Fairy Tales Are Not For Children – The Original YA

In my previous blog post, I mentioned a bit of pet study area of mine – fairy tales, or rather folklore in general, once being tales of caution, and their potential replacements being the modern ‘dark’ tales. So, what better way to study than to dive in and practice on a blog first, right?

There are essentially three key aspects I want to look at, and all have a bit of disagreement about them. The first is the structure and role of folklore before a certain steamboat-driving mouse made them all kid friendly. That’s what I’m going to look at today.

So. Fairy tales. Colourful, sickly sweet people and clear good and evil. Stories for children. Except as most would know, the originals were a little more . . .grimm.

“But Nathan, even when they were horrible and brutal, fairy tales were still for children, right?”

Right. But also. . .wrong. In many senses, they were the school of the day. They are, as Grimm Brothers scholar Jack Zipes puts it in one interview, ‘part cautionary tale, part repository of cultural history, part pure entertainment’. Certainly this seems to be a pretty common trait across cultures, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll be sticking with the well known Märchen (German fairy tales) collected by the Grimms. In the case of Märchen, once of their functions was to tech children, and by extension kids are part of the target audience. But to quote Jacob Grimm himself (from Zipes’ book Grimm Legacies):

Have children’s tales really been conceived and invented for children? I don’t believe this at all. . . What we possess . . .is accepted by old and young, and what children do not grasp about them, all that glides away from their minds, they will do so when they are ready to learn it.

I love this quote. It succinctly describes the layers of a story that are understood more and more as a reader grows with it. It tells me that a what child might not yet understand will become apparent to them as they grow. The knowledge is with them, and the comprehension will come. I love it.  But in this series of letters, another section (from T.F. Crane’s The External History of the “Kinder- und Haus-märchen” of the Brothers Grimm) raised a very familiar definition of where Märchen sat in the world:

Märchen were not invented for children alone, but as an intermediate . . .between children and adults, so that both alike can get much out of them, and both apparently be equally fascinated while each is taking delight in something.

This wasn’t from a Grimm, but from Achim von Arnim, a friend of the Grimms and as essential to the publication of Kinder- und Haus-märchen as the brothers themselves.

But this is where I found it interesting. An intermediate between children and adults, enjoyed by all. Without a doubt, that places it clearly in the realm of the YA genre. Now, there are those that argue YA isn’t a genre, but a demographic. To that, I tend to give the same answer as to whether fairy tales are for children. Wrong, but also right. Young Adult are definitely a demographic, and one that books are targeted at. But like Märchen, they have never exclusively been enjoyed by young adults. So the demographic might be the target, but a wider readership is always present. But even then, why can’t a demographic be a genre as well? According to author and literary agent Tina Schwarz as well as David Belbin, a senior lecturer of English at Nottingham Trent University, there are very clear rules involving theme, characters and subject matter. To be honest, both of them give a more definitive definition than most other genres do. Then there’s the adage of genre being nothing more than the shelf labels in a bookstore. Certainly in my local bookstores, I cannot recall coming across one in recent times that didn’t have a ‘young adult’ shelf – usually one of the largest sections in the store!

Ironically, that corporation owns the Simpsons now. Image: https://knowyourmeme.com

So by either the idea of clearly defined parameters or the bookstore test, YA is very definitely a genre.

But I think its pretty safe to say that the genre in called YA for the demographic it targets, and therefore yes, it’s very definitely a demographic too. But looking both at the Grimm letters and the idea that some stores sell 55% of their YA titles to adults, it’s one that for over 200 years has not been made just for the target demographic.

Put simply, for at least two centuries Young Adult fiction has not been made for Young Adults. So maybe there might be a gap between the term ‘young adult’ as a demographic and the same term being used differently to describe genre?

Another startling similarity contained in both Zipes and Crane’s books are the complaints made against the Grimms by parent, all of which bear a striking resemblance to the complaints against some of the darker YAs of today. Too violent, too degraded, too much adult content.  All the things that get YA books banned from school libraries in certain areas of the world. The similarities continue.

And as the similarities continue, it keeps bringing me back to those two quotes from Grimm and von Arnim indicating that Märchen are for the intermediate, and that children, adults, and anyone in between can enjoy them on a multitude of levels. That when done properly, they are full of layers that deliver ongoing revelations and subtleties.

And, of course because PEOPLE, somewhere someone will be advocating for banning them. Personally I’m with Asimov.

But the biggest take away is that for all the talk that YA is not a genre, it shares an awful lot with a genre that is widely recognised (so much so it was the basis of a certain company sanitising them and making billions by using them to start a revolution of animation in movies), so much so that even the name YA doesn’t even represent the majority of readers at time.

Like the Märchen that preceded them, YA are designed, though perhaps not intentionally, to provide entertainment, cultural history, and cautionary tales. They do this for children, adults, and all in between.

Young adults are a demographic. They might even be the target demographic for the YA genre. But it is still very definitely a genre. There are structures and guidelines that apply as much, if not more, than in any other genre, and the readership is not limited to the namesaked demographic.

Which means that just like the broad appeal of movies based of the old German Märchen, YA truly is a genre that can be enjoyed by just about anyone.






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