Bia Mead on why we are never too old to read children’s books, even if they don’t have an adult cover.

Now let me first admit that I am hideously biased on this subject. A love for books and an unhealthily strong desire to be Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, led me to find a Saturday job in a children’s independent bookshop when I was fifteen. Seven years later, and having finally realized that Meg Ryan is incredibly irritating, I’m still working in the same shop and will carry on after I finish here, whilst trying to get into children’s publishing. However, what working in a children’s bookshop has really given me is an appreciation, actually an obsession, with children’s books.

Two years ago I gave my flatmate a copy of my favourite children’s book, I Capture the Castle, after she found out how many times I had read it (somewhere over twenty but under thirty). She couldn’t understand why I would go back to a children’s book over and over again. While she conceded that there were certain children’s books that have remained favourites of hers to this day, she felt that they were quaint and simple, things that conjure up nostalgia, but ultimately somewhat irrelevant to a university student. Unsurprisingly, the book still sits unread and unloved on her bookshelf. By the way, it would be loved – if you’ve read it you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you should.

My parents, voracious readers themselves, are of the same mind-set: there are enough books aimed at adults to read, why would they want to bother with one aimed at a fourteen year old? Less still a picture book aimed at a four year old? Here lies the problem: people seem to think that children’s books have nothing to give them, that they cannot relate to them in the same way as they would with an adult novel, or that they are just too simple and uninteresting – full of twee storylines and bland writing. More than that there’s just the assumption that if you’re past childhood, you’re past children’s books.

No! Forget The Famous Five, Nancy Drew and whatever those twins got up to at jolly old St Clare’s. What my dear flatmate, parents and others fail to realise is that children’s books have diversified hugely and grown-ups need to give them a chance. It baffles me how many adults are self-confessed Harry Potter obsessives, or how many maintain that they fell in love with the fictional Edward Cullen before Robert Pattinson started shimmering weirdly, and yet they refuse to give other children’s books a second glance. In actual fact you probably have without realising it. Have you read The Boy in Striped Pyjamas (or watched the film)? Did you love The Book Thief? Do you remember thinking The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was incredible? If yes, then you’ve read children’s books, and enjoyed them as relatable to your life as an adult. In fact The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is considered one of the most popular ‘crossover’ novels – a children’s book, or ‘young adult’ novel, which appealed to and was read by adults as well as kids. In fact it was so popular with adults that, like Harry Potter, the publishers gave it a special grown-up cover. These days the adult edition is published by Vintage Classics alongside Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway not to mention Alice in Wonderland and I Capture the Castle.

So, why read children’s books or young adult novels? For the same reasons as you’d read a novel aimed at adults: great writing, fantastic characters and relatable themes. Yet, with children’s books, there’s something more going on. It’s no wonder that they’re continually adapted for the silver screen and watched by both adults and children alike, just look at War Horse and Hugo. There’s the sense that the authors, knowing their target audience, go even further to draw the readers in. Children’s attention spans require that the books they read be fast-paced, led by the narrative and characters rather than dwelling on poncy descriptions of a rock that carries some kind of symbolic status. Children’s imaginations allow the authors to exercise their own to the full extent not only in terms of plot but also characters and their use of language. I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore, which was turned into a distinctly average film, is a brilliantly modern fantasy series. Ditto the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, which has won numerous awards. Don’t fret though if gritty realism is your thing; there are a myriad of young adult novels that ground themselves in reality, a lot of the time brilliantly and alarmingly so. Trash by Andy Mulligan concerns Raphael, a street child in an anonymous developing country who becomes involved in political corruption and was universally praised for it un-patronising, realistic depiction of poverty. No surprise that the film rights for this have been picked up too. More than anything children’s books lack the pretention you find in some adult novels: they are pure escapism.

Picture books as well have morphed into something altogether incredible. Gone are the days of ugly cartoon illustrations with boring accompanying text about Dennis the Dinosaur or such like. Now many picture books work on two levels, one that entertains the children, and another that the adults can relate to. Often this more subtle level is hilariously funny. On the other side of things there are those picture books that tackle huge issues, (think depression, death, time…) The beautifully illustrated How to Live Forever by Colin Thompson and Death, Duck and the Tulip by Wolf Elrburch, genuinely made me realize that death’s inevitability is nothing to be frightened of. Illustration is, in a lot of cases, the driving force behind picture books and no one does this as amazingly as Shaun Tan. If I didn’t think it was a sin to rip up books I would have wallpapered my whole house with his illustrations. The Arrival, his 128 page opus, depicts a man’s move to a foreign country without using a single word.

Ultimately once you realise that you’re never too old to read any book, you’ll be opened up to a whole new world of books that provide the escapism everyone seeks when they turn that first page.


Some Suggestions:

Annexed by Sharon Dogar – the re-telling of Anne Frank’s story from the side of Peter van Pels, the boy that lived in the annex with her. It generated a lot of press interest because it apparently ‘sexed up’ Anne Frank’s story. It doesn’t, but it is a brilliant read.

Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick – a sort-of biography of Arthur Ransome, author of the Swallows and Amazons series. He was also a journalist in Russia during the time of the Russian Revolution who ran off with Trotsky’s secretary – this book deals with that side of his story. Also check out Revolver by the same author, a psychological minefield about a boy sitting in an ice shack with his father’s dead body and a revolver. Dark stuff, but gripping.

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson – one for the girls. Potentially a better love story than The Notebook and so beautifully written.


Bia Mead

Image Credit – Lorena