The blurb to J. K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy, introduces it as her ‘first novel for adults’. Despite this claim I would make a calculated guess that the majority of adults that have picked up this book, or even those who haven’t, will have read the Harry Potter series at some point previously. Harry Potter might be called a children’s book, particularly in its earliest inception, but this doesn’t seem to have stopped the influx of adult readership that has contributed to the series’ popularity over the years. No matter if they read the book with the children’s colourful cover or the black ‘adult’ cover they, nonetheless, have read what might be deemed as children’s literature.
How correct, then, is the title given to the popular genre of ‘children’s literature’? If an adult has the imaginative capacity and interest to write the children’s book in the first place it would be quite conceivable to suggest that an adult can also gain this same appreciation from reading what is supposedly meant for and labelled as belonging to children alone.
That is not to say that all book genres are not accurate in their descriptions, although there is often overlap within any given plot. There are most certainly adult books that are read exclusively by adults and which would be inappropriate for younger readers (not least the latest fad of Erotica Fiction). However, I think that it would be correct to say that children’s books, as they were, can also be written for and read by adults. As such I would argue that there are no books ‘for children’, just as Rowling did not write The Casual Vacancy as her first book ‘for adults’. Rather all books that might be deemed as ‘children’s books’ were not only written with the child in mind but also the adult: they were written ‘for everyone’. To label these books otherwise might limit the reading experiences of everyone to what society has deemed appropriate.
Books in bookstores are usually divided into categories. For younger readers these include age-ranges before you hit the teenage or young adult section. Books are supposed to broaden your imagination and some of the best stories that achieve this are children’s stories. If society constrains you by telling you what you should and shouldn’t read then what chance do we really have of breaking the boundaries of reality and escaping into the imaginary?
In a bookstore I browse beyond the adult and teenage fiction, looking also at the younger years. There are books there that I read in my youth, which I still own and which I still read or re-read. To name but a few: Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart Trilogy, Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and, most recently, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. All are amazing books and having read or re-read these in the last year or two I can say quite truthfully that I do not feel guilty for having read them at my age and have, indeed, taken great enjoyment from having done so.
Because of book categories and social stereotypes there are books that adults feel they are expected to read. To quote Mark Twain, a literary classic is ‘something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read’. This I think is telling of a lot of the reading culture today and as a literature student I have most certainly fallen into this trap before. Very few people, I think, first pick up a Charles Dickens’ novel because of a good blurb, but rather because there is an expectation to read it. Although I enjoy Dickens’ immensely this other motive still hangs, to some degree, over my head. As a literature student there have been some classics that I have dreaded the idea of having to read but, taking a module entitled ‘Victorian Popular Literature’ which involves books such as Treasure Island, Peter Pan, and Five Children and It, I have found a new breed of ‘classic’ that I have not only looked forward to and enjoyed reading but which I think I might still have gravitated towards even if I wasn’t required to read them. There are, then, two different ‘classics’: those that Twain refers to, the ones that people don’t want to read and then there are those which are classed as ‘children’s classics’ which would, perhaps, draw the attention, or happy memory, of the least bookish of adults.
A reader generally starts reading as a child, reading children’s books, and they will most likely look back at these fondly, they will possibly still own them and possibly even still read them from time-to-time. A ‘children’s book’ encapsulates a moment that can last for a lifetime. We can re-visit them and re-discover them as adults; why shouldn’t we also find new ones? It shouldn’t be an embarrassment to be caught on the bus reading a book with a colourful cover rather than a crime thriller. Instead we should take pride in being able to reach back to our roots of readership and truly escape the reality we are trapped in. Society needs to forget its rigid constraints: books are made to escape reality and these ‘tools’, these books, shouldn’t be constrained in and of themselves by our expectations and categorisations. We shouldn’t judge the reader by the cover any more than the book – if you enjoy reading it you shouldn’t stop.