Adults who don’t read children’s books should be ashamed, and other clickbait

Now, I am aware that this is Slate and that I am playing their game by engaging, but I recently read Ruth Graham’s 2014 article on why adults should be embarrassed when reading novels “written for children” and, it being a view aired frequently, my impulse control has failed and I am in full defence mode. The article focuses mainly on YA fiction, referring to the rise in interest for novels like The Fault in Our Stars and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and proceeds to dismiss the quality of these novels – and others like them – in the name of maturity.

Admittedly, I have always been extreme in my literary opinions (the Author is dead, people) but I would advocate complete desegregation if it wouldn’t have a negative impact on children being able to find something that appeals to them when they walk into a bookshop or library. Using categories as anything other than a tool to approach books you know you are inclined to prefer is abuse of the system. I fervently believe that there is some children’s literature that is miles ahead of some adult literature, and that adults would benefit infinitely from reading it. I’m not just talking about your Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlands and your Roald Dahls; picture books hide a multitude of meanings and virtues. Good books speak to people and, contrary to popular belief, children are people too.

I realise that this may seem simplistic. Children are necessarily limited in their range due to cognitive development. A lot of books written for children are founded in education, which can often make them frustrating to adults who are already aware of the lessons being taught (yes, ‘a’ is indeed for apple). However, many good children’s books are not didactic, they are merely presenting an aspect of human experience within the framework of what a child can understand. It is, in fact, Graham and the many others who hold her opinion, who are infantilising adults by artificially limiting their reading range. An adult should presumably be able to contain and appreciate anything ‘adult’ and below – which would include ‘children’s’. There’s a definite echo of the criticisms one constantly hears on so-called ‘chick lit’ – intelligent women read ‘intelligent’ books (which just happen to be predominantly written by and about men), and so intelligent adults read books written by and about adults. That’s just how it goes.

Am I really the only one who feels like this arbitrary distinction between literatures is pointless at best? I think there’s something of the uncanny valley in YA. No one would write an article stating that adults who read picture books should be ashamed, a) because they are probably reading to children, and b) because they are not considered competition to adult novels – and rightly so, if anything they are closer to poetry, but that is a different matter. YA can look like adult fiction, can read like adult fiction, it can even deal with similar topics as adult fiction, but there’s something about it which makes us classify it as not-adult. It is defined by negatives, it functions more on the absence of a certain level of assumed maturity than the presence of a set of qualities per se.

Graham argues that “the YA and “new adult” boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books.” Not only do I find that unlikely, considering the much wider range of novels currently available for adults, but I also wonder what the problem with it actually is. Graham reminisces about the transition from YA to adult, I also have fond memories of my first ‘adult’ novel reading, however – unlike a child – I seem to find it reasonable to assume that I am a different person to others, with potentially different tastes.

And of course there are books that have a more literary streak, and the potential to be timeless more than others (she said, carefully avoiding ‘good’ and ‘bad’) but they are not confined to a genre or age group, they just run through the entire oeuvre of the written word. If we are talking about quality, I am the first to advocate that people should at least be striving to read ‘good’ books. Books that say something, that linger, that you get the immediate urge to recommend, those are the kinds of books people should be reading as much as they can. My argument is that books like that can be found in those “written for children.” They can be found in the dreaded YA category just as much as they can be found amongst the ‘Literary Fiction’ shelf.

So before this turns into any more of a rant than it already has been, I would like to end by reiterating that children’s books can be brilliant works of literature, and by adding my sincere hope that adults are reading children’s literature and YA if it appeals to them. There shouldn’t be an ounce of shame in reading a good book, and proclaiming that a book is inadequate or unworthy simply because of the intended audience is short-sighted at the very least. Graham and I will have to agree to disagree on the inherent quality of different books, and I think I’ll just leave shame behind.

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