I loved author Ann Patchett’s essay in The New York Times the other day, ‘Why We Need Life-Changing Books Right Now’1. Patchett talks about ‘life changing’ reads, describing a time she went back to read a set of books intended for middle-graders (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo), but finding the reading matter transformative, irrespective of the age categorisation it had been intended for. She goes on to list several works supposedly aimed at younger readers that can be enjoyed by readers in any age group. ‘Do not make the mistake I nearly made and fail to read them because you are under the misconception that they are not for you. They are for you,’ she urges.
His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman is one writer who refuses to have age categories assigned to his fiction, refusing to see children’s literature as ‘bad books for grown-ups.’ He has said that ‘To look at the reception of children’s literature today, you’d think that it was a separate thing entirely, almost a separate country, because there are important people like literary editors and critics, who decide what should go where, and why.’ 2
Personally, I miss no longer reading aloud to my kids. (I would, by the way, but they don’t want me to. They even roll their eyeballs now when I read them the ‘Mr. Edwards meets Santa Claus’ chapter from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie at Christmas—outrageous!) I used to enjoy fishing out some of the stories I enjoyed as a child and rediscovering them, as well as finding some new reads. Yet linked to the disparagement of children’s fiction, there seems to be this embarrassment by adults to be reading “children’s books”. Consider, for instance, the fact that publisher Bloomsbury brought out—and continue to sell—a range of ‘adult covers’ for JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
By the same token, and this was also pointed out by Pullman, so-called ‘adult’ books may be enjoyed by children. A few specifically ‘mature’ topics aside, there seems little reason for the distinction. Particularly after starting secondary school aged eleven, I never thought twice about plundering the communal bookshelves at home for reading matter. These were not necessarily “great literature”, I was not that six-year old, the one who got stuck into Dickens. But detective fiction, romance, yes, and even history, in a way, thanks to a not insignificantly sized set of Georgette Heyers owned by my mother. Some more challenging stuff would sneak in too, however – the main thing was, I had found those books for myself. They were not prescribed.
In the above-mentioned essay, Patchett also notes that ‘[T]here’s something about being able to read an entire book in one sitting that’s emotionally very satisfying.’ Agreed. Though it’s been a while since having the luxury of time… On my traditional ‘Boxing Day Book Binge’ on 26th December, I do believe.
Of course, that may be about to change. If and when it does, I will be there with Honor Arundel’s High House series, or with Diana Wynne-Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle —though I have to admit, the character of Howl, in the book, gives me some ‘adult’ thoughts… Sorry.
1. Anne Patchett, ‘Why We Need Life-Changing Books Right Now’, in The New York Times, 30 March 2020.
2. Philip Pullman, ‘Philip Pullman on Children’s Literature and the Critics Who Disdain It’, talk delivered at the Royal Society of Literature, 6 December 2001, transcript on The Literary Hub, 08 October 2019.