I spent a lot of time choosing the perfect theme for the inaugural post of Mr. Buddy’s Blog. So much so that I found myself seated at the Department of Motor Vehicles brainstorming topics while waiting for my turn to renew my license. I scribbled furiously (and somewhat illegibly) in a fresh notebook as I tried to keep up with the flow of ideas running through my mind. At one point, I was engaged in an intense internal debate over Philip Pullman’s recent comment that more YA books should explore sex to provide readers with a realistic context for sex and sexuality as a means of offsetting the effects of online pornography, in which the sexual acts are stripped of meaning and context. And in the midst of this heated debate, one of the Harry Potter apps on my phone magically turned on and began to cast spells loudly into the funereal silence of the waiting room. Had we been at Hogwarts, the entire room would have been stupefied while my patronus ran past. However, as we were in fact at the DMV, heads merely turned in my direction with raised eyebrows. I felt properly shamed for having been outed as a grown adult with a penchant for Harry Potter, and speedily turned off the app. An hour and a half later, I left the DMV with my new license, nearly three pages of topics to explore in upcoming blogs, and a topic for the first one: the social stigma of being an adult devotee of Children’s Literature.
One might ask if there really is a stigma. After all, according to a recent survey 1, more than half of the buyers of YA books are age 18 or older, with the majority of adult buyers falling in the age 30-44 bracket. And yet, last year, the New York Times featured an opinion piece entitled “Adults Should Read Adult Books“2 in its “Room for Debate” section. Author Joel Stein, Time columnist, writes, “But Horton [Hatches the Egg] doesn’t have the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing.” He ultimately declares, “I’ll read ‘The Hunger Games’ when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.” Stein’s piece was likely meant as satire, but it echoes a common criticism, namely the notion that YA and Children’s Books may be fun to read, but they are simply not literature.
And so, before blogging about sex and politics and subversiveness in Children’s Literature, I want to address Mr. Stein and others who question the validity of Children’s Literature. I agree that some of motivation for reading any book, whether meant for adults or children, is the element of escapism and the fun of being able to inhabit someone else’s world for a moment. On a deeper level, the genre also provides a voice for characters and authors living on the fringe such as Tris in Veronica Roth’s dystopian novel Divergent, Suzanne Fisher Staples’ Shabanu, about a girl who comes of age in Pakistan, and E.R. Frank’s America, about a bi-racial boy who gets lost in the system. Their stories and voices take the reader outside mainstream culture and challenge their politics and assumptions about the world and their place in it. As Peter Hunt wrote, not even “the most apparently simple book for children can be innocent of ideological freight.”
Politics aside, Children’s Literature provides a refreshing perspective on life. It’s nice to occasionally shed our adult, overly-complicated, overwrought, overindulgent selves and reconnect, however briefly, with our childhood views, when we were optimistic and believed in people and ideas that have since faded away. Take, for instance, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, both full of wisdom and grace that cause us to question our values and ourselves. And then there are the stories like The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, which open us up and help us to make sense of our own lives. Through these books, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong… That is part of the beauty of all literature.”
I read and love Children’s Literature for all of these reasons and more. But I also read to save myself from becoming like Joel Stein and other highbrow readers who hold tightly and intractably to a set of rules and labels that dictate the books they read, and in doing so, miss out on incredible voices, stories, and journeys. How small and confined must their imaginations be! I cringe at the thought of a world without Hogwarts, Roald Dahl, Scout Finch, The Chocolate War, and hobbits. It would surely be a darker world, maybe a bit bleaker, more ordinary, less inspired. Although, I suppose it would be quieter at the DMV.
1 Survey conducted by Bowker Market Research, published September 2012.