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At Large - Let the Children Speak
by Michael Coren

CONSIDER THIS: a man knows what a woman likes to read, he knows as well as she does what a woman appreciates in literature and in fact is probably better able to judge women's literature than a woman herself. It is not that lie intends to he insulting, provocative, or even patronizing, it is just that he does, after all, know better. A man is capable of supreme empathy, of unlocking his soul and his mind to the aspirations and understanding of women. Again, he knows better.

This at least appears to be the logical extension of an argument that has initiated and then propounded by others in the letters pages of Books in Canada recently, and one that has keen pursued for many years in the publishing and reviewing industry. This little battle is fought within the context of children's literature, with one army claiming that books for children and young adults should be reviewed not by children themselves or perhaps vicariously by their parents but by professionals, individuals who are librarians, booksellers, or writers of children's books.

As was said in one letter in this magazine, One that represented a case of worrying myopia if not of epistolary blindness:

Professional reviewers in the children's-book world know what is being done by a wide range of authors and illustrators. They know the history of children's book., and Of the work of the creator being reviewed.

The correspondent goes on to ask:

Why... has Books in Canada decided that children's books must be reviewed by non-professionals, whose primary review technique seems to be canvassing their children for their Opinions' This is the equivalent of asking adult book reviewers to make sure they consult their neighbour and include his or her views in a review of the latest Canadian novel or political work.

Is it' I don't think so. I believe it is more like a gentile critic who has been asked to review a book about the Holocaust speaking to a Jewish friend before writing on the subject, or a heterosexual man questioning whether he can fully appreciate a gay coming-of-age novel. In fact neither of these examples is sufficiently similar or complete to make the point adequately, for while an adult can with a careful sensitivity and directed reading construct an understanding of another adult's life, no mature man or woman can

authentically recreate the emotional, the artistic, the visceral understanding of a child. It is not a question of whether it should be this rather that it is this way and has to be this way.

When C. S. Lewis was working on arguably the greatest children's story of the last 50 years, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, he showed the Manuscript to his friend, J. R. R. Tolkien. The author of The Hobbit was not at all impressed and advised Lewis to abandon the story, being particularly angry at the inclusion of Santa Claus in a chronicle of a non-earthly world. Yet the very success of the book was due to the fact that within its pages Christian metaphor swam with meaty anthropomorphism in a sea of ancient legends and atavistic mythology. To his eternal credit Lewis remained unconvinced by Tolkien's rejection, showed the work to the young daughter of a friend, and oil her advice changed nothing at all of

the first of his "Narnia" books.

Surely this entire argument is really about humility and compromise. Children do not always know what is good for them, but they invariably know what is fun for them, what pleases them and simulates them, what makes them want to read more books and form their own creative and critical sensibilities. Critics who possess a refined and considerate knowledge of children's literature are essential, but they can only benefit by open in, themselves to the opinions of those for whom children's literature is actuaIly written in the first place. The best critics, of course, know this already. They also know that to do otherwise is to commit an appropriation not of voice but of taste, opinion, and judgement. The literary views of children may be unvarnished but they are also untarnished. Rather than reacting with suspicion, we should be delighted by the endIess possibilities and dazzling avenues of exploration they offer.

In October, by the way, my first thrust into the genre of children's writing takes place when my young-adult biography of C. S. Lewis is published. Who will review me? We will have to wait and see. I am sure that some of my critics will remember this column -- I know that I will.


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