Crossover Readers: When Adults Read Children's Literature

Before I begin this article, let me state that all the regular contributors and writers at The Book Wars are either children’s literature specialists or are working towards becoming children’s literature specialists. In other words, we either have our Masters degrees in children’s literature or are working towards getting one. I don’t know why that should matter but just in case it does, don’t say I didn’t say so at the very beginning.

I have never personally had the experience but friends tell me that when they tell people they are aficionados of children’s literature, they are suddenly subject to a lot of judging. In fact, some of them have to go so far as to defend their adulthood because somehow, reading children’s literature as an adult is suspect.

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In the following post, I will talk about the stigma attached to reading children’s literature, especially YA genre, and the ways in which the increasing numbers of adults reading children’s literature could be affecting the literature.

After the Harry Potter series broke several boundaries where recreational reading is concerned in its appeal to both adults and children, along came The Twilight Saga which further broke boundaries as it spread like wildfire among teenage girls and adult women. The next series to have as much success was The Hunger Games, another series that was targeted primarily at adolescents but appealed to everyone and its success cemented the popularity that children’s literature is currently enjoying.

With the success of children’s literature, particularly the YA genre, came the naysayers who wrote long and probably well intentioned articles about the dangers of adults reading YA literature; they talked about the lack of substance in the genre and warned against the negative effects prolonged exposure to the genre would have. I’m not just saying that – there are articles out there that I won’t research for you because I don’t have the time but they’re there if you’ll do a Google search. Soon, there was a stigma attached to the notion of reading children’s literature as adults. Not that this has really stopped anyone. Because hey,

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All right, fine, not really. People just become more covert about what they are reading. An interesting video has an adult reader talking about being embarrassed to admit she is reading YA, another adult reader defending her love for  YA, Margo Rabb and Justine Larbalestier, two YA authors, talk about their experiences with snobbery from people who don’t consider YA literature to be literature in the proper sense of the word. There have been countless testimonials about adults who felt super creepy being in the children’s section in bookstores but perhaps most revealing of the prevalent attitude towards YA literature is the tantrum Isaac Marion threw after he found out his novel had been placed in the YA section in many Barnes and Noble stores.

Some of the l things he said included:

I don’t know who started the idea that it’s a YA book but it drives me crazy. There’s one character in the entire story who’s younger than 20 (Julie, 19) the writing is not simplified for a young reading level at all, containing lots of big ol’ fancy words like “loquacious” and “sepulchral”, and there’s nothing teen-specific about its themes. Not to mention the copious amounts of “adult content”. I would love to know what about all that screams “YOUNG READERS” to book stores…” 

The only purpose I can see for the YA label is to insult authors who thought they wrote a book for grownups. (source)

The primary assumption here is that YA books do not have substance, are not complex and are not written with the mastery of prose characteristic to “literature.” There is nothing new about the stigma attached to reading YA; history will reveal countless times popular hobbies, books, whatever have been reviled as not being cerebrally challenging enough. Literary fiction is not accessible to everyone, in fact, sometimes I feel that certain literary fiction is exclusionary because to comprehend it and get any measure of enjoyment from it, you need to speak the same language the author is speaking and by language, I mean one cohered by education and social position.

YA fiction and in fact, popular fiction, do not make the same demands on their readers. They simply offer escape or a chance to be someone else for a day or hour or however long it takes to read the book. Popular fiction, especially YA fiction, is easy to read and understand, widely available and fun. Children’s literature, not just YA, is brimming with hope that I feel adult literature does not have. There is a certain absence of cynicism that proliferates most adult fiction I read.

This is not to imply that YA genre is flawless or is not lacking critical awareness both among its readers and writers. But that is a topic for another day.

No matter how many judgemental people write op-eds or articles, adults are reading YA novels. They are consuming books in admirable quantities as a search of “book hauls” on YouTube will prove. As the target audiences of YA novels change, how does the genre change to accommodate these new readers? What themes and plot tropes are given more importance in order to retain appeal to these adult readers? What is the difference in the way a YA reader reads a YA novel compared to an adult reader? Is the age of the protagonists the only way to define the YA genre?

Honestly, I have no answers to any of the questions but I reckon if someone were to do a study, the results would be fascinating. Perhaps people are being asked to grow up too quickly these days and we are all holding on to our childhoods through children’s literature. Or, as is most likely, children’s literature is good literature and those who know how to, appreciate its awesomeness.

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