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Let children’s books be children’s books

Literary hyper-analysis can do more harm than good

It is Holocaust Memorial Day. School libraries across the Western world will put up displays and recommend texts to schoolteachers delivering digestible lessons on the inconceivable horrors of the Final Solution. As someone who works within primary education myself, this date is a significant one on both a personal and professional level. I am a third-generation Pole who never had the opportunity to meet grandparents who fled Warsaw. Nonetheless, I grew up breathing in the legacy of their trauma like second-hand smoke. 

Even To Kill A Mockingbird has come under fire

I was surprised to find out that one of the most popular children’s books about the Holocaust, John Boyne’s The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, is being strongly discouraged as a reading resource and stamped with the dreaded “problematic” label. Having researched the reasoning behind the outrage, I think that some of the arguments are sound. Bruno, the nine-year-old protagonist, is completely ignorant that he is the son of a Nazi, only learning pieces of the truth through his friendship with Shmuel, the Jewish boy who talks to him through the fence of Auschwitz. In reality, Bruno and any other German boy his age would have been enlisted in Hitler Youth. According to critics of the book, amongst them UCL’s Centre For Holocaust Education, Bruno’s naivety encourages the dangerous belief that most Germans were innocent bystanders in Hitler’s rise. Graver yet is the assertion that the book elicits sympathy for Bruno’s Nazi father. Some may contest this — but, nonetheless, given the sensitivity around Holocaust depictions in art, it would be the duty of an educator to highlight these issues if using the novel in a history lesson.

A more complex accusation lobbed at Boyne’s book is the decision to favour Bruno’s point of view rather than Shmuel’s, who, according to one article is “a one-dimensional victim [with] no personality or individuality”. How to interpret any character is in the eye of the individual reader — I personally find Shmuel stoical, brave and endearing. Moreover, Bruno is arguably no more or less complex. Both boys serve as a mouthpiece for the corruption of childhood innocence on both sides of the war, albeit with vastly different degrees of suffering. Debates around character perspectives within literature dealing with discrimination have been raging for some time now. Even To Kill A Mockingbird has come under fire for its alleged “white saviour narrative”. There’s a more pertinent counter-point in the case of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas though: it is a book strictly intended for children. 

In the last decade, unprecedented interest has been taken in children’s literature within academia. Cambridge University has an entire research centre dedicated to it, where you can find any number of theses with titles like: “Ecocritical analyses of young readers’ responses to the representation of environmental issues in children’s literature. A quick glance at past publications from a handful of English departments across the UK shows that circa 2015–2019, there were a near-alarming number of doctorates awarded for Harry Potter dissertations using “queer” methodology (presumably, these have petered out due to ongoing hostility towards J.K. Rowling). Of course, the complexity and depth of children’s literature is not to be scoffed at, especially not in relation to adult fiction. I challenge anyone to dispute that Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events displays less literary prowess than, say, Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions Of A Shopaholic. In many ways, a field of research giving children’s literature overdue respect for its intellectual value and emotional impact is to be welcomed.

These are deeply adult and, frankly, contrived anxieties

Yet, there is something squeamishly forensic and political to some of these projects, exemplified in the recurring theme of children’s “responses”. The priority is not analysing the cultural significance of these texts but scrutinising — interfering, even — with the unique reading experience of a child. This is not to be confused with an adult having genuine concern for inappropriate reading material. If a young child is having constant nightmares from reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps or asking worryingly graphic questions about sex after picking up a Judy Blume novel for teenagers, it is the right of a parent and responsibility of a teacher to investigate and, where necessary, confiscate. This is vastly different from politicising a text intended for children, however, and by extension, politicising childhood itself.

Literature is a vital influence in encouraging a child’s sense of justice but by no means the only one. Parents, families and communities, lest we forget, are mainly responsible for their moral development. This neurosis around exposing children to any fiction (be it books or media) that fails the ever-intensifying purity tests of inclusion and diversity, undermines not only children’s innocence but their intelligence. 

Whilst a graduate weaned on social justice ideologies may fret whether anthropomorphising the rabbits in Watership Down undermines its environmental message, or what Dudley Dursley can teach us about fatphobia, there is almost zero awareness to the fact that these are deeply adult and, frankly, contrived anxieties. Children simply do not read fiction in the same way that overeducated adults do. They look for exciting, comprehensible stories and characters who are ordinary enough to be relatable but also interesting enough to stoke curiosity — of which Bruno is a perfect example. They do not scour books for “problematic” content — not unless you train them to do so. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is by no means the best children’s book about the Holocaust ever written but in terms of what it sets out to do — convey the harrowing evil of Nazism and the unspeakable sadness and brutality experienced by those in concentration camps to a fairly innocent child — it deserves kudos. In short, maybe it’s time the grown-ups read something a little more age-appropriate. 

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