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The “Dumbing Down" of Children’s Literature

Several articles in a 1993 issue of The Lion and the Unicorn focus on the writing and rewriting of some children's literature in a process that some authors call "dumbing down" and other authors refer to as "manufacturing kiddie lit(e)." This issue is concerned with not only the process of writing simpler stories for children but also the forces that caused this phenomenon.

In the editor's note, Jan Susina first emphasizes the devaluing of children's literature through such terms as kiddie lit.1 Susina states, "For those concerned with children's literature, the term 'kiddie lit,' with its wholesale dismissal of children's literature as a significant and important aspect of literary studies, is disturbing and short-sighted" (p. vi). Susina also traces some of the history of, and the consequences of, "dumbing down" and worries that the increased emphasis on selling more books to broader audiences will have negative results on the quality of the literature. She continues, "So while the dumbing down of children's literature has always been an aspect of the children's book industry, it appears in recent years to have become more pronounced" (p. viii). The articles in this issue consider the implications of the process of watering down literature for children. For example, "The Dynamics of Dumbing: The Case of Merlin," by Judith Kellogg, traces the watering down of Arthurian legends in contemporary children's books.2

As publishers and booksellers try to reach broader audiences and, consequently, generate larger sales, there is a trend toward rewriting other classics into simpler language that supposedly appeals to larger audiences. In a Knight-Ridder article, "Publishers Take Hatchet to Potter's Classic 'Peter Rabbit'," Peter Slevin reports changes in a new series of Beatrix Potter's works, including Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, Tom Kitten, and Jemima Puddle-Duck.3 Slevin compares both the illustrations (Potter's illustrations were replaced with photographs of stuffed animals) and the text. For example, the first paragraph for The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin as originally written by Potter reads: "This is a Tale about a tail—a tail that belonged to a little red squirrel, and his name was Nutkin." In the updated version, this paragraph reads: "This is the story of a red squirrel called Nutkin, and what happened to his tail." Slevin quotes Pat Roth, a spokesman for Ladybird Books, as stating the reasons for the changes, "We're looking to the market. It's broadening of the audience. . . . That's what business is all about" (p. 24A).

1 Susina, Jan. "Editor's Note: Kiddie Lit(e): The Dumbing Down of Children's Literature." The Lion and the Unicorn 17 (1993): v–viii.
2 Kellogg, Judith L. "The Dynamics of Dumbing: The Case of Merlin." The Lion and the Unicorn 17 (1993): 57–72.
3 Slevin, Peter. "Publishers Take Hatchet to Potter's Classic 'Peter Rabbit'." Knight-Ridder Newspapers. The Dallas Morning News (September 20, 1987): 24A.

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