Another Take on Why Adults Read Children's Books
Over the weekend several children's literature weblogs mentioned William Flesch's article The Way We Were: Why Are Adult Readers So Drawn to Children's Literature at boston.com. Thank you very much, folks, because adult readers of kidlit just happens to be a subject that interests me.
A recent issue of The Horn Book included an article on the BBC program in which a number of British writers worried that their civilization was falling because adults were reading children's books. They blamed the schools, of course, claiming the poor state of education leaves British citizens ill-equipped to read anything but children's literature.
Flesch has a more thoughtful and thought-provoking theory. In his article, a commentary on The Norton Anthology of Children's Literature, which has just been published, he suggests that nostalgia and melancholy lead adults to children's books. "All great children's literature reminds adults of the ephemerality of childhood," he writes, and "in reading children's literature we suspend disbelief, on the child's behalf, in the permance of the world. But we know that this suspension is itself impermanent."
I don't know that I totally agree with Flesch, mainly because I don't think children's literature should be written "by and for (emphasis mine) adults thinking hard about their own lost childhoods even as they interact with real childen." Instead, I think that children's literature should be written for children and reflect what is going on in their lives to the extent that the adult writer understands it.
However, I do recognize that Flesch can come up with titles to support his claim. In Anne of Green Gables the lively and charming child Anne grows up to become a conforming young woman. Peter Pan and the much more recent The Polar Express are pretty clear that children lose something by growing up. And every teenage coming-of-age novel ever written focuses on the loss of innocence as a young person enters the adult world by coming to terms with a fact of life--usually sex or death or sex and death. Childhood in these books is definitely ephemeral. It's also superior to adulthood.
Though Flesch may be correct that many adults like to read a type of children's literature that takes them back to a time before they knew that life sucks and then you die, it's a type of children's literature that romanticizes childhood. Those adults are looking for something quite different from kids' books than I think kids look for. I think kids are looking for themselves as they are now. They aren't looking backward. I also think kids' books should be about kids. When Flesch says "What can make children's literature great is that it makes us think more consciously about what it was once like to respond as a child to literature, and what it must be like now for the child-reader implied by the book," I can't help but feel that child-readers should have a much bigger say in determining the greatness of their literature than the us referred to in that statement.
But Flesch treats his subject with respect, and while I have my doubts about some of what he has to say, I appreciate the way he says it. Why didn't the BBC invite some like him to be part of its panel last year?