As the country, along with the rest of the world, settles into the possible new normal of social distancing and working from home many are beginning to plan out long lists of exciting potential reads to keep them occupied. These may be well loved classics or unknown literary adventures but the likelihood is that they will be books designed for adults. However, as Dr Mary-Louise Maynes, Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Bishop Grosseteste University (BGU) and one of the academics on the new MA in Children’s Literature and Literacies, explains adults shouldn’t be ashamed to include some children’s books in their choices too.

On reading children’s books (as an adult)

Browsing the adult fiction shelves of Waterstones recently I noticed that the Harry Potter books have yet another new cover without any sign of the boy wizard. This is presumably so that you can read the books on the train without looking silly: without looking as if you are reading a children’s book. Adults read children’s books, but still, it seems, reading them makes many of us rather uncomfortable. As we launch our MA in Children’s Literature and Literacies here at Bishop Grosseteste University, I want to explain why I read children’s books and why I think more adults should too, and not apologise for doing so.

They are good ‘reads’…

Children’s authors know that children are exacting critics. Junior-aged children in particular (generally) enjoy books which are plot-driven, gripping and engaging from the start, well-paced, and which use cliff-hangers at the end of chapters to make you want to read on. If you want to lose yourself in a thrilling story or a page-turning adventure look no further than a good children’s book such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Selznick, 2007) or The Explorer (Rundell, 2018). In literary terms to describe a text as plot-driven often implies a lack of depth and quality, a criticism often levelled, unfairly, at children’s literature as a whole. Many children’s books present examples of beautiful and lyrical writing where there is much to explore below the surface and which invite re-reading. Take for example the slow, ‘outsider’ reflections of the Fox in Pennypacker and Klassen’s Pax (2017) or the haunting, puzzling and disturbing words and images in Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree (2010).

They have pictures….

Children’s picture books, non-fiction and poetry will introduce you to the work of some of the most innovative and diverse artists and the images are every bit as important as the words. Children’s illustrators have distinct visual styles and employ a range of artistic techniques: contrast for example Beth Waters’ striking monoprints in A Child of St Kilda (2019) or Mark Hearld’s cut-out collages for Nicola Davies’ A First Book of Nature (2014). Images are not confined to bold colours and simple lines: Emily Sutton’s illustrations have a ‘retro’ feel harking back to the work of Edward Ardizzone and they are not at all twee or cosy: in contrast the images in Greder’s The Island (2008) are dark, gothic and threatening.

They explain things….

Children’s books today cover almost all topics including some previously taboo ones (for example Poo, a Natural History of the Unmentionable, Davies, 2014) and present them in ways which are digestible and engaging starting-points for further investigation. The Theory of Relativity is beautifully introduced in Bearne and Radunsky’s On a Beam of light (2016) and astrophysics is presented very simply in Astrophysics for Babies (Ferris, 2018). What we learn from children’s books can often stick with us throughout life: in Everything I need to know I learned from a children’s book (2008) Anita Silvey interviews 100 ‘notable’ individuals who explain how children’s books influenced their thinking and later careers. Yet in contemporary children’s literature the ways in which information is imparted are rarely moralistic or heavy-handed, with enjoyment and engagement being primary motivators for reading so that the reader does not feel ‘talked at’ or instructed.

They reawaken memories

Re-reading Alison Uttley’s wonderful A Traveller in Time (1939) recently, I was suddenly transported back to a mental image of the protagonist Penelope wearing a nightdress I wore as a child. I must have dressed her in the nightdress in my imagination and for a tiny moment I felt a connection with the person I was when I first read the book aged eight years old. Such connections are powerful if illusory: as Peter Hunt (1997) said as adults we can never really read as we did as a child. Re-reading reminds us of the difference of childhood and the ways in which our understanding of childhood changes as we grow older. Reading children’s books as adults we cannot help but be aware of the ways in which childhood is ‘socially constructed’. They offer insight about ourselves and our society since they are (usually) written by adults with adult perceptions of what childhood and children should be, and what children should be allowed to read or forbidden from reading.

If, like me, you love reading children’s books, why not consider joining our MA Children’s Literature and Literacies, launching September 2020? Discover books that intrigue and move you: yes there are plenty of bunnies getting ready for bed, and wimpy kids writing diaries, but equally there are books which address the key issues of our time and which challenge and upset expectations, books which explore the range of human experience and which take us into worlds beyond our own.

Dr Mary-Louise Maynes researches children’s non-fiction literature and will be teaching on the MA Children’s Literature and Literacies. She is a member of the Literature and Literacies RKEU. For more information please visit our children's literature courses pages.

24th March 2020