As we head into another school year, many parents may be returning to nightly rituals of reading with their children. In this month’s column I am going to attempt to make a case for adults to read more children’s books, whether they are reading them with children or not. Don’t deny yourself the pleasure of enjoying the wealth of amazing stories to be found in the world of KidLit.
There is so much to say about this topic as the body of work continues to grow, and I have only scratched the surface of the KidLit world. In my preparations for writing this column, I scoured the literature available for any information I could find about why you should read children’s books as an adult. There are many different arguments for it and all of them are valid. Whatever the reason, I hope that you are able to find a new world of literature opened up to you through the magic of children’s books.
The term KidLit is a general term referring to children’s literature or books for young readers, any book with a target audience under the age of 18 or so. It has gained a more prominent usage and positive connotation in the past decade thanks to bloggers, authors, teachers, librarians and parents who recognize the value and sheer joy of reading a children’s book at any age. Social media popularized the term; it is succinct, catchy and easy to tweet, rolls off the tongue nicely and makes for a great hashtag.
Even in the last two decades in the literary community, the term had often been said with a hint of derision, and professors and academics judged it as a less literary art form than their adult fiction counterparts. Even now, the word “juvenile” in general can carry a negative connotation at times.
We live in an age of an abundance of excellent children’s literature. The surge of adults reading books for young readers seemed to explode about 20 years ago with the advent of the Harry Potter books. It continued with series’ such as Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent and many more began to emerge. Movies from these works that blurred the line between juvenile, teen and adult followed soon after and many adults began to see these books as legitimate reading material. The enormous popularity of these books showed that you don’t have to be a child or a parent to enjoy these stories.
The world of children’s literature may be a bit confusing now to those of us who didn’t grow up during a time when there were so many distinctions between sections in the children’s area of a bookstore or library. Nowadays, the materials are now divided up into many different areas: Juvenile fiction, Early Readers, Series, Nonfiction, Graphic Novels, and Board Books. Even within the Juvenile Fiction section, there are unofficial designations such as beginning chapter books and middle grade novels.
Then there are even further subcategories for teens: Young Adult Fiction, Nonfiction and Graphic Novels. When I was young, these divisions were beginning to emerge but were nowhere near as full as they are now. The Young Adult section was maybe one row of short shelves of titles that often crossed over with many novels that were also cataloged in the Adult Fiction section. Titles that are regularly on high school required reading lists such as Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, Animal Farm, Catcher in the Rye. Only a few titles such as The Outsiders had been officially dubbed “Young Adult.”
As the distinctions increased, books were marketed increasingly to specific age brackets. Some of this may have been a response to teachers’, parents’ and librarians’ need to find books that fit a child’s individual reading level, and perhaps partly to satisfy the book-selling industry’s desire to market materials to very specific demographics. I can only speculate the motivations behind this movement to compartmentalize literature so specifically, but one effect is that it made it seem less acceptable for adults to read children’s books.
One of the reasons there are so many distinctions within the body of children’s literature is that children make several developmental leaps in a short amount of time. There are many different systems used to determine the level of the material and what level the individual is at, which can sometimes be helpful in matching materials to the reader. The frustrating thing is that there are so many systems it can be overwhelming and confusing.
There’s the Fountas-Pinnell Guided Reading Levels, Developmental Reading Assessment (often referred to as DRA), Lexile Framework for Reading, Grade Level Equivalent, Accelerated Reader, and ATOS just to name a few. These can get overwhelming, but essentially, they are different ways of assessing a material’s reading level by measuring things like word repetitions, sentence length and complexity, word length, word difficulty level and even number of illustrations.
Some of them evaluate the child’s reading proficiency as well by measuring reading behaviors and types of errors, accuracy, fluency and comprehension. Knowing what level the child is at can be helpful to find materials that won’t be so difficult that they will frustrate them, but challenging enough so they don’t get bored.
That being said, a hugely important factor for finding materials that children will enjoy is allowing them to choose them themselves. When selecting their own materials they may take more risks and read more widely than with books that are selected for them. A wider variety of reading material means they will be exposed to a richer vocabulary.
Reading books they select themselves will also increase the chances they will read more, as self-selection is a big factor in motivating behaviors and makes them feel more trusted and empowered. They are also more likely to develop a positive association with reading.
There are so many reasons to continue reading children’s books as an adult. Since they are written to be appropriate for children, they may have simpler plots or less complex reading levels so can sometimes be easier to read. However, this doesn’t mean that they are always going to be less challenging. They are not always just cute, light, or fluffy. In fact, they are often quite the opposite. Titles such as Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller and Black Beauty don’t sugarcoat some very tough realities of life.
Books are a way that kids can make sense of the world around them, and likewise these stories can help adults process what is going on too. Who of us hasn’t dealt with issues like bullying, grief or loneliness at some point in our lives? These issues are not exclusive to one stage of our development. Children are human beings and thus the issues they deal with are human issues.
Children’s books do not necessarily stray away from tough topics, but may just deal with them in a different or more creative way. Think of the delicacy with which E.B. White treats the subject of death and dying in the tender story of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider in the classic Charlotte’s Web.
As with any art form, children’s literature reflects our daily lives and opens us up to new ideas. It is emblematic of the entire spectrum of human emotion, from the depths and bitterness of sorrow to the ecstasy of pure joy. People of all ages need books that mirror our own experiences as well as books that are windows into the experiences of others.
It can be very therapeutic as an adult to re-read books you read as a kid. It can be like peering through a portal into your childhood mind. Our perceptions of events can change, we may understand more subtle nuances in the text, catch on to references we didn’t know the context of, or humor we may not have noticed as a child.
Finally, they can simply be a lot of fun to read or give us some comfort. They can be funny, imaginative, magical and evocative of a time in our lives when things felt more wondrous. The dulcet tones of the forest and river creatures in Wind in the Willows or the meditative observations of a silly bear and his piglet friend in the Winnie the Pooh stories remind us of the simple pleasures of life beyond our stresses and worries.
Characters often communicate in a more straightforward manner than the complex and sometimes confusing conversations we must deal with in the adult world. During stressful times, sometimes one just wants something sweet, inspirational and heartwarming to make us feel better. Like melting into a comforting hug from a loving parent or snuggling up in the silky security of our favorite childhood blanket.
For further reading, I would recommend checking out this fantastic book on the subject — Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy.
I’ve put together a list of titles recommended by other librarians and staff, as always the links will take you to the catalog you can use to put any of them on hold using your library card. Then set them for pickup at one of our branches or sign up to have materials delivered to your home! If you don’t have a library card yet, you can sign up for one online or visit one of our branches to apply.
(Julia Engel is a reference librarian at Philomath Community Library. She can be reached via email at Julia.Engel@corvallisoregon.gov or by phone at 541-929-3016.)