Adventure: Then and Now in Children’s Fiction

I’ve been reading a lot of old classic literature for kids recently. Really old stuff, from the first half of the last century. While these books might not scintillate today’s YA readers at all, they make for an interesting comparison with today’s popular novels. What qualifies as an “adventure”?

The Bobbsey Twins series was a favorite of mine when I was a little girl. In the stories, older twins Bert and Nan and younger twins Freddie and Flossie have some mild adventures. Even later, when the series became more of a mystery series, the plots were never violent. The first book in that series was originally published in 1904 by the Stratemeyer Syndicate under the pseudonym Laura Lee Hope. The versions I read were set at the turn of the century, before such modern trappings as automobiles, short skirts, and civil rights.

E. Nesbit’s classic Five Children and It tells the tale of a family of Edwardian children who find a magical sand-fairy, the Psammead, who can grant wishes. Of course, the wishes never turn out quite like the children imagine. It was first published in 1902.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome is the story of a family vacationing on a farm in England’s Lake Country. The four older Walker children are allowed to camp on a nearby island for a week, and various imaginative adventures ensue. It was first published in 1930.

Just a few days ago, I finished The Faraway Tree Collection by Enid Blyton. The first book came out in 1939. Blyton’s stories tell of three children who move to the country because their parents can no longer afford to live in the city. They explore the nearby Enchanted Wood and stumble across the Faraway Tree. The tree is populated by any number of fanciful creatures, but most curiously, each week, a new magical land appears at the top of the tree.

These books have set me to thinking. What amuses me about them is that the children in the books actually do nothing and nothing really ever happens to them! Oh, they plant gardens, explore woods, have arguments with friends, and all the things that actually happen to children in any place and time. But that’s it. No matter what curious things they encounter, they aren’t ever in any real danger, and nothing bad ever really happens. In today’s popular novels, the protagonists are in fear of their lives, have people trying to kill them, and are quite literally expected to save entire civilizations with their adventures. Can you even imagine Bert and Nan’s surviving the Arena? I mean, they aren’t even really sure how to stand up against neighborhood bad boy Danny Rugg, who scowls a lot and threatens to wash their faces in snow!

At the same time that their stories are filled with danger and adventure, kids today are more sheltered than ever before. They have very little unsupervised play time, and total strangers often call the police on parents who aren’t watching over their school-age children every single second. The idea of sending kids out to play until sundown is practically unheard of these days! Tris might have her hands full learning to fight as a Dauntless initiate, but by the same token, the Walker children in Swallows and Amazons camp out on an island, cook their own food on a real fire, go sailing on the lake whenever they feel like it, and generally gallivant all over the countryside for an entire week with little-to-no adult supervision!

The plots of our modern dystopian novels are dark and intense, and modern readers aspire to be like the protagonists about whom they read: Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, or Tris Prior. They want to identify with them. These fictitious characters have the most dangerous and exciting lives imaginable, and readers today can only share those adventures vicariously in the book. In reality, the little Walker kids, with their purely pretend island hijinks, have many more adventures than the readers who would likely laugh at the book and call it boring. It seems to me that as children’s lives have become smaller and more sheltered over the past century, the stories that will satisfy them have, by necessity, become bolder and more intense in an attempt to compensate.

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