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There has been a question, recently, if children’s literature is minority fiction. What defines minority fiction is not always who the fiction is about, but the perceived audience who will read it. Therefore, literary fiction can be about African-Americans without being considered “urban” fiction (a minority fiction category that is aimed at African-American populations) by simple virtue of the audience. This may be a publisher or editorial decision, or a decision made by the author in creation.
Like any genre, minority fiction suffers from a certain level of stigma when held up against the glowing bastion of literary fiction, which is generally considered more intellectual and better written (whether this is or isn’t the case is beyond the scope of this blog, but it’s an interesting question to consider). But what minority fiction doesn’t suffer from, and in fact one of the interesting categorical definitions of in includes is the concept of appropriation – for instance, where science fiction and fantasy can be adapted by anyone into film or transformed into other media by any person willing to receive the rights, when it comes to minority fiction there is always an element that makes it uncomfortable when in the hands of someone outside of that minority.
Now adaptation of children’s work, if we consider children’s work minority fiction (and it certainly bears the hallmarks – written, published and marketed en masse, without consideration for individual genre, for one specific subset of individuals) would be impossible by children. There is a great deal of children’s work that is successfully adapted and translated into other media and is aimed at children.
But my contention is that the appropriation of children’s work by adults does not take place when this work is adapted by adults, but rather when it is adapted for adults, even if it’s unintentional. An example of this would be Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, the immortal picture book by Maurice Sendak. Where the book is a classic and beloved by children, the movie adaptation, perhaps butting against the challenge of making a picture book into a full-length feature film, injects issues that should be universal, but don’t seem to hold any appeal for children. It’s a thoroughly adult movie. I would make the same argument in regards to Wes Anderson’s adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, where his usual style of filmmaking and quirky script put this film more in the leagues of his other work and less in the leagues of James and the Giant Peach, another stop-motion adaptation of a Roald Dahl work.
There is, to me, something inherently uncomfortable about the tonal switch in appropriated children’s work, because it suggests that children’s media is only valuable in its consumption by adults. This extends beyond these films, into adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and reinterpretations of work like the Wizard of Oz (Wicked remains unquestionably adult) that delve into “the darker side” of children’s work, as if these works are invalid without “an adult side”.
This may be from the propensity to demand that after childhood is an inevitable adulthood, but I question why nostalgia has to be expressed through this kind of appropriation and the purpose it serves the storyteller, other than possibly discuss unresolved emotional responses to children’s work.
It’s a question that I want to explore more.