The Girl Who Wouldn’t Stop Reading Children’s Literature

You’d have to be living under a rock at the bottom of the ocean* to not have noticed the release of the final Harry Potter installment this past July. About a week prior to its release, I heard to a radio broadcast discussing (among other things) the books, specifically their impact on peoples’ lives both now and in the future. I found myself increasingly frustrated as the host kept asking callers if they were often asked ‘why they continued to read children’s books’, even being shocked at one point that one caller expected to re-read them well into their adulthood and oldster-hood.

I just don’t get how someone could ever be too old for good books. I understand it intellectually I suppose as they are, ostensibly, written for children and young adults), but this doesn’t preclude them from being quality reading. There are plenty of adults who read children’s/ya** books. I don’t believe it’s because these adults are ‘undemanding readers’ either. For instance, take The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.*

Note the Dragon on the cover. I have a personal bias for dragons, i.e., putting a dragon on the cover of a book is like writing my name all over it.

There are already many reviews of this book out there on the intarwebz, thus I will not describe the book in any great depth. Most of the reviews are positive, and with good reason: the book is well written, believable, has great characters and an excellent plot (with an unexpected end). Within the first four pages of this book I was sold by this description:

“All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why the can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grownup hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weight quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their reading and arithmetic and drawing, different children proceed at different speeds. (It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.)”

But what I was most awed by was the sheer creativity of this novel. There is, among other things, a wairwulf (a reverse-werewolf: wolf most of the time, and a man during the full moon), a wiverary (a dragon who thinks he is a library), and a herd of wild books. Cat Valente takes a fairly common plotline, the child whisked away to a magical land a la Chronicles of Narnia. and reinvents it to create an enchanting and Somewhat Heartbreaking tale.

What I’m getting at is this: just because a book is written for a younger (and therefore less experienced) audience, does not necessarily indicate a lack of good writing, of creativity, of excellent plot, of character depth, or of emotional resonance. And just because adults are supposedly more critical readers does not mean that adult fiction isn’t filled with its share of crap. Indeed, the unsettled nature of children and teen taste lends itself to greater creativity; genres for this age group are much more fluid, often defying specific labels.

On writing adult novels, Diana Wynne Jones (RIP) once wrote:

“I found myself thinking as I wrote, ‘These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.’ Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers. Children are used to making an effort to understand. They are asked for this effort every hour of every school day and, though they may not make the effort willingly, they at least expect it…I can rely on this. I can make my plots for them as complex as I please, and yet I know I never have to explain them more than once (or twice at the very most). And here I was, writing for people of fifteen and over, assuming that the people who read, say, Fire and Hemlock last year have now given up using their brains.”

One of my favourite things about DWJ books is this lack of explanation; the exact mechanics of magic is almost never directly explained in her novels. You might think that this lack of explanation would be annoying. Au contraire, dear reader. It is, in fact, one of the best qualities of her books. Fire and Hemlock is an excellent read, but I still don’t understand the end. I know at least two other people who also haven’t figured out what happened. I’m pretty sure it was a happy ending…and that’s all I’m sure of. I’ve found this increases my desire and enjoyment in re-reading her books as I discover new things each time I read them. Your brain definitely cannot go on holiday reading her books.

But here’s my dirty secret: I used to be ashamed of my love of children’s novels, of the fact that something like 90% of the books I read are intended for a younger audience. Then I came to understand something: good books don’t have to be hard. Indeed, when the novel first debuted it was a low form of entertainment, nothing compared to the high art of poetry. In the linked article, Lev Grossman expresses the idea that good plot does not equal cheap thrill. He talks about the history of the novel, and how novels are a product of their time, and in this new time a different type of novel (which can still be just as sophisticated) is taking centre stage. Adults enjoy childrens’ novels because the very unpretentious nature of the intended audience allows plot to shine.

It comes down to this: I read books that interest me. Sometimes pure fluff grabs my attention, and at others Man Booker prize winners (Life of Pi I love you). The important thing is just to read, and not reading children’s books because one is ‘too old for them’ is just sad. Such a philosophy deprives one of a whole world of excellent reading, a world I hope never to leave.

*Or perhaps living in a third world country, poor and starving. They have more important things to worry about.
**For the ease of reading and especially of writing, I shall refer to this category as ‘children’s literature/books’ hereafter (mostly). I realize it isn’t strictly correct to lump them together, but they are more similar to each other than adult literature.
***How can you not pick up a book with this as the title?


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