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Kent University slur sparks debate: is Young Adult fiction “great” literature?

Child reading Hunger Games
Rektok Ross

Kent University’s School of English came under fire this past week after it implied that children’s fiction wasn’t “great literature.” Kent, located in the United Kingdom, offers “a variety of taught and research creative writing courses for undergraduate and postgraduate students." As part of a marketing strategy for this offering, it posted the following statement on its website:

“We love great literature. We are excited by writing that changes the reader, and ultimately – even if it is in a very small way – the world. We love writing that is full of ideas, but that is also playful, funny and affecting. You won't write mass-market thrillers or children's fiction on our programmes. You'll be encouraged to look deep inside yourself for your own truth and your own experiences, and also outside yourself at the contemporary world around you. Then you'll work out how to turn what you find into writing that has depth, risk and originality but is always compelling and readable.”

The suggestion that children’s fiction is somehow low brow and doesn’t “change the reader” was met with fury and all Twitterdom broke lose with authors and readers protesting. Kent’s first response was somewhat snarky as it tweeted back: "Sorry for the slow response. We were writing adult novels." Adding that unlike many creative writing courses that "claim to teach a bit of everything," the department doesn't teach YA or children's books, just "literary novels." However, it’s tune soon changed after a further barrage of criticism. Ultimately, Kent backed down from it’s position, even tweeting apologies on Twitter saying: “We'd be idiots to dismiss children's fiction as a genre. We love it. We read it. We just don't write it or teach it. Many courses do but we don't have that expertise. I think the reason that the text on the website so offended was that it gave the impression that we saw Children's Lit as somehow inferior to adult. We don't, and we're sorry. The text has been changed, humble pie eaten.” Kent has also removed the offensive language from its website and has since asked for children's literature recommendations to be tweeted at @UniKentWriting.

In the wake of Kent’s apologetics, the controversy has continued on. On Wednesday, Jonathan Myerson at The Guardian’s blog wrote about his support for Kent stating that “Kent University was right – the best children's books are better written, but only adult literature confronts the range of human experience.” Myerson doesn’t attribute this to the quality of the prose or world-building; rather Myerson states that “the best children's books are better structured and written than many adult works.” The difference, Myerson states, is that “a novel written for children omits certain adult-world elements which you would expect to find in a novel aimed squarely at grown-up readers.” Myerson further compares the writings of Philip Roth to JK Rowling and Jonathan Franzen to Stephanie Meyer to add support for his position. Notably missing from his comparisons (and Kent’s website) is a discussion of widely respected classic children/Young Adult authors J.D. Salinger, C.S. Lewis, Rudyard Kipling, S.E. Hinton, and William Golding, as well as contemporary authors Markus Zusak, Patrick Ness, Joyce Carol Thomas, Laurie Halse Anderson, Louis Sachar, and Richard Peck, just to name a few. But perhaps someone else, somewhere, is penning a Myerson response to address that.

Stay tuned . . .

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