David Mills talks about the vision of the good life that is offered in contemporary children’s fiction literature:
• The good life requires having the things you want, whether you want straighter hair or a boyfriend or a car of your own or just a higher opinion of yourself. The books assume that the wealthier you are, the happier you should be, except when some sentimental lesson about the real importance of friends or self-respect is being taught. Their blissfully unquestioned materialism is astonishing.
• Politics doesn’t exist, history doesn’t exist, high culture doesn’t exist. The main character may have a friend who’s involved in some charity or relief effort, or maybe even a political cause, or who reads a lot of difficult books, or who plays a musical instrument or writes poetry, but she (again, usually a she) is only narrative color. If a political cause is mentioned, it is almost certainly environmentalism.
• Business, if it is thought about at all, is greedy, rapacious, uncaring, and environment-destroying, and produces conformity and monotony. The main characters feel this despite their desire for luxury items. Wealth, and indeed everything needed even for the simplest life, just appears, except when the story is about a poor child or a middle-class child who became poor. Gratitude is not encouraged.
• There is no question that can be solved only by rigorous, disciplined thought. The kid who reads philosophy may be a “brain,” but he is not to be imitated. All questions can be solved by a teenager thinking like a teenager.
• God doesn’t exist for any practical purpose. If you believe he does, you may ask him to bail you out, but you would never think to follow his rules, because his rules are really your parents’ and society’s irrational standards, which will make you unhappy.
• Religion is always formal and impersonal and the parents’ thing. (Although, interestingly, some stories show a sneaking respect for Catholicism and its mysteries, though that respect may be expressed through a particularly notable hatred. Just try to find a wise old priest in one of these stories.) Spirituality can be really cool, though, especially if it’s Eastern or Native American.
• Nevertheless, youth should sometimes think about the ultimate questions, though no one ever seems to come to a conclusion other than high-school-level existentialism. Life is probably meaningless, but you can make your own meaning and create an authentic life by an act of will. Accept your limitations, don’t look for the big answers, don’t submit to tradition or authority, and do what feels most natural and right to you.
• The answer to the kids’ problems is always some form of growth and reconciliation, even resignation: of learning from the experience, accepting it, and getting tough enough to get through it. The answer is rarely any kind of heroism or self-transcendence.
• The hope presented in these books is one of two kinds: In the lighter, sillier books it is merely getting what you want, particularly a new boyfriend or better skin; and in the more serious ones it is surviving until college or adulthood, when you will finally be free to live in a world you want and to make yourself what you would like to be. The hope is never external or transcendent.
The article is well worth reading. I also was intrigued by his recommendation of Harry Potter:
Having said all this, there is another category of young adult books to which my criticism does not apply. I don’t know what to call it. Maybe “neo-classical secular.” This kind of book is morally serious and even traditional both in its morality and in its heroic ideal, in a way the average young adult book isn’t. The best examples are J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, both huge bestsellers.
Rowling is a Presbyterian, and Pullman an atheist, but one who speaks a moral language much closer to the Christian language than that of the “real life” writers. His trilogy mixes some scenes of the crudest anti-Christian propaganda with some quite moving scenes of sacrificial goodness.
I think it significant that the sales of Rowling’s and Pullman’s books, as well as the continuing sales of C. S. Lewis’s and J. R. R. Tolkien’s, are so great. This suggests that not every child is satisfied with the self-centered, unheroic stories to be found in the young adult section. They are more realistic and more interested in reality—of “real reality,” if you will—than the makers of the “real life” books realize.
This is the one great miscalculation the publishers have made. They sell their books by appealing to a child’s worst nature—his resentment, his self-pity, his anger—when they could have sold more by appealing to his desire for glory. Why read about the odious Zach, “wise in the ways of French painting as well as other French things,” when you can read about Odysseus, or Aeneas, or Aragorn, or even Harry Potter?
It is easy for us parents to worry about all the ways our culture has to corrupt our children and make them in its image. The average “real life” book tries to do so. A culture forms and reforms with enormous power. But we have God on our side, and God tells a better story. Even the great pagans told a better story.
In a similar vein, in a recent read of The Wind in the Willows I was especially struck by how thoroughly good Water Rat is. Call it my postmodern skepticism, but I fully expected Mole’s curiosity and desire to see and experience the world to carry with it the stinger of being taken advantage of. In the end, even among anthropomorphized animals, there is a strong vision of goodness to aspire to.