Writer friends often gripe that classic and modern classic children’s literature is rife with so many of the no-nos we are counseled to avoid. So much exposition! Too much description or flowery language! So episodic. Too much showing not telling. Not to mention the subtle or not so subtle references to dads reading Playboy magazine that I keep finding as I re-read some of my childhood favorites. (Although I’m sure they were all the kinds of dads who subscribed to the magazine because the articles were really good.)
As anyone who has been following my previous posts might guess, I have been caught up in the theme of old-fashioned vs modern and what still feels fresh no matter the decade or era. Continuing in this vein, this time the question I am asking is: would classics that are still in print and greatly enjoyed by young people today, actually get published today?
I posed the question to many different kinds of people in the children’s book publishing industry and in the writing community, both in the US and the UK, and have been having some really interesting conversations. Because my personal taste tends toward the character-driven quieter dramas of everyday life rather than the big action, adventure etc., and those are the kinds of books I want to write, I asked about mid-to-late-century books from authors like Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume, or older ones like Ballet Shoes and Anne of Green Gables, as well as ‘modern classic’ UK favorites like Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl.
I realized that this is a large question and might only be answerable on a case by case basis. And that one could think about it as both a philosophical exercise and as the basic question of ‘if x manuscript landed on an editor’s desk today would it be published?’ But I invited people to take the question in any direction that felt interesting to them and now I would like to share a few answers.
In Short: the answer is NO. And YES.
Kendra Levin, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, said: “Here’s the thing about this question, which is a good one: it’s very hard to imagine an alternate world where those classics you mentioned– Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, Judy Blume’s Fudge books, Roald Dahl, et al– weren’t already published in the past. …one reason I feel books like those don’t get published as much today is that these classics already exist, and are so enduring that anything similar will feel like an also-ran when compared with them.”
This answer both stopped me in my tracks and finally answered what has been bothering me enough to keep exploring it. It seems obvious now and perhaps I have been dense or obtuse because I so love some of these books of the past I was depressed that I couldn’t set out to write one myself. (Never mind personal talent or ability!) But Kendra’s answer reminded me of seeing Pulp Fiction when it first came out. I went to see it three times! I had never seen or experienced anything like it. But if it came out today it wouldn’t be so astounding and beloved because so many movies now look like it or have used its structure. It’s simply the difference between something being an original, done for the first time, and something being derivative. Indeed, we already have Judy Blume.
Wanted: More Mirrors
But Kendra added something that shifted the question and reframed it in an important way:
“What I think more and more people are recognizing is that, while we have many books that do live alongside Ramona, Fudge, and the Dahl catalog, the vast majority of those books continue to represent children who already have the privilege of seeing themselves and their lives reflected in many, many books. There are very few, if any, books about a black (or Latinx or indigenous or Asian-American or…or…or…) girl who does all the things Ramona does, in her own way that’s unique to her life and world– fight with her sister, worry about being creative enough, mishear song lyrics, get into trouble, and so on. Writers and publishers and booksellers have a responsibility to work together to present far more books reflecting the many experiences that have been held outside the gates of published literature, and those are the books that can become the classics of the next hundred years. And many writers and publishers and booksellers are working on this very project as we speak– and I predict that more will commit to it more deeply in the years to come.”
So Kendra thinks that on one hand, something exactly like Ramona or Fudge would not necessarily be published today, but on the other hand, a new Ramona or Fudge can–it just might not look like what some people may picture when they say “a book like Ramona” or “a book like Fudge.” To her, it’s about redefining what you consider a potential classic and expanding the way you create comparisons; resisting putting books into the same boxes they have been put into for the past decades. She said, “The books of Cleary and Blume and Dahl are often called ‘universal’ and we have to recognize that they are not truly universal– and also that a book about a character who is living a different experience than Ramona’s or Fudge’s or Matilda’s can be just as ‘universal’ as these characters are said to be.”
Indeed, I hope the paths toward books published today that will be tomorrow’s classics are wide and infinite. Candy Gourlay, a British-Filipina author, whose Costa-shortlisted book BONE TALK has just been released in the US, and who often speaks about how growing up she didn’t know that characters who looked like her could also be in books, responded to my question like this:
“My books at home as a child were not very contemporary as my parents bought those ‘Children’s classics’ collections sold by door to door salesmen and only discovered Enid Blyton when I moved schools. Nevertheless I loved Tom Sawyer and Heidi and Black Beauty etc. Recently someone on Twitter called me out when I mentioned how much I loved Tom Sawyer on a blog. Why, she asked, do you recommend a racist book? First of all I was not recommending it … I was just stating that this was a book I loved … but I guess she was right in that, saying I loved it was a recommendation. I was stung and terrified that she was right. I re-read Tom Sawyer. It was every bit as clever and well written as I remembered it. But yes, it was racist. Not about black people but about Native Americans. I wrote a blog about it.”
Recently, Candy was tagged on Twitter by teachers discussing how Bone Talk would be a good companion to studying Robinson Crusoe. She said: “I realised they would be studying it on the basis of the primitivism of my heroes, which seems dangerous to me. So I created resources for my website that responded to these issues.”
I highly recommend reading Candy’s thought-provoking and soul-searching post as she grapples with the complicated legacy of the books she loved as a child, and also watching the video she includes of Grace Lin’s PBS video about what to do when your beloved books are racist. Also check out the classroom resources she created for teaching today’s children a classic story alongside her own novel.
Separating the Author from the Book
Then there are the problems with the authors themselves. In 2018 there were several news stories revealing that plans to commemorate Roald Dahl in the UK with a special edition coin a couple of years before had been scrapped over concerns about his anti-semitic views. But during his lifetime, in both the UK and the US, Roald Dahl’s anti-semitic views were known but unremarked on in a way that I cannot imagine an author getting away with today without having their career shattered. Or perhaps I am being naive. Either way, the Dahl books are still staples in libraries, bookstores and homes—including ours—and they are still adored by both old and new generations of readers.
Conclusion: La-di-da-di, We Likes to Party
Fashions and styles change, but enduring stories do not. Reading Anne of Green Gables today, I am tempted to skip large swathes of description that might bog down or bore (fairly or unfairly) a child of today. It is also largely episodic. Then there is the uncomfortable bit where the bad guy who sells Anne the hair dye that turns her hair green is a German Jewish peddler. But the story itself, about an orphan with spunk who loves beauty and tugs on everyone’s heartstrings—characters’ and readers’ alike—is evergreen. Beyond the classic book that is still in print after more than a century, the story keeps undergoing artistic iterations in the form of plays, movies, graphic novels and TV series, including the latest one on Netflix Anne with an E.
For me personally, Kendra’s answer finally made me see that I was on a path that was taking me in the wrong direction. But also that all is not lost for future Ramonas and Fudges—as well as Toms and Annes—whatever they might look like, whatever their names might be, whatever their small and large dramas, and whatever is unique to their particular world.
Recently I have been obsessed by a TED Talk on originality given by famed musician, DJ, and producer Mark Ronson. He explains that when sampling first started 30 years ago, artists didn’t do it to “cash in on the familiarity.” But rather because they heard something in that music that spoke to them and “they instantly wanted to inject themselves into the narrative of that music.” He shows how one song, La-di-da-di by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick has been sampled over 500 times, by musicians as various as the Notorious B.I.G. to Miley Cyrus. But it’s not derivative because each time it is reimagined and used in a different way. Each musician, or creator, takes an idea—a sample—but makes it their own. He gives the example of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black album, which captures a long-lost sound, but without the very 21st century personality and firebrand that was Amy Winehouse, the project would have risked being pastiche. Instead, she brought the ingredients that made it urgent and of the time. Mark Ronson’s take is that you can’t “hijack nostalgia wholesale” because it leaves the listener feeling sickly. You have to take an element of those things and bring something fresh and new to it.
I love this idea and would argue that this is a good metaphor for any art or artist. And in particular for children’s book writers. For me it is personally a productive way to think about the classics, and what we—any of us, from any background—might choose to create for the children of today, and the future. What do you think?