All children's books are about growing up-that's the underlying theme, no matter the genre, length, or reading level. Since most of them are written by adults who have already grown up, the author-as-teacher role is tough to shirk. Even the goofiest or most formulaic fiction for young people contains some nugget of practical wisdom the kids can take away (possible exception: Captain Underpants).
While children's authors agree that preachiness is the ultimate crime against kids, most accept their didactic responsibility-with gusto, even. For what other audience is so impressionable, so pliable, so captive? The vast majority of children spend approximately 30 hours per week, nine months per year in school, where novels are either heartily recommended or outright assigned to them every day.
So the question is not whether children's books teach, but how. Though exceptions abound, the trend in realistic juvenile literature has been toward the gloomy: stories in which very bad things happen to good kids. The "edgiest" subjects are reserved for the young adult market (average age, 13), but death and divorce are common themes for younger readers. The zeal with which some authors (and by extension, some teachers and librarians) push these "problem" novels at fifth- to eighth-graders borders on the sadistic. At the least it makes one wonder who benefits from stories about teen suicide or parental abandonment.
Let's be realistic, runs the usual rationale: Since kids have to face these problems today, a fictional character in similar circumstances can help them to cope. Has there been a death in the family? Let him read Walk Two Moons. Does the girl seem beset with self-loathing? Introduce her to the teen masochist in Cut. Doesn't fit in? Try The Outsiders. Parent problems-Wow, where do we start? Here's one called, When Dad Killed Mom . . .
In a memoir titled Welcome to Lizard Motel, Barbara Feinberg recalls herself with chagrin as an overzealous day-care facilitator trying to raise five-year-old consciousness about oppression in Central America. Years later, she observes how her own children are depressed by books like Bridge to Terabithia, which deals with the grief and guilt of an 11-year-old after the accidental death of his best friend. Though she finds the novel to be moving and beautifully written, Ms. Feinberg has to wonder why we adults are so driven to impress kids with the bleak side of modern life. Trying to put a finger on what it is that disturbs her children, she realizes that the protagonist in most of these books is deserted (or at least misunderstood) by parents and friends, and must work out a solution to the problem entirely alone.
In other words, the existential dilemma that infected literature in the early 20th century has worked its way down to 10-year-olds. The notion that the individual is his own best and final arbiter has fueled self-esteem and "values clarification" programs for 20 years, and now dominates the genre of realistic juvenile fiction.
But pre-teens don't normally see their world in existential terms. Their proverbial self-centeredness-the folly bound up in the heart of a child-has one positive facet: a conviction that the universe is somehow interested in them. While enemies lurk out there, so do allies. The dark is a personal threat, but the wind murmurs a lullaby.
Without sentimentalizing the so-called wisdom of children, in this case their instincts are correct. We are not alone. The universe is interested in us. One reason for the phenomenal growth of fantasy literature may be a rejection of the bleakness of contemporary realism. Very bad things may happen in fantasy, mystery, or adventure tales-but the hero is never alone. He or she can count on at least one loyal friend on earth and one supernatural ally beyond. After years of curriculum-directed navel-gazing, fantasy provides a way out via the magic key, the secret book, the quest that takes one beyond himself.
"How can a young man keep his way pure?" asks the psalmist, with this immediate answer: "By guarding it according to Your Word." The secret book is right under our noses, the quest is our daily walk. In this very world, the morning stars sing for joy, the trees clap their hands, the mountains skip like rams. The ultimate fantasy turns out to be real, and we are manifestly not alone.