The name of the genre might be deceiving, but the truth is, kid lit isn’t just for kids.
There are those who disagree (Ruth Graham outraged half the Internet in 2014 when she said adults should be embarrassed to read YA fiction). But the reality is, literature aimed toward children is still literature. Worthwhile literature.
The only difference is that kid lit includes an expanded audience. (You guessed it: Kids.)
Last night while doing dishes, I listened to another free online lecture from David Beagley, a university lecturer in children’s literature and literacy. (I typically despise doing dishes; I’ve found the task much more bearable when listening and learning.) During the talk, Beagley emphasizes the fact children’s literature may have a simpler vocabulary, but the ideas and emotions still resonate across all age groups.
This week I’ve been reading “The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” which on the surface seems like it’s as far from adult reading as one can get. But the reviews on the back cover dispute that idea:
- “Among the few indispensable, common-property books upon which Western culture can be founded. … It will be a mistake if this volume is merely bought for a child; it should be, first and foremost, an educational ‘must’ for adults.” — W.H. Auden, The New York Times
- “Everyone should possess and know Grimm’s Fairy Tales — one of the great books of the world.” — Richard Adams, The New York Times Book Review
Those words are high praise and urge adults to read stories that traditionally are set aside as children’s reading fodder.
Kid lit may not be as challenging for an adult reader, but it still has plenty to offer. Middle grade and YA novels especially are breeding grounds for discussion. Show me a reader who despises the idea of adults reading kid lit, and I’ll say, “This is a reader who doesn’t understand children’s literature.”
Many adults underestimate the child as a reader. Children are capable of grasping complex ideas and emotions. They are capable of relating to those ideas. Kid lit is full of universal themes that are relevant to readers of all ages. The only difference is, the entry level of the vocabulary and plot is open to younger age groups. You won’t find PG-13 or R material in the story, but you likely won’t find trivialized fluff, either.
Most kid lit offers two levels of reading experience: the experience for the child, and the experience for the parent. Beagley touched on this in his lecture as well. He drew a comparison to the movie “Shrek.” By and large, the animated feature is considered a children’s movie. But adults love it, too. There are two levels of humor in it, some of it aimed at adults and other bits aimed at children. The two age groups laugh at different jokes in “Shrek,” but both groups enjoy the film.
In an interview in the February 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest, Drew Daywalt (author of “The Day the Crayons Quit”) addresses how his book is enjoyed by both parents and children. He says:
We delineate between childhood and adulthood too much. If you entertain yourself [as a writer] and you’re honest about it, and it’s appropriate humor for a child. … So I guess I write for adults and I write for kids, but only incidentally, because I’m writing for myself.
I can relate, as both a reader and a writer. About half of my readers are adults for the Sarah & Katy books. I didn’t intentionally write for adults — my first goal was to write a story Sarah and Katy would enjoy; my second goal was to tell a story I would enjoy writing. (Two of my favorite characters to write were Ruddy and the Glomtom — incidentally, those are most readers’ favorite characters as well.)
As a reader of kid lit, I’m reminded of the Sandra Cisneros story “Eleven.” (I highly recommend it — you can read it here or here.) In the story, the protagonist observes on her eleventh birthday that she is eleven, but she’s also ten, and nine, and eight, and every age she’s ever been. All those years and ages and the memories/feelings/reactions associated with them are still locked up inside her.
Reading kid lit feeds those ages inside me. When I read Gary Paulsen or Lois Lowry or Richard Peck, my inner preteen steps forward. When I read Donna Tartt or Stacy Schiff, I read as an adult.
Books targeted to any age group can resonate with a reader when they’ve been those age groups. It’s hard for young readers to move ahead of their vocabulary or life experience level, but adult readers are more than capable of sliding back and forth among multiple levels of literature.
And they should. Because there are so many gems among kid lit.