"When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."
After reading yet another article mocking adults who enjoy children's books, I began to think about the appeal of children's and young adult literature for adult readers. The article in question was poorly researched (the author was so certain that there was nothing of worth to be found in children's books that he didn't feel the need to actually examine any) and deliberately controversial (as it seems to have been written with the sole purpose of provoking a response, I have decided not to link to it here). But it did make me think about my own reading motivations and ask the question: what it is about children's literature that still attracts adult readers? Here are my top seven reasons for reading children's books.
- Good and Evil (and the ability to tell them apart)
- Children's books are usually fairly clear on who the good guys and bad guys are. This allows for stronger identification with protagonists and antagonists than is often found with more ambiguous characters from adult literature. This is not to say that children's literature does not feature conflicted figures or antiheroes (Katniss Everdeen anyone?), but as the novel progresses, we generally know who we are rooting for.
- Magic is a keystone of children's literature. From Lewis Carroll to J.K. Rowling, children's books are filled with magical acts in magical worlds. Children's literature provides a space for the serious consideration of magic. What would happen if a Ring of Power existed that could endanger all of Middle Earth? What if you could climb a tree whose branches stretched into the clouds and provided a gateway to different worlds? What if you discovered that you were not just a dyslexic child with ADHD but a demigod whose brain is hardwired to read Ancient Greek and who has the reflexes of a supernatural being?
- The created worlds in children's books can provide a soothing balm for the pressures of contemporary society. Children's books rarely dwell on the frustrations of under-appreciated workers operating faulty photocopiers or trying to meet impossible deadlines. Instead, their characters fly on the backs of dragons or dive to the depths of the sea. They face immense dangers and reach beyond their potential to accomplish truly incredible feats.
- The main characters in children's books are typically children. As such they represent a segment of society who have little personal freedom, no public voice and whose lives are vigorously controlled. The triumph of the powerless child character is the triumph of all individuals who have ever felt small, insignificant or out of their depth.
- Children's literature abounds with eccentrics, misfits and outsiders of every kind. Difference or abnormality is frequently a cause for celebration. A typical story arc of this kind would see an unpromising or underachieving child brought into a world of adventure where they discover strengths and abilities they never knew they had. Usually it is the aspect of their personality that "didn't fit" with societal expectations that proves to be their greatest asset. And when it comes to supporting characters, there's always room for the Willy Wonkas, Mr. Toads and Mad Hatters that populate the pages of children's fiction.
- As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said: "You can never step into the same river twice." The river by its nature is ever flowing and constantly changing; similarly, the you that steps into the river in is a state of constant flux. By the time you dip a toe in for the second time both the river and you have altered. Re-reading a book from childhood transports us back to our younger selves. The gap between how a book affects our adult and child selves is revealing. We can learn a lot about ourselves and the books we read through return journeys of this kind.
- Children's literature tends to feature satisfying resolutions. Not all books have happy endings - The Bridge to Terabithia for example, ends in tragedy - but the manner in which this subject matter is dealt with is usually uplifting. Children's and YA books do tackle challenging subject matter such as death, abuse, drug addiction, slavery, kidnapping and prostitution (see this post on dark materials in children's literature), but generally authors strive to bring their young readers back home safe.