Everyone dies; adults versus kids on literature

I recently read this review of See You at Harry’s the most recent book by children’s and YA author Jo Knowles. The review was written by Claire Messud, author of the Emperor’s Children -which is decidedly not a children’s book. In the review Messud compares her reaction with that of her 10 year old daughter.

While Messud felt that some of the more traumatic moments of the story were quickly glossed over, her daughter was relieved to get over the sad parts and get back to the story.

This reminded me of my own 8th grade students who like to point out that someone dies in every book we read as a whole-class novel. “Well,” I said casually, “In life there is death.” Or something equally irritating and all-knowing. But I forget that for your average middle school student life is about life, not death. For many of them middle school might be the time at which they first realize that life and death are inextricably intertwined. It can be kind of a shocker.

Literature serves a different purpose in each person’s life regardless of age; entertainment, education, distraction, enlightenment, or sheer boredom. Every year I meet kids who assure me that despite my best efforts, they will never meet a book they really like. (Many of those kids lost their bet to the Hunger Games.) Fiction is, like any art, judged subjectively. I can’t tell you how many times I read something and recommend it to students only to have them tell me it was “okay”, or “a little boring.”

So I applaud Claire Messud for taking the space in her review to compare her own judgments with that of the book’s intended audience. The majority of book reviews of YA and children’s lit. are written by adults. And a lot of adults seem to think they know what’s best for children and teenagers to read. The voice of a 10 year old in the NY Times book review was a refreshing change.