We all have a favourite children’s book that got us into reading at an early age – and, as adult writers, writing for children is spectacular fun and deeply rewarding. That being said, the importance of children’s literature isn’t always fully appreciated by adult readers. While stories are a great way of encouraging children to develop reading skills, children’s literature is also a beautiful gateway for adults to reaccess their child’s imagination.
And that’s what bestselling children’s book writer Katherine Rundell shows in this blog post: children’s books are not exclusively the domain of young readers. In fact, many adults – and especially many writers – gain a great deal from reading children’s literature. Not only are these books filled with adventurous tales and memorable characters, they also employ storytelling techniques that all aspiring writers can learn from.
In short, Katherine believes we should not let children’s literature fall to the wayside when we graduate from our primary school curriculum.
In this article, Katherine explores the joys of writing for children, and the importance of children’s literature for grown ups and young readers alike.
Are you working on picture books or writing middle grade fiction? Or maybe you have a young adult audience in mind? Perhaps you’re interested in drawing on fairy tales in your writing for adults, or you’re studying children’s literature from a more academic standpoint. Whatever the case, read on to discover its magic with a published author.
Children’s literature is not always taken seriously
Children’s books have a long and noble history of being dismissed. To some, they have no place outside a child’s life, and are at best a tool for language development.
Martin Amis once said in an interview:
People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book. I say, “If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book.”
— Martin Amis
There is a particular smile that some people give when I tell them what I do – roughly the same smile I’d expect had I told them I spend my time knitting outfits for the elves out of cat hair.
Particularly in the UK, even when we praise, we praise with faint damns: a quotation from The Guardian on the back of Alan Garner’s memoir Where Shall We Run To read:
He has never been just a children’s writer: he’s far richer, odder and deeper than that.
— The Guardian
So that’s what children’s literature is not: rich or odd or deep.
Children’s books aren’t only for young readers
I’ve been writing children’s books for more than ten years now, and still I would hesitate to define it.
But I do know, with more certainty than I usually feel about anything, what a children’s book is not: it’s not exclusively for children. Of course, children read my books. But when I write, I’m not simply writing for children. I’m writing for two people: myself, age twelve; and myself, now. The book might be defined as middle grade fiction, but it has to satisfy two distinct but connected appetites.
My twelve-year-old self wanted autonomy, peril, justice, food, and above all a kind of density of atmosphere into which I could step and be engulfed.
My adult self wants all those things, and also: acknowledgements of fear, love, failure, of the rat that lives within the human heart.
I do know, with more certainty than I usually feel about anything, what a children’s book is not: it’s not exclusively for children.
So what I try for when I write – failing often, but trying – is to put down in as few words as I can the things that I most urgently and desperately want children to know and adults to remember.
Those who are writing children’s literature are trying to arm children from an early age for the life ahead, with everything we can find that is true. And perhaps also, secretly, to arm adults against those necessary compromises and necessary heartbreaks that life involves. To remind them that there are and always will be great, sustaining truths to which we can return. And to help them recapture the child’s imagination that made life so colourful and hope so reachable.
Children’s literature needn’t be abandoned after children learn to read
There is, though, a sense among most adults that we should only read in one direction, because to do otherwise would be to regress or retreat: to de-mature.
Those who are writing children’s literature are trying to arm children from an early age for the life ahead, with everything we can find that is true. And perhaps also, secretly, to arm adults against those necessary compromises and necessary heartbreaks that life involves.
The books they read are seen as a marker of the child’s development, with the types of children’s books they’re given acting as neat symbols of their developmental stages. In early childhood, as they’re learning to form words, they begin with picture books. Through the language development that the child demonstrates, they’re moved onto chapter books.
The progression is a great way to motivate children, who then find middle grade fiction and start delighting in the climbing word count. Soon reading skills are not the biggest determiner of the books we read, and young people become much more interested in the stories themselves and what they reveal about the modern world they’re being thrust into.
As their cognitive development and emotional growth ramp up with their entrance into puberty, they graduate to the realm of young adult fiction which so aptly captures their confusion and crises.
In my experience, it went something like this. You pass Spot the Dog, battle past that bicephalic monster Peter-and-Jane; through Narnia, on to Catcher in the Rye or Patrick Ness, and from there to adult fiction, where you remain, triumphant, never glancing back, because to glance back would be to lose ground.
But the human heart is not a linear train ride. That isn’t how people actually read; at least, it’s not how I’ve ever read.
I learned to read fairly late, with much strain and agonising until, at last and quite suddenly, the hieroglyphs took shape and meaning. With my language skills in fast development, I read with the same omnivorous unscrupulousness I showed at mealtimes.
Books aren’t defined by their target age group
When we’re considering what should be deemed classic stories, we don’t tend to place stringent boundaries according to their target age group. I read Matilda alongside Jane Austen, Narnia and Agatha Christie. I still read Paddington when I need to believe, as Michael Bond does, that the world’s miracles are more powerful than its chaos.
For reading not to become something that we do for anxious self-optimisation – for it not to be akin to buying high-spec trainers and a gym membership each January – all texts must be open, to all people. Reading or studying children’s literature – or indeed fairy tales – is a wonderful way for adults to explore the questions or struggles or hopes they’re grappling with.
We can enjoy stories we know well in new ways, and see previously unnoticed depths in them, embracing the vitalising spirit of lifelong learning.
The difficulties with the rule of readerly progression as children learn and develop more complex reading skills are many. One is that, if one followed the same pattern that we apply to early readers into adulthood, turning always to books of obvious increasing complexity, you’d be left ultimately with nothing but Finnegans Wake and the complete works of the French deconstructionist theorist Jacques Derrida to cheer your deathbed. Doesn’t a children’s book sound much more fun?
The other difficulty with the rule is that it supposes that children’s fiction can safely be discarded when our reading abilities surpass its linguistic difficulty. I would say we do so at our peril, for we discard in adulthood a casket of wonders which, read with an adult eye, have a different kind of alchemy in them.
We can enjoy stories we know well in new ways, and see previously unnoticed depths in them, embracing the vitalising spirit of lifelong learning. For example, as you pick up a picture book to read to your children, you might suddenly appreciate the complex moral principles or observations on the human condition that underpin many classic stories (and I’m not just talking about Aesop’s fables).
The magic of reading a children’s book
Children’s fiction, from picture books to middle grade books to young adult novels, offers to help us re-find things we may not even know we have lost.
Adult life is full of forgetting. I have forgotten most of the people I have ever met. I’ve forgotten most of the books I’ve read, even the ones that changed me forever. I’ve forgotten most of my epiphanies. And I’ve forgotten, at various times in my life, how to read: how to lay aside scepticism and fashion and trust myself to a book.
At the risk of sounding like a mad optimist: children’s fiction can re-teach all human beings how to read with an open heart.
When you read children’s books, you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra.
But imagination is not and never has been optional: it is at the heart of everything, the thing that allows us to experience the world from the perspectives of others: the condition precedent of love itself.
Many writers have asserted the importance of imagination
It was Edmund Burke who first used the term ‘moral imagination’: the ability of ethical perception to step beyond the limits of the fleeting events of each moment and beyond the limits of private experience.
For that, we need books that are specifically written to feed the imagination, which give the heart and mind a galvanizing kick: children’s books. Children’s books can teach us not just what we have forgotten but what we have forgotten we have forgotten.
Aristotle would agree (probably). In 350 B.C. he defended the importance of phantasia; he argued that to lead a truly good life it was necessary to be able to wield fictions – to imagine what might be or should be or even could never be.
Plato, who mistrusted poets and would have mistrusted children’s novelists even more, would like nothing about this essay. But defy Plato, and defy all those who would tell you to be serious, to calculate the profit of your imagination; those who would limit joy in the name of propriety. Cut shame off at the knees. Ignore those who would call it mindless escapism: it’s not escapism: it is findism.
- If you enjoyed this, you can read more here with Katherine’s brilliant book: Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, published by Bloomsbury.
- Members of The Novelry can also enjoy a writing class with Katherine in the Catch Up TV Membership Area.
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- Our Children’s Writing Course at The Novelry was voted no.1 worldwide by Intelligent. Find out more about writing your children's novel with The Novelry here.