Monday, October 17, 2011

Kids read it; we talk about it

Children's literature - it's written for kids, and yet it's written by grown-ups, critiqued by grown-ups, studied by grown-ups, bought by grown-ups, sold by grown-ups and recommended to kids by grown-ups. 

Kids read children's books - or they don't - but they don't do those other things, as a rule.

Grown-ups read children's books, too.  But we are adults, and our reading experience is going to be vastly different than a child's, no matter how much we tell ourselves that when we read, we most closely approach a child-like state as we immerse ourselves in the story.  And of course writers of children's books are grown-ups, and no matter how well they remember their own childhoods and what it felt like to be a child, they are no longer children.

For an intensely detailed, deep, and rather funny (in a nerdy, academic sort of way) exploration of the ways adult writers and readers bring themselves to children's literature, I highly recommend Perry Nodelman's The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature.  I'm noodling my way through it now and though I'm only 1/4 of the way along, my mind is already sparking with the ideas he raises.

A book that explores this theme in an entirely different way is Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: a Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, an extremely personal but also scholarly look at the author's favorite childhood series and how her perception, knowledge, and experience of the book has utterly changed now that she is an adult.  And though some things have been lost as a result, much has been gained.

Meanwhile, Liz of A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy is one of the latest to comment on the weirdness of zipping through a gripping YA novel, only to realize that - OMG, I'm older than the protagonist's parents!!!

Now, as the parent of a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old, this is no shocker to me.  But I can't help but pay close attention to how the grown-ups in a children's or YA book talk, act, and think - way more than a kid or teen reader would, most likely.

Even when I'm fully engrossed in a truly absorbing children's book and am right there with the child main character, I don't feel like a child myself.  I'm an engaged reader who happens to be an adult, with all the life experiences and (sometimes more importantly) book experiences that I've accumulated.  The fact that I've read thousands - and reviewed hundreds - of children's books means that I can never read "like a child" again.

Which is fine with me.  I'm as addicted an adult reader as I was a child reader; if anything, I'm getting more pleasure from reading than ever.

Yet many of us adult readers care deeply about the experience that a child reader is having with a book.  We librarians, writers, publishers, teachers, and parents want kids to enjoy reading for many reasons.  And so at the heart of much of our endless reviewing, discussing, blogging, and critiquing is the question "will a child like this book?"  But not always.  Sometimes we're just having the discussion as adult readers who happen to truly enjoy this type of literature.

What is it that draws some grown-ups to children's literature?  That's a subject for another post - or an entire book or three.  As for me, it's in small part because I loved my books fiercely as a child and never grew out of it.  But mostly it's because I love a damn good book, and children's books happen to be some of the best books in existence.

1 comment:

  1. It's complicated. Like you, I was an avid child reader. Now I'm an avid adult reader of many genres, including children's literature. Like you, I find that children's books are some of the most satisfying works of literature being written today. But there is another dimension to my fascination with children's books. I am an advocate for children and believe with all my heart and mind that their lives are enriched by exposure to the best books we can put in their hands. So I am also concerned about the ways we caring adults -- librarians, aunts and uncles, parents, grandparents, teachers -- connect kids of all ages with books and about children's responses to those books.