Reading While Adult

I’m an adult reading children’s books.  I’m also a children’s librarian, so professionally this makes sense.  I’m also a children’s lit blogger, so again it makes good sense.  And I’m a parent which means children’s books go with the territory.

But take away all those things, all those reasons and you’d still find me reading children’s literature.  Maybe not as often, nor as exhaustively, but yes  I read children’s books as an adult long before my career, my blog or my kids.

And yet on the subway if I’m reading children’s books (and we’re talking middle grade novels here) I will occasionally get sniggers and  people who act like the very act of an adult reading a children’s book is worthy of ridicule.    I see comments online and hear them offline  where people talk about “sneaking into the children’s section and hoping no one will see me”.  Or discussing young adult books with adult readers who will sing the praises of their favorite young adult authors, or discuss the merits of YA while saying things like,  “it’s not like those sugary stories for kids.  It’s not like those simple didactic unicorns and magic sparkles of children’s fiction.”

Ooof.   And I just want to yell “have you actually READ any children’s books lately?”

I mean, I get it. Stereotypes. Expectations.

It’s similar to the issues of genre bias.

The big difference is that with children’s books, there’s this idea in some adults’ minds that the very label of “children’s books” means adults can’t read them.  That somehow once you pass beyond the world of being a child, children’s books are a thing of the past and can no longer be accessed and enjoyed. Like children’s clothing that is suddenly too small.   There’s the idea that because the books are directed at a a younger audience, they are necessarily less interesting, less well done, and lesser in all ways to adult literature.  Which is–in my very passionate opinion–complete and utter nonsense.

Let’s look at some of the assumptions:

Children’s Books are too Simple and Sugary

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You will certainly find a lot of books in the children’s section that contain happy endings.  Not all, and not every happy ending is a simple one, but yes, it is a realm of happy endings.  For that matter, the Romance genre is also full of happy endings.  Mystery stories for children and adults routinely end with the mystery solved.  Happy endings or resolved mysteries are pretty popular overall–and not just for kids.  A happy ending does not a bad book make.

There are a lot of layers of children’s books.  There are beginning readers, intermediate readers,  and early chapter books where the part of the focus is on teaching children the craft of reading.  They can be simply written, many of them can be dull to read for accomplished readers.  But some of them are exceedingly charming and delightful.  Some are undeniably funny with the kind of humor that crosses age barriers.  Sugary is a matter that’s more subjective.  But while you’ll find overly sweet and sappy books mixed in they’re hardly the majority.

Of course sometimes, there’s just no helping a book . . .

Children’s books are written with their main audience in mind.  And those are the young readers themselves.  So it should come as no surprise that a majority of the characters are children and young teens.  Nor should it come as a surprise that these books will often treat ideas and information from the perspective of a child just beginning to encounter them rather than an experienced adult with broad knowledge already well in place.  This is what makes them books for children, after all.  They are developed around themes that will be relevant to children and accessible to children.

Have you really thought about what it means to be a child lately?  It isn’t all idyllic romps and splendid days with sweets.  Kids are dealing with problems and issues and adventures all their own.  Including perhaps the biggest theme and event for children everywhere.  Growing up.  How exciting, how scary, how inevitable it is that every child grows into an adult.  They say good bye to their childhoods and struggle with the larger world to figure out who they are going to be.  There’s huge potential in that and it leads to some amazing, unforgettable stories.

Children’s Books Are Too Easy

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This one is silly.  Does anyone grade you on your reading after you get out of school?  Is anyone keeping score on how many words you read at what level?  Seriously,  is someone going to demand a book report and penalize you if you haven’t read something from the adult section? Problem is, this is the thinking that is pounded into kids in schools : ” don’t read that book, it’s too easy/ you need to read on your level”   because children have to advance in their reading skills to become competent readers.  Once you are a good reader–and one hopes if you’re an adult you’ve got decent skills–there’s no reason you can’t go back and read a any book you so choose.

If you want to read a Magic Tree House title, then there should be no reason you shouldn’t.  If you want to read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the same applies.  But most of us read somewhere in between most of the time.

What we read is not the same as what we are capable of reading.  I’m capable of making chocolate chip cookies from scratch.  But sometimes I buy the prepackaged dough and make them that way because I want to.   I happen to like the taste of those cookies (and I usually wind up eating half the cookie dough before the cookies are made).  Recently a friend of mine stop by for a visit.  My son naturally wanted to show off his reading skills with Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggie series.  After my five year old had gone to bed, my friend asked if we had anymore books from the series he could read.  We did and he did.  Probably read all ten in under five minutes.  He thought they were great fun even though he’s quite a bit older than the target age group. (Because my friend is just that awesome).

People should read what they enjoy.  Easy to read doesn’t mean bad or boring.

Children’s Books Are a Waste of Time for Adults

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Now why would you waste your time reading when you could pet me instead?

Nope.  Not buying it.  Again, no one is keeping score out of school.  Those who read for appearances’ sake and those  who read a book specifically  for a book club have a reason to stick to adult novels.  But  there’s nothing wasteful about spending an afternoon  with Charlotte and Wilbur or wandering through Oz, or matching wits with Long John Silver.  Whether revisiting favorites or discovering books for the first time, there’s every bit as much enjoyment to be had.  Of course not every book is going to be brilliant–but that’s hardly limited to children’s books. And not every book will be to every reader’s taste, but taste is no basis for judging a book’s ultimate worth.

I read an article recently where the writer lamented over the fact that adults were reading Harry Potter rather than spending their time on “more worthwhile” literature. Again, not buying it.  If a reader enjoys reading the adventures of a boy wizard fighting evil, there’s no one anywhere who should take that away from them and shove War and Peace into their hands instead.  People read what they like and should feel free to enjoy it without some misplaced idea that it’s only for a single targeted audience.

If we obliged everyone to only read what was judged “worthwhile” by some group or another, we’d soon have very little left to read, and less that we enjoyed reading.

Authors who Write Children’s Books aren’t Writing “Real” Books

It’s not only adult readers who run into this bias, it’s the adult writers as well.  Folks, most children’s books are not written by children.  The few that are out there are a rare breed indeed.  And while I’m not a published writer, I know full well that it not only can be just as hard to write a children’s book, it can be harder.

Look at it this way, anyone writing for children has got to recall what it was like to be around the age they’re writing about, whether that’s 5 years old or ten.  They have to remember that a child’s broad knowledge base and frame of reference is still being developed and thus they can’t take basic adult knowledge for granted.  They have to keep the subject matter appropriate for the audience and the vocabulary not only appropriate but designed for the young reader still developing their reading ability.   That’s not easier than writing adult fiction, that’s a whole new dimension tacked on to what’s already a pretty challenging task.

Children’s authors are the ones that first reach us and influence us.  How many of us can fondly remember the best of our childhood reading and how it made us feel?  That doesn’t go away just because we mark off so many years on the calendar.  We’ll carry those books with us our entire lives, and someone wrote them.  For children.  And they’re just as real as any book penned for older audiences.

None of this means that you have to read children’s fiction as an adult (unless you are a children’s librarian, teacher or parent), but it does mean you shouldn’t feel guilty for reading it.   But I hope that maybe I’ve inspired a few to revisit the Children’s area of the library or bookstore and see what’s out there.

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on March 3, 2014, in General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’ve actually never encountered this personally (maybe I lead too much of a sheltered life? *shrugs shoulders.*) Some of the deepest, most beautiful and most complex books ever written were for children. Harry Potter is but one example, a series who’s humanity is unparalleled to almost anything else I’ve ever read.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve only encountered this prejudice against children’s books on the internet, but people who have it seem to have it to a quite irrational extent. Many of the most fascinating books I’ve read in recent years sit in the growing grey area between children’s and adult fiction that is YA – things like His Dark Materials and The Hunger Games. And there’s a magical quality to some illustrated books for younger children – things like Zog and Dragon Loves Penguin, that’s an absolute delight regardless of age.

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