do try to steer them toward classics and newer books that require a bit of contemplation to digest. Our house is full of bookshelves, and we still don't have enough shelf space for all of our library collection. I feel pretty good about most of these books, and am glad to have them. However, my children get drawn in by the clever marketing ploys too. I am a bit embarrassed to admit it, but we have our share of repetitive “little girl who loves horses” books, as well as ridiculously simple chapter books based on a popular animated television show. I have purchased the majority of these used; very inexpensively, and with kids who read as much as mine do, a cheap book is often a very good investment.

I guess I worry about my children's literary diet the same way I worry about what food goes into their little bodies. We eat mainly organic and natural products, but I am not above stopping for a fast food fix when we are out on the road. We do pretty well most of the time, and I should cut us some slack for the times when we end up feasting on junk. Still, I can't help but wish that there were more high quality books out there for capable young readers. It shouldn't be so hard to find books that satisfy the smart parent and child.

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