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March 29, 2012

My kind-of defense of adults who read (really good) children's literature

I have never read the Harry Potter books, never had any interest in them at all, and have always been a little bit pleased about this because if they’re truly as wonderful as everybody claims, what a joy it will be to discover them together with my daughter. And it is true that it is through my daughter that I’ve really come to appreciate the greatness of children’s literature. I’ve found such richness in the books we’ve read together, books I’d never read before her, like Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, Russell Hoban’s Frances books, The Wind in the Willows and The House at Pooh Corner. We’re reading Tove Jansson’s Tales from Moominvalley now, the first of her novels for us after enjoying her picture books, and they are so good. There is such depth, the prose is wonderful to read aloud, the stories are surprising, so strange and perfect. I love the idea of Harriet coming to understand the world through these stories because however fantastical, they’re so real, and they acknowledge the complexities of existence and human relations in ways that just make so much sense.

So I certainly understand why reading children’s literature can be a rewarding experience for a reader of any age, but I also understand where the contrarians are coming from when they scoff at adults mad for novels intended for 12 year olds. Partly because there are so many wonderful books directed toward the adult reader that I despair at what these avid readers are missing out on (and I don’t want to hear about how only YA is readable these days. Clearly these readers aren’t looking [or reading] hard enough). And mostly because it is very rare that a children’s book is so rich that it’s as limitless to the adult reader as it is for the child. Which is okay because adult readers are not who these stories are intended for, but it’s the exception rather than the norm.

Arguments for the value of children’s literature (or any literary genre for that matter) usually fail to acknowledge one salient fact: so much of what gets published isn’t very good. And this is true in particular for genres such as children’s literature, fantasy, or chicklit whose formulae have proved to be so saleable that formula and saleability becomes these books’ guiding force. And then readers and writers (who are perpetually feeling much maligned) step up to a defense of the genre whose blanket-coverage undermines itself. It’s never the very best of the genre that critics are talking about anyway.

Here’s something too: a good reader doesn’t ever restrict herself so much. Any reader who reads only one thing, whether it be YA novels, chicklit, or books written by late-20th century female English novelists, has a very narrow view of both the literary and actual worlds. I have a feeling that may of those readers who’ve been impassioned enough to rise up in defense of adults reading children’s literature are not such narrow readers themselves. That, like me, they’re readers who’ve learned to appreciate the value of children’s literature within the wider context of a varied literary diet. They’ve also been trained as readers by reading adult fiction to see what the truly extraordinary children’s authors like Tove Jansson are really getting at.

9 thoughts on “My kind-of defense of adults who read (really good) children's literature”

  1. Jen says:

    Yes! It is such a joy to share a book you love with your children. We’ve recently started reading Charlotte’s Web, the first book I every purchased with my own money (earned by harvesting corn in the hot Taber sun!). I love that my kids are discovering these characters in similar and different ways than I did. When I was their age I had never seen a real spider, just teeny daddy long legs. But my kids imagine Charlotte to be a huge hairy spider, with a body the size of an adult’s palm, the kind that visits our house every summer.

    I agree that no one should limit their reading to a certain genre. It is bliss when you open a book and it is so much more than you expected. Such as the picture book Virginia Wolf- it is as multi-layered and better written than most adult books I read nowadays. How sad that readers would stop themselves from reading it just because they have snobbish tendencies!

  2. Diana says:

    How lovely that you and Harriet are reading about the Moomintrolls! And the Hemulins of course. Tove Jansson wrote some adult books too — her semi-autobiographical “The Summer Book” is so beautiful, it made me homesick for a place I’ve never been. There’s an illustrated excerpt, with a foreword by Esther Freud here:

  3. Sarah Emsley says:

    I feel the same way about the Harry Potter books, and I have a similar plan for reading them in the future. I really enjoy your blog pieces about the best books you’ve found on each trip to the library with your daughter–they usually inspire me to request the same books from our own library. Thanks! And I like your arguments here in favour of the “varied literary diet.”

  4. alexis says:

    I’m also in favour of the varied literary diet. I’ve always read teen books for several reasons-

    1. I like them.
    2. I teach teens.
    3. I would like to write YA (as well as adult books), but I often feel that YA is a more achievable goal because my natural voice is a young voice. It’s shocking how many people want to read YA but don’t ever read any of the good YA out there. And as you’ve probably noticed, sometimes I read crap, mainly so I can know about it, and sometimes just for kicks.

  5. Michele Landsberg says:

    Yes! I wrote my Guide to Children’s Books back in ’85 because I was so maddened by the way some adults dismissed “kids’ lit” or (even more despicably) “kiddie lit” without realizing that some of the very best writers, period, were writing for children.Have you read A Year and a Day by William Mayne, or Bilgewater, by Jane Gardam?

    1. Kerry says:

      Oh, I never knew that Jane Gardam wrote for children! Have just ordered a used copy of Bilgewater. Thank you for the recommendation.

  6. Steph says:

    Yay! I am passionate about children’s literature! And I was just yesterday checking out a couple of the Moomintroll paperbacks we have in the kids’ section in the store and wondering if I should get them. You’ve convinced me. Do you know if you have to read them in order? I think the ones we carry are numbered, but I’m not sure.

    Jansen’s Fair Play (adult) is also good.

  7. Kerry says:

    I love Tove Jansson– I read The Summer Book when it was re-released about 10 yrs ago, and my book club read The True Deceiver last year. I love that her children’s novels have as much complexity as the adult books. I don’t know if you have to read the Moomin novels in order. We started with Tales of… and haven’t felt out of our depth. I imagine you can dive in anywhere.

  8. I have such fond memories of Moominvalley — and the Hundred Acre Wood — and Narnia — and 32 Windsor Gardens — and the English Lake District — from my own childhood. And I made sure my own children read these books, and many more set in Canada (to which I moved in late childhood). My grandchildren and I will discover Hogwarts together.

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