The notion of “children’s literature” calls to mind two distinct sensibilities. The first, epitomized by Eloise, is ironic: It creates a gap between the child’s understanding and that of the adult reading to her. (The child thrills to Eloise’s naughtiness; the adult laughs at her narcissism.) The second sensibility is poetic, psychological. Its apogee is Where the Wild Things Are. It makes use of the author’s artistic gifts to represent the world as a child experiences it.
These approaches have in common the belief that children’s books exist to provide kids with the same blessings that art offers to grown-ups: imaginative opportunity, self-understanding, empathy. Children’s literature, in these lights, is a form of art—restricted in its palette, vocabulary, and subject matter, but no different in kind from grown-up literature.
But when I take my kids to the library or bookstore, the books they gravitate to are not the ones that promise to sensitively represent their inner landscapes. They are the ones with trucks or princesses or superheroes on the covers.
This is the sad truth of children’s literature, the lesson every parent who loves books learns: What children want to read is often very different from what adults like to think they want. Fortunately for children, capitalism is there to give them what they actually want, which is why children’s book publishing today is dominated by subliterary commodities, book-like objects featuring familiar properties licensed to publishers by massive entertainment conglomerates.
Penguin Random House’s “Step Into Reading”series features books about the characters from Dora the Explorer and Team Umizoomi and Sesame Street. It includes Paw Patrol: Rubble to the Rescue! and DC Super Friends: Shark Attack! Hachette’s similar “Passport to Reading”line is graced by the Transformers and Avengers and My Little Pony franchises. There are multiple books summarizing the plot of the same movie: Disney Big Hero 6: The Big Battle, Disney Big Hero 6: Fight to the Finish!, Disney Big Hero 6: I Am Baymax. There are multiple series about a single property, giving us titles like Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse: Cupcake Challenge!, Barbie in Princess Power: Saving the Day!, and Barbie & Her Sisters in a Puppy Chase: Horses to the Rescue.
I find myself speculating, while reading these books aloud to my eager children, about the Byzantine series of licensing arrangements that gave the Disney princess franchise to Random House and left Hachette with Disney fairies. It’s useful to have something like that to think about while you read, because the books themselves do not reward close attention. To read one is to be struck by the force of monopoly power: Just as your cable company doesn’t have to provide excellent customer service, a publisher with a license to sell picture books about Elsa and Anna from Frozen doesn’t have to concern itself much with quality. Some are bad in specific ways, but most of them are just there, filling their brief, meeting corporate standards for representations of the characters in question. The “early reader” volumes relate stories from other forms—Batman catches Mr. Freeze—in the language of Dick and Jane. The ones for older readers summarize the plots of episodes of television in remarkable detail.
Of course, there are plenty of worthless children’s books that don’t feature licensed characters—books that exist simply to gratify the child’s desire to see pictures of vehicles or to read about a little girl who finds a unicorn and eats a lot of candy. These books have the stink of desperation about them, and older children come to recognize it, and to wonder why the unicorn is not a My Little Pony.
This week my daughter brought home an old favorite from the library, and so tonight I found myself returning to Ariel’s Royal Wedding/Aurora’s Royal Wedding. It can be read from either side, telling a different story each way. Each story is about the wedding of a Disney princess.
These stories are the juvenile equivalent of pornography: They aim to gratify base desires as voluptuously as possible. They describe wedding planning in tantalizing detail: choosing the dress, learning to dance, visiting the baker. Each contains a tiny conflict, resolved within two pages. (Ariel wants her mer-family to be able to attend the wedding; Prince Eric suggests they hold the ceremony on the royal ship.) There is so much wrong with this stuff ideologically that it’s easy to overlook just how meager it is aesthetically, what thin gruel for the imagination. Reading it, it’s hard not to take offense at the contempt with which the publishers treat their readership.
But my daughter will request this book a dozen times this week, and she hasn’t asked for Where the Wild Things Are or Knuffle Bunny or Bread and Jam for Frances in a long time. Whatever Ariel’s Royal Wedding/Aurora’s Royal Wedding is offering her—familiar characters, a pure fantasy of privilege and matrimony and happiness, a total absence of narrative or emotional complexity, the stylistic flatness that emerges from assembling stock phrases and emphatic adverbs into simple sentences—it’s something she wants.
That doesn’t mean it’s not harmful, of course. Maybe it’s like junk food, and I’m letting her stuff herself with garbage. Maybe I should require her to sit through three Caldecott Medal–winners to earn a few pages of Disney princesses. But it would negate everything I like to think is wonderful about Harold and the Purple Crayon and The Snowy Day to treat them that way, as chores or vegetables.
Of course, book publishers are bound to follow in the footsteps of more lucrative culture industries, which are increasingly dependent on familiar franchises. The takeover of the children’s market by licensing reflects capitalism’s love of standardization, which undercuts the higher ideals of art for any age group. But it also reflects the tendency of children to slip out from underneath the romantic notions that adults like me have about them. We like to imagine that children embody certain qualities we cherish in ourselves: our sensitivity, our curiosity, our capacity for wonder. But real kids are cruder and hungrier than our quaint little inner children. My daughter’s appetites are her own.
Nightlight is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s books, running for the month of August. Read about it here.