On Reading: If Life Were Like Children’s Fiction. . .

by Jennifer


Think back to what I sort of think of as the pinnacle of middle-grade reading — 4th or 5th grade. Think about what you were like. Remember who your friends were and what their families were like.

Now think about children’s novels. I love children’s fiction (and YA too). Sometimes I enjoy it simply as an adult reader, other times I enjoy it because it helps me connect with my kids, and sometimes it strikes a chord because I remember what it was like to be 10-years-old.

But when you read a lot of children’s fiction, especially when you become immersed in it as I have the last two fall Cybils seasons, some common occurrences and themes begin to stick out. All of them are things that do happen in the life of many kids, but if you stacked up all the books that are published in any given year, I think that the percentage of kids dealing with certain things would be much greater in the books than in real life.

  1. There would be a lot more mysteries to solve (and the kids would be the ones to solve them!). My 4th grader best friend and I would ride around on our bikes just looking for something amiss that we could investigate. We’d usually end up making something up, which got old pretty quickly.
  2. There would be a lot more dead parents. I mean no disrespect here. But there are many characters in books that have lost a parent. Orphans? Not quite so much, but think about the books you’ve read, and I guarantee you that you’ll think of a main character or the character’s best friend who has lost a parent. If you can’t think of any, I can recommend some Cybils nominees from this year or last year that fit the bill.
  3. Boys and girls would always have a bestie of the opposite sex (Wendy Mass, I’m looking at you). I get this. If a boy who is the main character has a girl best friend, girls will relate. If a girl character has a boy best friend. . .Well, forget it. That doesn’t guarantee that a boy will deem it suitable. But really, thinking back to your older elementary school years — how many of you had a best friend of the opposite sex? Or how many of your kids do? Yes, some do, but it’s rare, whereas in children’s lit it’s practically the norm.
  4. Kids would be clever and introspective all the time. I suppose I could use a gifted author to carefully craft my thoughts and retorts as well.
  5. There would be a lot more only children. I guess there’s something about lonely children that is appealing to an author — no siblings, a parent lost to death or divorce — it’s a great starting ground.
  6. Kids would form clubs, solve mysteries, play sports and save the world instead of watching TV, reading books, and playing computer. I think that reading about such adventures is the next best thing, at least.

Do you agree or disagree with these assertions? Did I miss something?

Jennifer Donovan loves fiction for people of all ages. She hopes this tongue-in-cheek post comes across as an overflow of her love for books and those who write them, not some sort of serious literary criticism. She also blogs on occasion at Snapshot.

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Jennifer lives in Houston with her family. In addition to reading, she enjoys travel, Bible study, food, and fun. She blogs about some of these things -- when her nose isn't in a book -- at Snapshot.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 edj November 20, 2011 at 1:07 am

I have thought the same thing! The parents are always either dead or on a long trip or somehow otherwise occupied.
Also the main characters are never blonde. At least in classic lit they’re not–Jo March, Laura Ingalls, Anne Shirley, Emily Starr, etc. The only blondes are either petty or shallow, or at best relegated to sidekick. The only exception is Lucy Pevensie, and she’s always drawn as a brunette. Sigh… We natural blondes get a bad rap!


2 Jennifer November 20, 2011 at 5:54 pm

I’m going to find you some smart and savvy blondes, Elizabeth!! They are out there.


3 Andrea November 20, 2011 at 6:23 am

Ha! So true. My kids actually get exasperated with these things sometimes, and say things like “Why are the parents always dead?”


4 Jennifer November 20, 2011 at 5:54 pm

I never thought about it from their perspectives, but the kids are probably more on to that kind of thing than we are! And I know that my daughter always thought it made it really sad.


5 Annette W November 20, 2011 at 9:31 am
6 Amy November 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Ha! I remember in some of my children’s lit studies that there are actually scholarly articles that point out some of the same things, especially the orphan bit.

I’m noticing lots of bullies in the middle grade stories I read.

Oh, and yes–the boy and girl best friend schtick is one I’ve noticed. I definitely didn’t have a boy best friend at that age!


7 Jennifer November 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm

So maybe I AM scholarly ;)

Actually, one of the Cybils nominees I read, Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to NOT Reading, totally had a handle on it.

He was in 6th grade, I think — maybe 7th — and he fully acknowledged that he was too old to have a girl best friend, so he didn’t call her that, but would say that she was the person he could talk to.


8 Jessica November 20, 2011 at 5:18 pm

I had boy best friends from preschool till 2nd grade. But in 4th or 5th? No way, boys had cooties. :)

I remember that it seemed perfectly natural that 13 and 14 year olds (Trixie Belden!) would be able to solve mysteries though.


9 Jennifer November 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Yes Trixie Belden was probably my inspiration as well! Loved her!!


10 Dawn November 20, 2011 at 5:40 pm

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head multiple times here, Jennifer! My own 6th grade son has a friend of the opposite gender, but they seem to be playing together less often than they used to. I do clearly remember trying to search out mysteries and such when I was younger, so I laughed out loud at that one!


11 Jennifer November 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm

I know — it was always VERY disappointing not to find any crimes to solve.


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