Classic Books · The Reading Life

Why read children’s literature?

A Traveller in TimeChildren’s literature holds a prominent place on my reading list. Seven of the 16 books I’ve read this year are classified children’s or young adult novels. That tally will increase when I finish my current read, Alison Uttley’s charming A Traveller in Time.

I’ve been thinking about what draws me to children’s literature because of a Guardian article I read, loved, and shared widely last year that came back into my life recently through Facebook memories. It was written by SF Said and is called “Children’s books are never just for children.” I agree! Obviously.

Said notes the extraordinary staying power of children’s literature. A. A. Milne, for example, is remembered not for his plays but for his books about a stuffed bear with a passion for honey. Some 90 years after coming into the world, Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books continue to be read and cherished by readers around the world.

“One explanation,” Said offers, “may be the way in which [children’s books are] read. They become part of our emotional autobiographies, acquiring associations and memories, more like music than prose. […] Another explanation may lie in the fact that children’s books are designed with re-reading in mind. For all children’s writers are conscious that our books may be re-read by children themselves.”

Indeed! As a child, I owned three copies of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and reread them so often that all three fell apart. It was one of my most formative reads, one that cemented in my consciousness the values of loyalty, generosity, and perseverance that my parents were always going on about (ha).

In exploring the longevity, and beauty, of children’s literature, Said wonders why they aren’t as widely reviewed and put up for the big awards. It’s a fair question, and one that stands in stark contrast to the finger-wagging I often hear in American critics who attempt to shame adults for reading children’s and young adult literature (one example is here).

The latter sends me into apoplectic fits of rage, really. It’s one thing to critique a poorly written book. It’s another beast entirely to denounce an entire genre as having no relevance to an entire population.

Childhood and adolescence are not something we pass, like a kidney stone, on the way to bigger, better, more important, more weighty matters. They set foundations either that support us or that we struggle to overcome for the rest of our lives. Children’s books like Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie or Brian Selznick’s The Marvels resonate because they address fundamental human needs, for community, connection, creative expression. These needs don’t go away simply because we’ve grown up, though the needs to put food on the table and a roof over our heads may take precedence over attending, in healthy and productive ways, to our inner lives, our curiosity, our imaginations.

To recover the curious seekers we wereAs I child, I was drawn to books because I could feel a big world beyond the boundaries of my own circumscribed one, and I wanted to experience it. Through books, I could travel through time and to the other side of the world. I could, at least for a little while, feel what it would be like to experience the world from another position in space and time. When I read children’s literature now, it is, often, to revisit and recover the curious seeker that I was, to remember how it felt to be new in the world and linger there for a moment, to gain insight from that feeling and deepen my capacity for empathy through it. And sometimes, it is simply to enjoy the beauty and pleasure of a story well told.

For as C. S. Lewis famously said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

4 thoughts on “Why read children’s literature?

  1. This is so good! The great things about books is that they can be enjoyed by everyone. All ages. Yes, I read children’s books. Yes, I read YA. Personally, I prefer these genres.

    1. Thank you for commenting! So fun to see you here as well as on Instagram. 🙂 I’m with you on preferring these genres. There’s a rawness and acknowledgment of vulnerability that is so touching and unaffected.

  2. I so, so agree with you – children’s and young adult books are often amazing and valuable reading experiences! So many of my favorite books fall into this category, including “A Little Princess”, which is and probably ever will be my favorite book of all time (*does internet high five with you*)! In addition to the many wise things you said, and the quotes you shared, another one of the things I find appealing about these books is that they’re often a wonderful balance of an entertaining story, identifiable or likeable/hate-to-likeable (does that make sense?) characters, and deeper messages. I feel like adult books sometimes sacrifice at least one of these things, often deliberately, but maybe because there’s this impression that an adult audience is disciplined enough to stick with a book that might be a little heavy or “boring” in order to get something out of it.

    1. Thank you, Alysa! And yes, it totally makes sense, and I agree. There are novels that are stylistically fascinating but unreadable if you actually want a story. I also think adult novels often forget how important hope is. I can’t imagine telling a child: “The world is a bleak, hopeless place, and you have no agency, or responsibility, to make it beautiful or meaningful.” Yet I’ve read plenty of adult novels that seem to say this!

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