Ever wondered about the differences between classical children’s literature and modern children’s literature? Read to find out more!
As a young reader, I read everything. And I mean everything: cereal boxes, movie summaries, even maps and street signs…when there wasn’t a book around, I got my hands on whatever I could. I always had something to read. In terms of children’s/young adult books, I read classical and modern, and I loved them both. Some of my favorite books were Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Little Women, and Little House on the Prairie, which were each popular in their respective time periods. Each one of these books gave me a different reading experience and fond memories, despite the differences between those that are classical (Little House on the Prairie and Little Women) and those that are modern (The Hunger Games and Harry Potter). While thinking about this, I started to wonder what exactly these differences are. I decided to compare and contrast Little Women to The Hunger Games, which I think displays the differences between classical children’s literature and modern children’s/young adult literature very well.
The Hunger Games was written by Suzanne Collins and was one of the most popular book series of the 2010s. This trilogy details the events of post-Apocalyptic America, where the population is divided into 12 districts; each year, two children (one boy, one girl) from each district are chosen to go to the Capital and fight to the death in The Hunger Games, in order to remind everyone of the consequences of starting a rebellion, which happened many years before. The series begins when Katniss Everdeen, the girl tribute from the poorest district, is chosen to fight, defies the rules, and begins another rebellion. On the classical side, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women takes place during the American Civil War, where the March family patriarch has gone off to fight and has left his four daughters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) behind with his wife. The March girls go through many trials and adventures while growing up, including befriending Laurie, the rich boy who just moved in next door.
The first thing that I noticed was different between these two books was that audience members for these two time periods are very different. Kids, and more realistically, little girls, who read Little Women after its publication in the late 1860s had very different experiences than children growing up today, who have been exposed to all kinds of technology from an early age. So, because of this, classical children’s literature was written in a way that emphasized different themes than books written in the modern-day period. This was the second thing I noticed: classical children’s literature is typically focused on themes of family or adventure, while modern-day literature is oftentimes focused on dystopian settings and aims to tackle relevant world issues. For example, The Hunger Games displays themes of government power and social class; the oppressive government tortures the districts by forcing them to sacrifice their children every year, causing them to live in a constant state of fear, all to show off their immense power. In addition, the wealthier districts are able to afford proper training for their tributes, while the poorer districts almost have no chance of survival in The Hunger Games. Even though this series is aimed at older children and young adults, the themes that are present apply to society as a whole, while the themes of Little Women place value on family, moral principles, and femininity, all ideas that are usually instilled in children at a young age by parents, so that they can carry on through their adult lives.
I found that this helped explain the reason why there seems to be a significant difference in children’s novels from these two eras in terms of language. Little Women is obviously aimed towards children, evidenced by the lack of sophisticated language and simple plot; of course, I read these books when I was a little kid, so this didn’t bother me at the time. For example, in the first chapter of Little Women, Alcott writes, “Jo immediately sat up, put her hands in her pockets, and began to whistle. ‘Don’t, Jo. It’s so boyish.’ ‘That’s why I do it.’ ‘I detest rude, unladylike girls!’ ‘I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits!’” (Alcott 6). Here, readers can see that Alcott is displaying the importance of staying true to oneself, even if it’s not “proper;” at the same time, she uses words like “niminy-piminy chits,” which are phrases that would most likely have been used by children. On the flip side, when reading The Hunger Games, which I read as a young teenager, the language assumed a more mature role while keeping me as intrigued as classical children’s literature did.
Does the fact that modern day children’s/young adult literature is more sophisticated than classical children’s literature mean that children nowadays are becoming mature earlier in life? It’s an interesting question to consider. Given that kids today have cellphones in elementary school (which is crazy, to me), they have access to tons of information that kids living during the Civil War didn’t, allowing them to learn a lot more at a younger age. On the other hand, kids today are a lot lazier than the kids back then; Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy probably knew how to keep house at a very young age, whereas many kids these days most likely don’t even know how to work a washing machine, allowing those back then to realize their responsibilities much earlier on. Kids reading The Hunger Games now are learning about many of the issues we are currently facing in the world, while kids who read Little Women back in the day learned about femininity and family.
Then there was me. I read Little Women and wished I could have lived back then, partaking in the same adventures as the March sisters. At the same time, I flew through The Hunger Games books, reveling in the action and getting caught up in the Katniss-Peeta-Gale love triangle. Who’s to say why both of these books, with their different language, time periods, and themes, intrigued me the same amount, but they did, and they will forever hold a special place in my heart.