Over the past few years, I have come to learn a lot about children’s literature and the reading preferences of young urban children and youth. I am involved with a wonderful organization that provides books free to children in low-income neighborhoods. Books are donated to the organization, which then displays them in a beautiful location in a century home – complete with window seats and fireplaces – and then children browse the shelves and take home one free book every time they come for a visit. The organization serves hundreds of children a day and is a wonderful oasis in the middle of Toronto.
What I have come to realize the more I work at the organization is the rather marginal status of Victorian children’s fiction among these children and youth. Right now, the Twilight series rules supreme, and we cannot keep a Stephanie Meyer book on the shelf for more than a few hours. One of my fellow volunteers was proud that she managed to foist Bram Stoker’s Dracula on a young person originally in quest of Twilight, and I wondered both about the advisability of that bait-and-switch and about what the young reader’s response to Stoker’s strange tale will be.
More generally, I have been thinking about the place of nineteenth-century children’s literature in today’s literary landscape. Our organization receives donations of books by L.M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, R.L. Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle by the box load. But the bucolic images of rural P.E.I or detection stories set in Victorian London do not seem to appeal to these young people and these books barely move off the shelves. Recognizing this lack of youth interest, some publishers are attempting to market nineteenth-century fiction to youth through innovations in illustration and updated covers. Penguin used this strategy in 2006 with their Illustrated Jane Eyre, illustrated by the famous goth artist Dame Darcy. In describing her cover of Brontë’s book, Darcy said,
…I thought the way to make it really kind of punk rock for the new generation of goth girls that it’ll appeal to was to take the scene where Jane Eyre is freaking out while the giant mansion is burning behind and Jane Eyre is written in bloody red letters. That’s how hard core Jane Eyre gets! People think its this classic about a governess, but its not necessarily about that – I mean she gets called a witch about 7000 times and everything demented and tragic goes down during the book.
The Penguin site for the book affirms that Dame Darcy’s illustrations “update the classic for a new era,” and I am very curious about whether the sales figure for the edition met the publisher’s hopes.
When I think back to my own childhood, I realize that nineteenth-century fiction made up much of my reading. I read Montgomery’s entire oeuvre as a girl and even contemporary historical fiction, like Janet Lunn’s The Root Cellar, was a revelation to me. Please do not misunderstand this observation as being a “kids these days” type of rant. When I think back to what my friends were reading when we were in middle school, I remember a slew of Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine murder mystery novels. (In our organization, those are as unpopular today as the nineteenth-century fiction). It seems that I was inhabiting the fictional worlds of Jane Austen and L.M. Montgomery alone, a fact which leads me to a startling question: was I always going to be a Victorianist?
What was I, at eleven years old, drawn to in nineteenth-century fiction? And is it those same qualities that draw me today? Readers, do you see any interesting connections between your childhood reading and your current interests? I also wonder whether, like my colleague, I should be more aggressively encouraging these kids to take home some of the fiction that I loved (after all, even if the cover doesn’t appeal, surely some of them may connect with the narratives themselves?)