Why children's books are important at any age
A few months ago, American writer Lynn Shepard caused an online outrage with her absurd Huffington Post article entitled "If JK Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It." The article was as petty as the title suggests, the author coming across bitter and green with envy at Rowling’s success. Of the many ridiculous moments of the piece, the part that stood out the most for me was where Shepard stated that, although she hasn’t read the Harry Potter books, she thinks it “a shame that adults [are] reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there’s so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds.”
Remember, Shepard hasn’t read the books – or even seen the films – so all she knows about the Harry Potter series is that it is immensely popular, read by adult and child alike, and written for children. Based on these details, she has assumed that all Harry Potter books are not worth reading seriously by any adult.
In the context of that particular article, it is easy to shrug off such comments as mere ranting by a jealous writer. Unfortunately, this statement seems to exemplify a commonly held belief: that books written for children are not as intelligent – not worth as much – as those written for “grown-ups”. Children’s books are thought too simple, too silly to be taken seriously. There have even been entire articles written about it, not just limited to frustration at J.K Rowling’s success. One article I came across begins: “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children”.
I could not disagree more, and fortunately I am not alone in this. Children’s author Cornelia Funke spent much of her inspiring talk at the Auckland Writer’s Festival discussing the innate creativity of children, the depths and layers within children’s literature, and how the saddest and most terrifying thing she could ever see is an adult who has forgotten what it is to be a child.
The most disregarded of all are fantasy books written for children. Fantasy always seems to be considered less significant than “proper literature” because it isn’t based on reality. I will admit that I am far more inclined to agree with Cornelia Funke on this point, as she argues that fantasy can in fact be more real than obvious reality. What is more technically accurate, she asked us at the Writer’s Festival: to state that the object in front of her was a solid wooden table, or that it was a collection of atoms, spinning through space around a giant fiery star? Which of these descriptions sounds more fantastical? (Hint: it’s the most scientifically accurate answer.)
There are, of course, very successful children’s books – fantasy or otherwise – that are as inane as it is possible to be. There are also very successful adult’s books that are as inane as it is possible to be, and yet no one is arguing that all books written for adults should be avoided! It’s true that not all books aimed at the under-twelves are deep and complex, but the fact is, not all good books are deep and complex, and not all complicated books are good. Some of the most ridiculous books I have ever read have been critically acclaimed, “serious” adult literature. A book’s worth should not be determined based on the age of its intended audience (especially as anyone who has ever read to a child knows what a discerning audience they can be).
A definitive list of children’s books that deserve to be read at any age is far too long to write here, so I will simply leave you with a few of my own personal favourite authors who know the value of their young readers, and of the agelessness of a good story: Roald Dahl, Michael Ende, Cornelia Funke, Neil Gaiman, Frances Hardinge, Odo Hirsch, Diana Wynne Jones, Lois Lowry, J.K Rowling.
In the Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman writes: “Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.” Good children’s books can open our minds to the possibilities that lie beyond the path – this is something to be celebrated, not ashamed of.