I am currently reading a book so brilliant that it’s actually a painful effort to put it down and get on with the rest of the stuff I have to do, like sleeping and eating and writing. It’s a book written for older children/young teenagers (its heroine is eleven – sort of); it involves magic and baddies and scary things happening in dark rooms and the terrifying power of scissors. It features a creature who cries cobwebs.
Of course, it won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that, no matter how hard I try to be young in spirit and wrinkle-free of face, I am far more aged than the average reader of a book like this. In recent weeks there was a small furore about adults reading books written for children or teenagers and how we should all be ashamed of our juvenile tastes (I’m sure you can all guess what I thought of that). However, what’s on my mind this morning is something similar: are the themes in children’s books becoming more suited to adult readers?
As well as creatures made of twigs and strange messengers from Other places and magical upside-down worlds, the book I’m currently reading takes the Great War as a backdrop for part of its story: bereaved parents of fallen soldiers, left-behind fiancées whose beloved boys never came home, young men broken and hollow-eyed as a result of what they experienced in the trenches, present in person but absent forever in spirit, are all over it. The story is suffused with the sensibilities of a passing age, a turning from innocence to experience, a shattering of the traditions that had once bound society together and the beginnings of a new and uncharted way of life, one in which women expected to work and the paterfamilias in all its senses was starting to become less relevant. In one way, of course, nothing could be more important to a children’s story; those feelings of change and transformation and turning define a person’s life when they’re on the cusp of becoming an adult. In another, though, I can’t help thinking that while the general feeling created by all this tragic historical detail will add to a child’s reading experience, that in truth it’s designed to appeal to older readers, ones who will understand the symbolism in a deeper way.
I’ve blogged before on the absurd notion that certain topics are ‘unsuitable’ for children (including dark themes, death, good and evil, frightening things, ghosts and loss and challenges to identity, among plenty of others), and these same topics (albeit in different concentrations, perhaps) turn up regularly in adult books too. It’s probably natural, then, that there’ll be ‘bleeding’ between them; children need to read what they want to read, and these fictional explorations of change and discovery, courageous resistance in the face of evil and self-sacrifice in order to save a loved one are as important for young readers as they are for older ones. It’s also true that an adult reader will bring a different mental focus to a book than a child will, and themes will be read and understood differently depending on the age and experience of the reader; the same story might mean one thing to a child reader and something entirely different, something more, to an adult.
Perhaps it has always been this way. Charlotte’s Web, for instance,features sacrifice and the threat of slaughter and the overwhelming power of friendship. Children might get a message of love and unity from it, where adults might bring their own sense of nostalgia and their greater awareness of the passing of time to the story. The poignancy of Charlotte’s struggle might mean more to them, for they know, from the beginning, that Charlotte cannot live forever. Perhaps the mastery in the book I’m currently reading lies in the fact that it works on a multitude of levels: it’s a story about the encroachment of magic into a family and the struggles of two young girls to outsmart it, but it’s also a story of the increasing industrialisation of society, particularly after the slaughter of the Great War. It’s a tale of the machinery which ate huge chunks out of the countryside and the people who lived in it – and the traditional creatures and stories and legends who were also driven out. It’s a story about parental love for their daughters, but the hints of a darker reality are there too – an entitled class with more money than compassion, a woman who loves her own children but who has contempt for those of others. It’s a story of two girls who miss their big brother, a soldier who was lost in France in 1918, but it’s also the story of his lost life, the wife he never married and the children he never had.
Perhaps the books I love – the rich, textured, multi-layered, story-within-a-story books – haven’t started to incorporate ‘adult’ themes so much as I, the reader, have started to notice them. Perhaps, in reality, there are no ‘adult’ themes: good children’s books are as full of life and death and vitality as their adult counterparts. They are not lesser, not by any means, and no adult should be ashamed of reading anything which brings them pleasure, certainly not the masterpieces of children’s literature which contain more truth and beauty than shelf-loads full of the narcissistic nonsense which sometimes passes for ‘serious literature’. I love the idea that a child reader might love a book for reasons they can’t put their finger on; they might know there’s more to a story than they can grasp at a particular point in their reading life, but they resolve to come back to it later and read it again, gaining more and more from each re-read. I did this regularly as a kid, and (weird as I am) I’m sure I’m not alone. Those are the books we love at every stage of life, the ones which become part of our DNA. Adults coming to them can get the immeasurable joy of reading the story on all its levels at once, which is an experience like no other; children will treasure them all their lives.
Perhaps we should worry more about our intense need to police what people are reading than our desire to categorise books as ‘for one sector of society only.’ Of course there are books which are not suitable for children, and from which they should be kept, but I hate the thought that so many adults would be reluctant to open their minds to a wonderful story for children just because they feel it’s inappropriate for them to want to read it.
Read outside the box a little, is my advice. You might be surprised by what you find.