Senior Civil Servant, London:
Why are we reading children's books?
The GCSE syllabus prepares us for little else. Are you are sitting comfortably?
Patrick Cave, writer for teenagers
When we are born we have a spirit shining bright inside us - everyone who's ever been with babies know that they have personalities - but without a mind filled with clutter to obscure clear vision. Without any doubt children see much better than adults what is important and what not because they see with the spirit/ intuition, call it what you will, rather than the mind. Also, they live in the present, adding to that clarity.
This happy state is allowed for a while and then broken. "Don't dream, concentrate! Think of your exam results! What career are you going to do? Where should you be in period 3 on a Friday morning Johnny? Organise yourself" etc... The adults living as slaves to their cluttered minds, slaves to a complex infrastructure of hypothetical arrangements, slaves to time that is not the present moment, gradually lead their children down the same path.
... And yet that bright spirit is still there inside us somewhere. Good children's writers are able to see what is really important and portray that. That is their attraction to jaded adults.
I studied English Literature at university and found myself reading through three or four texts in a week. I loved reading and enjoyed the diversity of the material.
But since then my enthusiasm for reading has declined. I find I get halfway through a book and loose interest unless it's by one of my favourite authors such as Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch or Muriel Spark. Maybe this is down to the fact I now have less time to read and any plot that is not immediately gripping loses momentum if there are big gaps in between reading.
Anyway, I recently bought Gerald Durrell's The Talking Parcel from a charity shop and quite enjoyed it. Then I decided to buy JK Rowling's The Philosopher's Stone and am now hooked on them.
I feel like I have rediscovered that childhood compulsion to read. Children's books seem to fire the imagination in a way adult fiction can't. They allow for escapism without too much self-analysis. Having said that, the Potter books address many complex human emotions that do lead to self-analysis.
Just as you might relate to a child in a book when you are young, so you as an adult in terms of comparing Potter's world with your own schooldays - in relation to issues like bullying and friendship and their effect on who you are now. Lots of the adult characters, like Dumbledore, are also just really cool, both in their approach to life and words of wisdom - providing role models for adults to follow too!
Children's books have also put me back in touch with those child-like qualities the real world drains from you: a certain playfulness of approach to life and the ability to 'think outside the box'.
Maybe after the Potter books my enthusiasm for 'literary' fiction will be rekindled, but for the moment I'm happy to immerse myself in a world where pictures talk, ghosts stalk the corridors and the washing up can be done with the swish of a wand!
It is possible that, since I write books for children, my viewpoint is abnormal; but for what it's worth, I grew up reading books that assumed I was bright and inquisitive and capable of understanding everything thrown at me. I developed a strong taste for mind-stretching, optimistic, mysterious books centering on heroic characters coming to terms with a life that was often unsatisfactory. Books like *Old Yeller,* *Jane Eyre,* the Narnia series, *The Lord of the Rings,* Rosemary Sutcliff's historicals, etc., left me feeling wiser and more capable than when I started. When I started using the adult section, these books became much harder to find, though exceptions existed in the genre shelves. I consistently found books written for adults to be tedious and depressing. So I soon returned to the juvenile and YA sections, with the occasional cruise through the genres, and seldom pick up a book written for adults without a strong recommendation from a reader who understands my taste. Even those adult books, such as Virginia Woolf's, whose brain- and spirit-stretching merits impress me seldom beg to be re-read. I can walk through the adult fiction section of the library or a used bookstore without a flicker of temptation, but if I venture near the children's or YA shelves they start leaping into my backpack.
Categories such as children's, YA, adult; mystery, science fiction, fantasy, mainstream, literary; classic, post-modern, and contemporary are not real entities. The books are themselves, and not obliged to fit into anybody's system. The large overlap between "books I like" and "books classified by publishers and marketers as suitable for children" does not seem to me to require explanation.
It appears to me that children read books that assume their brains are still growing while adults are expected to read books that assume they've stopped. I could get offensive on that subject, but will refrain; and would appreciate it if others would likewise refrain from passing judgment on the mental capacities of those whose tastes differs from their own.
Anne Greer, Worcester
Why are adults reading books written for children?
Because their lure is irresistible. They are gorgeous chocolate wallows, where the reader arrives at the far shore and steps out - oh, miracle! - clean and nourished, as if waking from a delicious dream where dragons are fought and vanquished but no one expects you to deal with the mopping up of the blood and scales. The closing of the book does that.
Lesley Martin, Librarian, Bury St Edmunds
Adults read children's literature because much of it is extremely good! Perhaps literary fiction for adults is trying too hard - to be experimental, controversial, "different", all character and no plot. Adult genre novels provide intricate plotting but often at the expense of character development and depth. The best of children's literature is strong on plot, narrative, character and dialogue. Many books deal with themes which are central to all our lives, whether through fantasy ( Pullman, Rowling, William Nicholson, Lian Hearn) or realism (Wilson, Haddon, Kevin Brooks). As a school librarian I read a lot of fiction aimed at the 12-18 age group and much of it is outstanding. I don't think reading children's literature means we are "retreating into childhood fantasy", nor is it "infantilising".
Perhaps we could just recognise a good book as a good book.
Sarah Hamshere, Chesterfield Library
I read for many reasons: to escape, to be entertained, to learn, to explore ideas about life, to be made to think, or even just to enjoy a good story. I therefore read a wide variety of books, many of them so called children's books. The importance for me is not "is this a children's book" but is this a good read - that is: does it fulfil any of my reasons for reading. Harry Potter is entertaining, the Philip Pullman is thought provoking, and so forth. I read many books for adults too, but why can't we allow people to read and enjoy what they want without making them justify it? If I read a J.K. Rowling on one day and Carol Shields the next whose business is it but mine anyway? I'm all for saying "try something different" after all, as a librarian, it's part of my job, but that doesn't mean saying what you are already reading is rubbish!
Victor Watson, Chairman of Seven Stories, the Centre for Children's Books
I hope you and your contributors won't overlook the fact that what's happening today is not an entirely new phenomenon. Most children in the nineteenth century - those who could read anyway - read the more popular of Scott's novels; most girls would have read Jane Eyre. Also, Stevenson and Kipling knew very well that they were read by both children and adults. Henty, too, probably, and dozens of other forgotten authors who wrote stories about heroic adventures in far-flung places of the Empire. And during WW II it wasn't just the children who read Biggles. The first two great 'classics' of children's literature were Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels - neither of them intended for young readers.
Dr Netta M. Goldsmith, Tunbridge Wells
Life is a battle. The best children's writers recognize this, and we turn to them as adults because their books tell the kind of stories that the human race has always wanted to hear, in which the hero or heroine is faced with a struggle of some kind and wins. Evil is vanquished e.g. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, misery is overcome e,g, Magorian's Goodnight Mister Tom and the quest ends in the hero finding what he is looking for e.g. Ann Holm's I am David. These are often the first kind of stories we hear and they give us the courage to fight on.
Laraine Anne Barker
I've been reading children's books since the mid eighties. At first this was only because I was writing for children (and still am). But the more I read the more convinced I became that the best writers for children (Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Pullman, etc) are much better writers than most of those who write for adults. I am, however, thoroughly bemused that it was the Harry Potter books that made other adults realise this fact, because they are far more "infantile" than most other middle-grade and YA fantasy titles. And surely adults who enjoy fantasy have been reading Diana Wynne Jones for decades? If they haven't, they need their heads reading!
The children's books I don't enjoy are the ones loaded with teenage angst (usually with a divorce looming somewhere). As a kid I read to get away from my problems and I'm sure I wouldn't have enjoyed having them thrust down my throat in my fiction.
I have read all of the Harry Potter Books, the wonderful Philip Pullman trilogy (twice) and I still dip into Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and many more. One of the reasons why I find great pleasure in reading "childrens books" is because my children read them, and the pleasure I get from discussing the books is beyond measure. My children adore stories as much as I. And the interesting fact is that although we are years and experiences apart we usually arrive at the same conclusions but the discussion in getting there is fulfilling.
I found the Phillip Pullman stories, which were written for children, pulsating with glimpses of unfulfilled love, sexual tension religious and political intrigue, war and love, ghosts and death. Therefore, would we classify these stories as more appropriate for adults?
Perhaps in childrens literature there is a clearer distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, the colours are clearer - black and white. Adult books are more complex we are not in control we allow the
author to take us on his journey, whereas when we read childrens books we are in control, our imagination transports us to the icy lands of the Lion and the Wardrobe, the sheer delight of summer days in Winnie the Pooh, we are not confined to this world but we are allowed to touch on dreams.
I feel too much emphasis is placed on why we do things, we spend too much time analysing , cutting things into small pieces so they become unrecognisable, the moment you question the why of everything is the moment you lose its heart and soul.
So if we as adults pick up a book which is clearly defined as a childrens book, then does it really matter as to the why? If when you finish the book you have been touched in some way, if you can reflect that you have just had a fantastic read and that you feel you have just lost a very good friend then I really believe thats all that matters. The whys are not important, whether its a childrens book or a book for adults, in the end enjoyment is all that matters.
We think therefore we read.
C G Beardwell
When I used to work I spent all day thinking. Once home I liked to read to relax. Just to quote the reviews in my newspaper this weekend- "We are meant to identify with mean-minded, quibbling wives, computer bound children, and husbands who yearn for the approbation of neighbours and colleagues"." The numerous and sometimes deliberately obscure plotlines and a terse prose style that appears to be modelled on insurance accident reports" etc.Faced with this, or the alternative which usually seems to involve killers who for obscure reasons travel from London to New York and then to various parts of the Near East using various expensive branded items calculated to raise envious thoughts in those who hope to keep up with the Joneses, what alternatives does one have other than to read children's books, or to revert to nineteenth or early twentieth century novels which at least tell a story in a simple, straightforward way?
There may be those who delight in extracting a story from an obscure source but they are few and far between and, in the modern world likely to become even fewer. Authors write for various reasons but those novelists who wish to be widely read should not forget that one of their primary duties is to entertain. Only those who do so will be remembered.
Dr. Margaretha Debrunner Hall
As a child growing up in rural Switzerland I read a lot, in particular English childrens classics in translation. Eventually I moved on to English and kept reading at least two books of fiction a week for the last forty years. Fortunately both my children (13 and 10) have got the book bug too and it a great pleasure with them to discover so many good new authors. What really happens is not so much people turning away from "adult" books as that the boundaries between adult and childrens books are disappearing.
Is Zephanaiah's Gangsta Rap not just as much for adults? On the other hand my 12 year old daughter is a firm fan of Alexander MCall Smith's detective stories. I think we are agonizing too much about categorizing books, rather than just foster a good habit wherever we can. An irritation in this context is the public library in Glasgow we go to, where my daughter can take out so-called teenage novels on drugs and rape etc, but is denied access to Agatha Christie, since she is classed "adult"...
I have always prefered to read a well-written childrens' book while travelling than anything by so-called blockbuster authors. They are usually much better researched and crafted. I did try a book by Archer once and had to chuck it into the charity box before very long. It is not infantilisation, but easy reading that doesn't rot the brain.
I must confess, I have not read a true childs book since Watership Down! That in itself was full of pain, suffering, complicated relationships (e.g. diff. coloured rabbits / hares) and took some time to read. Was it more an adult book than for children? As a child I didn't quite understand the conservation / wildlife message but the theme song was sad, best Garfunkle has ever done. Alternatively, do I like bunny rabbits as I love mice because of Mickey or v.v.? That was the 70s (I'm now 36). I moved on to the Hitchhikers then the Young Ones (but Friends - now way!) Does this coincide with authors now being some of the richest people in business (e.g. JK Rowling). The new generation of writers? The truth I think is obvious - we are now living in a PR, marketing driven world. Go to any advertising/marketing firm or even university degree course and what do they teach you!? Sell, expand, demographics, core segments, diversification... And anyway, didn't we all as children "think" we were adults, even at 5 years old! Adults call it precocious or spoilt brats. Now writers like to make adults feel (through PR) that they should be like children because it makes for even bigger profits. A strange evolution over just three decades. (and maybe to even show off to the kids - adult: "see, we are cool too").
Don't forget the SIMPSONS which is unadulterated childish drivel, but which has adult cult status and even deemed significant. The more educated people are the more likely thay are to succumb to nonsense because education destroys common sense! Worst example: intellectuals extolled Stalin.
Tony Francis, Melton Mowbray
We're NOT "all reading children's books" now; though it may be getting more difficult not to. There is more "hype" with the launch of a new book by one of the well-known childrens' authors, largely because of the present-day over-curiosity in how much money the author will make. That is the sole indicator of what a "good" book is. Then there isn't much easily available information to guide those people who were educated after the beginning of the demise of the "classics". Try finding a 20th C. "classic" author (allowing for even a wide view of whom that might include) on local lending-library bookshelves. They're not there, unless there has recently been a TV serialisation. Libraries are full of CDs and DVDs, even though the latter are available, cheaply, for rental; or for reading matter "pulp fiction". Tentatively asking about some titles I feel that I'm looked on as an alien, even by the kindly people that inhabit my library. (That's in case they're listening in - which I doubt.) Even a niece, a teacher, suggested that I should read Philip Pullman. I admit to owning one children's book; a Rupert Annual. No, I don't read it, but it's a good reminder that Rupert helped teach me to read; some 60 years ago and before I started school; with those rhyming couplets and the matching simple prose - a legacy that's much wasted.
Who are the 'we' here? I agree with you to the extent that, if one looked at the candidates for Blind Date in the Evening Standard Metro each week, it was amazing how many adults, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, chose Harry Potter. But then a lot of chaps used to claim it was Wind in the Willows. What about the rest, who seem to be reading The Da Vinci Code? It seems to be more that people who don't read much are especially responsive to intensive marketing combined with word-of-mouth.