The Sad State of Children's Literature

The Sad State of Children's Literature

We're not talking Harry Potter here

By Vicki McElfresh
Young Writers Moderator

©2001, Vicki McElfresh 

"The more that you read, the more things you will know.  The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."  That line is from Dr. Seuss's book, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, a book meant to encourage children to read.   But as many parents have learned, getting a small child interested in books is relatively easy; keeping them interested is another story.  The reason, I believe, isn't that children are more interested in television, video games, or the internet, but rather, that the quality of children's and young adult's books is very poor.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading aloud to a child twenty minutes every day.  That sounds simple enough.  Unfortunately, story time is both my favorite time of day and my least favorite.  I love the time spent snuggling with my son, but most of the stories he picks out leave little to the imagination. After reading them night after night, I have come to dread the whole routine.

Brachiosaurus, by Rupert Oliver, is one of my son's favorite books, and one of my least favorite.   The book details a day in the life of a brachiosaurus, but it is so badly written that reading it makes my ears hurt.   Here's an example:  "High above Coelurus the swaying neck of Brachiosaurus reached high into the trees.  She was looking for food among the high branches where other animals had eaten before her.  The branches were stripped of all leaves."  Those three sentences bring out the editor in me.  In fact, when I read this story, I edit the writing; I simply can't stomach reading twenty pages of redundant, and often boring, story.  I fantasize about rewriting the story to be more reader friendly:  "High above Coelurus the swaying neck of Brachiosaurus reached into the barren, upper branches of the trees."

To me, the word story implies something that has a beginning, middle, end, and some sort of conflict between the beginning and end.  But after spending hours reading to my son, I have discovered that most of the "stories" written for small children have a beginning and end, but little else.  Most of Dr. Seuss's books fall into this category, as do books by P.D. Eastmann, and other writers of Seuss knock offs.  I know Dr. Seuss is hailed as an icon of children's literature, and I know there are many adults who are fans of Dr. Seuss.  I am not one of them. And the adults who claim they are probably haven't had to read such classics as,  The Cat in The Hat, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, or And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street practically every night for the last two years.  I don't consider most of these books real stories.  I don't even consider them great poetry.  To me, they are simply nonsense.   An example from Go, Dog, Go by P.D. Eastmann, "One little dog going in.  One big dog going out. A red dog on a blue tree.  A blue dog on a red tree."  Go, Dog, Go is approximately fifty pages long, and the entire book is filled with similar phrases.  There is no story at all, and the whole purpose seems to be the use of directions over and over, a task that could just as easily be accomplished by Sesame Street.

I have noticed that writers of children's literature seem to forget two very important things.  Children's books are meant to be read aloud with a parent, grandparent, or other adult, and the books need to be as entertaining for the parent as for the child.  Most writers of children's books write with only one audience in mind.  The child.  Most of the books on the shelves elicit groans from parents, not simply because they've had to read them repeatedly, but also because the books simply aren't interesting to anyone over the age of two.   The handful of children's books that appeal to all age groups disappear from the shelves as rapidly as they are stocked.  J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels are a good example.  Strong characters, interesting plots, and challenging writing have propelled Harry Potter onto the favorites list of children and adults alike.

By the time a man or woman is ready to write for children, he or she has forgotten what a child's wonder feels like.  Children like honesty.  Children like answers.  They want to know how and why things work.  They don't want watered-down fairy tales and veiled hints about difficult life subjects.  

Classics such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Grimm's Fairy Tales, and even Rev. Awdry's Thomas the Tank Engine stories have been repeatedly watered down so that most of the original wit and lessoning has been lost.  The original versions of these stories were challenging.   Beatrix Potter describes her rabbit family as sophomoric at one point.  Rev. Awdry addresses issues such as greed and arrogance with subtle humor.  In rewriting these stories, large words, pointed wit, and even many of the details of the story have been taken away.  For example, in Rev. Awdry's story, "Edward, Gordon and Henry," Henry, a naughty engine who has been bricked up in a tunnel, helps Edward come to the rescue of Gordon the big express engine.  At the end of the story, Henry is rewarded with a new coat of paint.  In the original version of the story, he chooses blue, so he can be like brave little Edward.  The rewritten version deletes this detail.  My son loves the original ending.  He loves it so much he won't read the newer version of the story.    

The best children's stories still make parents chuckle or send a little shiver of anticipation down their spines.  A. A. Milne, Beatrix Potter, Rev. Awdry, and Maurice Sendak still make me rub my hands together and my mouth water in anticipation, and my son loves their stories just as much.

The magic of writing children's stories is not in creating a character like Peter Rabbit or Harry Potter, but rather in creating a story that can be read over and over by parents and children alike.  Even more magical is the writing of a story that teaches something new with each reading.   Such stories are the rare gems that shine from the bookshelves with their tattered covers and dog-eared pages, and the creation of such a story should be every writer's goal.


Awdry, Rev. W., Thomas the Tank Engine Collection, "Edward, Gordon, and Henry,"  Heinemann Young Books, 1998, ISBN # 0434 80446 0.

Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, Random House, 1978, ISBN # 0-394-93912-3.

Eastmann, P.D., Go, Dog, Go!, Random House, 1961, ISBN # 0-394-900020.0.

Oliver, Rupert, Brachiosaurus, Rourke Enterprises, Inc., 1986, ISBN # 0-86592-219-5.