Please, Let’s Not Extend the Literary Genre Wars to Kids’ Books

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Now that the furor has died down around an essay scolding adults who read children’s literature for engaging in a lowbrow and immature pursuit, the question has arisen: are kids who read this stuff also lowbrow? A piece by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker takes square aim at popular kids’ literature, even when it’s only meant for kids.

The author is disturbed by Today’s Youth’s explosive interest in Percy Jackson & the Olympians, a series that places the classical gods of yore in the midst of modern life, and narrates their doings with contemporary lingo and up-to-date cultural and technological references. “That slangy, casual style is a hallmark of the Percy Jackson books, which often read like a faithful transcription of teen uptalk,” she writes. “At the level of language, Riordan’s books make J. K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series seem as if it were written by Samuel Johnson.”

Burn, I guess? As a big advocate of embracing both highbrow and lowbrow lit, I feel compelled to object to Mead’s basic assumption that teen uptalk is inferior on a pure level to considered grown-up writing.

No. Like all forms of slang from groups not in the rule-setting elite, teen uptalk is simply different, not necessarily lesser. In fact, teen slang is arguably at the vanguard of language, while Samuel Johnson is dust-covered and irrelevant. (Personally, I like old-timey English prose a lot, but I’m just saying: Today’s slang, tomorrow’s Oxford word of the year.)

Then there’s the reality. On a practical level, fast-paced, fun kids’ lit is probably not wooing precocious youngsters away from more difficult reads. It’s probably attracting kids away from television and texting. But even if more people are reading Harry Potter instead of Henry James, why should we wring our hands? We have to interrogate our basic assumption that writing skills possessed by educated white people are the best skills around. One thing I’ve personally learned as a writer trained in elite educational institutions and then polished off with an MFA, is that for me, it’s now a lot, a lot easier for me to craft a complex sentence about tortured interiority in contemporary urban life than it is to come up with a compelling plot that isn’t a cliché, or a joke a 14-year-old will laugh at. Humor, action, relatable language, and plotting are not lesser tools in a writer’s toolbox, but equally necessary ones. They are only treated as lesser because they cannot be exclusively mastered by those who have been trained on George Eliot and The New Yorker.

To be clear, Mead and I have very similar taste in books and writers. She wrote an exploration of Middlemarch, which I’ve read multiple times and adore almost above all works, and her stated preference for D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths over Percy Jackson reminds me that I used to sit for hours upon hours with that gorgeous large book, tracing its illustrations. I would certainly give that book to my children, and many of the same “more sophisticated” books that Mead prefers. But I’d also love it if they got excited by the Percy Jackson of their day, whatever that series will be.

The issue with arguments by lovers of “great books” against popular lit is not their own taste, then, but the insistence that their taste must be universal. Mead asks, “What if the strenuous accessibility of ‘Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods; proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them in the opposite direction?” — in other words, she’s scared that these books will lure kids away from writers like her and the authors she admires.

But really, this won’t happen. Snobs and populists have co-existed for centuries — often within one reader’s bookshelf or writer’s body of work — and this state of affairs will likely continue on ad nauseum.

In the meantime can we please, please stop scolding people, big and small, for their reading choices?