Octogenarian Literature

At a publishing house in a world not much different from our own, a senile editor claps her young hands in delight. She is not senile herself; she works in the senile division of the publishing house. She has found the perfect octogenarian’s book, a novel about a cute old bunny who thinks that its children, in whose burrow it lives and who always complain when it leaves its dentures in the bathroom, no longer love it. So, the old bunny goes off to explore the world. It has many exciting adventures; but it often finds life outside its children’s burrow bewildering and dangerous. In the end it comes home, convinced that its offspring really do know what is best for it.

The book is published to great acclaim. The bright young reviewers say that it delightfully evokes the spirit of age, and that old folks will love it. The senile librarians buy it for their senile collections. The occasional octogenarian, tired of television and bingo, actually reads it, and finds it boring.

Nevertheless, the book wins the Oldbery Medal as the best octogenarian’s book of the year. In her acceptance speech, the young housewife who wrote it says that she never meant to write a book for old people; she was surprised when her publisher distributed it for the senile market. She herself has no contact with old people, and in fact rather dislikes them. But she supposes she has a natural ability to find within herself the old person she will someday be; she has, she is proud to say, a wrinkled soul.

Soon the novel about the cute old bunny is studied in college courses in octogenarian’s literature, by people not yet eighty themselves who want to know something about literature for eighty-year-olds. Most of these students are very interested in old people and not very interested in literature; many of them are planning to become senile social workers, some professors of senile literature and senile studies more generally. Their instructors, who are annoyed when other people refer to their discipline as “granny-lit,” plug away anyway, telling their students about how old people need illustrations in their books because their minds are going and they can no longer understand words alone; and about the moral obligation of young people to choose the best books for old people, who cannot be trusted to do it for themselves; and about how old folks have a natural attraction to animals, especially cute old bunnies. 

In this other world, octogenarian’s literature is not written by octogenarians. It is not edited by octogenarians. It is not reviewed by octogenarians. It is not taught by octogenarians, and it is not studied by octogenarians. For the most part, it is not even read by many octogenarians, who often prefer television and bingo.

In our own world, children’s literature occupies a similar strange position.  The name itself declares the problem. As usually understood, Victorian literature is writing by Victorians, Canadian literature writing by Canadians. But as the term is usually understood, “children’s literature” is not written by children. It is literature written for children, or perhaps, literature read by children. Like octogenarian’s literature, children’s literature is a body of literature defined by its audience. And like generalizations about octogenarians, generalizations about children tend to be wrong more often than not.  

Images on this page are from these books:

  • Balasubramaniam, Saumiya. When I Found Grandma. Illustrated by Qin Leng. Groundwood, 2019.
  • Lê, Minh. Drawn Together. Illustrated by Dan Santat. Disney Hyperion 2018.
  • Sage, James. Old Misery. Illustrated by Russel Ayto. Kids Can, 2018.
  • Uegaki, Cheri. Ojiichan’s Gift. Illustrated by Genevieve Simms. Kids Can, 2019.

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