About nine months ago, long before Lyn Shepherd bashed J.K. Rowling or Ruth Graham issued her condemnation of adults reading YA books, or the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter blasted fundraising milestones, I wrote a post where I advised writers:
“…don’t dismiss children’s fiction. Children’s literature is often ripe with what scares society. The 1800s started a boom in children’s books that never abated, and many of history’s leading writers have ventured into the field. Some achieved lasting success only with their children’s fiction. Most people know J. M. Barrie for his Peter Pan, but he was the foremost playwright of his generation….”
Although my earlier post was intended to discuss historical vocabulary, the sentiments are pertinent. Barrie is one in a long list of literary notables to pen kidlit during their careers. Some, like authors Upton Sinclair, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway never built much of a kid following. It turns out no one can foresee which titles will or will not achieve longevity in the public mind, not even the authors.
Barrie never intended to be known as a children’s writer by history, he simply wrote a story he loved and hoped people would agree. His judgment proved sound beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and the literary merits of Peter Pan are undisputed. C.S. Lewis, E. B. White, Frances Hodgson Burnett and A.A. Milne are all writers who find themselves in Barrie’s company, their serious and well-respected adult writings are almost forgotten today, while their children’s books thrive.
Time decides what resonates with readers. It shows us which author’s voices will rise up and endure. People return to some books regardless of the age of the intended audience, because those books call to the deep inner workings of the human spirit . Since the rise of children’s books, these authors have inspired readers, not for a year or two, but for generation after generation. The idea that an adult book is better qualified to achieve a place in history or is somehow more worthy of study is nonsense and unsupported by the data. A critical study of the works of Johnathon Swift, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling or Robert Louis Stevenson would provide enough political insight, grave social commentary, and entertainment, to last the lifetime of any reader. Many titles held in high regard by the knowledgeable dictators of taste during these authors’ lifetimes are long gone, while these kid friendly works have achieved lasting success.
It’s sad that some people believe they need to dictate which reader experiences are worthy of adults.
“The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” The New York Times by Joel Stein
“…if we must read about imaginary kingdoms, give me James Branch Cabell’s Poictesme. He at least writes for grown-up people, and he does not present the drama of life as a showdown between Good People and Goblins.” The Nation by Edmund Wilson
If readers had listened to this once well-respected reviewer they would have missed out on The Lord of the Rings. Yet J.R.R. Tolkien is the stuff of legends while Cabell has passed into literary oblivion, remembered only by hard-core fantasy fans.
This obsession with reading like a grown up amuses me, for many of the smartest people I know are filled with childlike wonder. Great thinkers know how to live each day with the unbridled curiosity of youth; they chase dreams and have the courage to believe that supposedly impossible tasks just require a bit more work. They are the visionaries that harnessed power from seaweed and made plastics from trash. These adults think creatively with the limitless imagination which we normally attribute to children.
I can’t predict which of today’s kidlit books will be cherished fifty years from now, no one can. Certainly no reviewer can. But I guarantee some popular books will be among those works. For kidlit makes people trust that even when they feel at their smallest and most vulnerable, they are never truly alone. It brings light into a dark and serious world which gives us hope. And the power of hope makes us wise beyond our years.