Reading children's books - no guilty pleasure

JR Wallis
Opinion - Children Wednesday, 16 August 2017

It's a mistake to put away childish things, argues JR Wallis

According to Wikipedia, the definition of a "guilty pleasure" is "something that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard, or is seen as unusual or weird". A trawl through other definitions on the internet reinforces this sense of our liking or indulging in something that is naughty, potentially bad for us, and against the norm.

Should, then, reading children's books be considered a guilty pleasure for adults?

I hope not, because, being a children's author, I would love everyone, adults as well as youngsters, to be able to read my books without being judged. As far as I'm concerned a story should be for anyone who wants to read it whatever the plot and age of the characters. But I have a nagging doubt I may be at odds with a prevailing view in society, that children's books aren't really meant for adults.

One reason for thinking this is whenever I tell an adult I write for children, their interest prickles with surprise, as if I'm not quite regarded as a proper writer, an oddball. Maybe it's just me... or maybe not?

If you look around, you can find other clues suggesting children's books are not considered quite on a par with adult books. There's the very obvious lack of review space in the major magazines and newspapers (see the rise of #coverkidsbooks to address this). There is also the disproportionate, or so it seems to me, lack of floor and shelf space devoted to children's books in bookshops. I have always wondered, too, about the practice of publishing some books with different jackets for children and adults. It speaks to me of shame, that adults are not supposed to be seen reading a book "meant" for children.

So why this perceived snobbery about children's books? It may have something to do with growing up, because being a child forever is unsustainable. Maturity supposedly requires a re-prioritising of life, as St Paul reminded us a long time ago: "when I become a man, I put away childish things" (1 Cor. 13 v11). But should we put away children's books and never revisit them? Come on Paul, can't we indulge in the books we want to read without being made to feel bad about it?

Recently, I asked on Facebook for adults who read children's books. Among those who said they did, the main motivation was escape from the drudgery of adult life. I'm not surprised by this. Life is tough, we need restorative places to take a time out and refresh our imaginations. But perhaps, also, we need to remind ourselves of who we are from time to time, where we came from and what our history is, because identity (and reality) can be a slippery thing in this modern world, where personas are created and tweaked all the time. Surely there's no better way of reconnecting to your past then by revisiting a book you read as a child, or reading a new one that makes you remember what it was like?

I think there's also value in re-reading children's books. Coming back to stories from your childhood, with all the life experience you've accrued, may bring you a deeper experience. If you re-read Charlotte's Web, what does the cycle of life and death mean to you now in middle or old age? Go and revisit The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, and you'll probably have a renewed and more detailed take on the value of unconditional love than before.

Or why not just read children's books for the quality of the stories? Anyone who's ever written for children, signed books for them or spoken to them about stories will tell you they're demanding readers, unafraid of saying what works and what does not. They will put a book down without a second thought if it's not involving enough. Their stories have to be good enough to compete with games consoles and Netflix, and as an author I'm aware that means the plot needs to fizz and the characters needs to feel real. SF Said wrote a brilliant article for the Guardian touching on why stories for kids are so strong and never just for children.

It's easy enough to give reasons as to why adults should read children's books, but what about the snobbery associated with it: will that ever change?

I think the key is in remembering that while of course we have to grow up and become adults and deal with all the responsibilities life gives us, it should not mean we put away "childish things". Perhaps we should learn to take childhood more seriously rather than pigeonhole it as a previous, lesser state that we've merely grown up from. Children are after all the next generation of leaders, and we should be very much involved in empathising with them and their views on the world, not disassociating from them. Remembering what it is to be a child by reading books "meant" for children is perhaps one way of doing this. It should not be frowned on or viewed as a guilty pleasure at all. Surely, to do that is to treat children and childhood with disdain. Instead, reading children's books should be viewed as an investment in the future success of the world.

In his essay "On Three Ways of Writing for Children", CS Lewis made a case for the value of children's stories to both adults and children, pointing out that growing up does not mean discarding our childhood but embracing it: "When I became a man, I put away childish things, including my fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up." I tend to agree with him. But will society? I have some hope it might.

There have been many spin offs from the Harry Potter explosion, from writers being cursed as the next JK Rowling to a demonstration of the sheer financial clout of a successful children's book series. I think there might be another, which is that a generation of now adult readers may not have distanced themselves as far from their childhoods as their predecessors, that they may not have created that dichotomy in life between child and adult. If so, children's books may not be considered guilty pleasures in the future.

Photo: Joanna Wallis

JR Wallis's middle grade novel The Boy with One Name comes from Simon & Schuster. As Rupert Wallis, he is the author of The Dark Inside and All Sorts of Possible.

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