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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  • YA has become kind of a hip thing these days. Part of it may be that the market has become a cash-cow that’s produced a number of big hits, and as more adults begin to ‘check it out’, so to speak, those hits become that much bigger.

    Do you think that part of YA’s boom in recent years might have anything to do with the sci-fi and fantasy genres beginning to have more risque content, causing a splinter in the market? My girlfriend used to work at Barnes & Noble, and says she saw a trend that fantasy that was landing outside of the YA section tended to have a lot of explicit content, while I remember when, with a few exceptions, fantasy tended to have a more universal crossover demographic. The late 80s and early 90s boom in brick fantasy novels had a lot of bestselling titles, and all of the ones I read could’ve definitely been considered YA appropriate, but i’ve gotten the impression now that the SF/Fant. Section has decided that fantasy is serious (explicit) business, so anything without lots of game of thronesy stuff is tossled into the “kids” section.

    • That could certainly be one of the reasons for YA fiction’s popularity but I think SF/F genre also has a lot of problems with regard to its portrayal of women and romance – plus, the fact that male writers seem to be given more prominence.

      YA is a hip thing, isn’t it? I remember reading an article a year or so ago with two authors discussing how they normally wrote adult books but had decided to write YA novels because they needed a break from the tough stuff and (this they didn’t say out loud), they wanted to make a profit. As bad as some of the books in the genre are, there *are* books that makes me hesitate to generalize. I wonder if YA fiction will become a fad and lose its popularity after a while?

      • I don’t know that I would say that male writers are given more prominence… When I think of sci-fi and fantasy, the first names that spring to mind are Andre Norton, Ursula k. Leguin, Mercedes Lackey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Margaret Weis, Anne McCaffrey, and so on and so on.

        Interestingly, I think that cover-art is where the worst failings of the Sci-fi and fantasy genre took place (as is excellently illustrated by GoodShowSir), because a perfectly fine book ends up with a cover of topless women ascending pyramids of exploding sunbursts and giant eyeballs…

        Eventually, I think that YA as a ‘genre’ might fade as it becomes more prominent among all ages of readership, though the paranormal teen romance genre might work to keep it in the ‘age ghetto’. Also, as much as we say that we should not judge books by their covers, we inevitably do, and, more than anything having to do with style, subject matter or substance, YA seems to be defined by the style of covers used by publishers for marketing.

        If I had the time and resources, as an experiment, I’d like to someday do some cover mock-ups of classic works that would be YA appropriate using the vogue cover style.

        • Ahh, did you not see the covers of the reissued classics such as Pride and Prejudice? They were all done in the Twilight style to make them more enticing to teenage readers.

          • I’d seen the ‘chick-lit’ re-issue of the Belle Jar, but not the Pride and Prejudice cover.

            The ones floating in my head right now are Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow and Walpole’s Castle of Otranto.

      • Addendum: Male writers, while maybe not more prominent, are certainly given a lot of slack when it comes to writing really gross and sexist stuff into their books.

        • I really don’t know too much about it but I’ve seen Kate Elliott (who writes brilliant woman-friendly fantasy) talk about the lack of respect shown to female writers compared to male writers.

          • I’ll have to check her out as soon as I make a bit more headway in my stack. There was a library clearance sale a couple weeks ago, so my queue is backed up even further than it had been.

            • Yeah library sales are really evil. Good luck with the reading!

  • Nafizia. You are hilarious. I seriously mean hilarious. I enjoyed this article thoroughly, although I will admit I do not enjoy the YA genre. I actually stopped enjoying YA fiction at 14, right about the time that I gave up on “Chick-Lits.” I still read YA books once in a while if there is enough hype (didn’t mind the Hunger Games I really liked how political it was). But I still can’t do “Chick-Lits.”

    • I like that you continue to read YA novels but trust me on this, the best YA books escape hype, fall through the cracks and very few people talk about them. 🙂

  • IN my humble opinion, the best literature is Children’s and YA lit (and not just because I write it!). To me, I find more applicable quotes and situations in things like Winnie the Pooh and Anne of Green Gables than I do in a true crime novel. I love reading Nora Roberts, but A.A. Milne taught us that you don’t spell love, you feel it.

    As I’ve grown up, the stories have too and there is so much more depth than you ever see at the age of 5 or 8 or 12…When I was doing my student teaching in the fourth grade there was a controversy over whether or not we should allow students to read Harry Potter or The Lightening Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians). We eventually allowed it with parental permission, sent sheets home and everything, even though upper elementary was the intended audience. Every teacher in the school wound up reading Percy Jackson, every single book. We were inspired to teach lessons on science, social studies, even Math from the pages of those two series. I will probably not ever use a Stephen King book to do that.

    Thank you for this great post, but I think I should probably stop here before my rant gets even Longer…
    http://www.alaynabellesmom.wordpress.com

    • Thanks! I enjoyed reading your comment!

  • Very interesting topic for discussion. My peers and I have JUST broken the “teenage” bracket and are foraying into our twenties. Most of us feel YA is too young and adult fiction is too old. Yesterday, a friend and I coined a new genre that SHOULD be written for our emerging age bracket: “new adult fiction” (lol).

    I call myself a rather cynical person when it comes to literature and I do agree that alot of YA out there is “shallow” and lacks substance 😉 but this may just be because YA’s teenage readers aren’t at the maturity level to realize the deeper themes of books. Many, many YA books have very substantial themes, but often times they are not blatant and people pay more attention to the boy-loves-girl overtones instead.

    I think as adults, when we read YA, we read it DIFFERENTLY than teenagers. We appreciate it differently, and we’re able to glean different ideas from the text. So, no, I don’t think adults should be judged for reading YA unless it’s always solely for entertainment. Then again, I don’t think people in general should read solely for entertainment, all the time, as well (there’s TV for that).

    • Hello, hello. So let me burst your bubble a bit (sorry!) and tell you that “new adult” is a hot and happening thing already. Usually, it’s a term that just means the books will be more sexually explicit than the normal YA but they do feature college aged protagonists and there are some that actually do deal with relevant issues than new adults may face.

      I don’t think people should be judged for reading for entertainment either. At least they’re reading, eh? And keeping away from reality shows, I HATE reality shows. It would be interesting to do an experiment and have an adult and a teen read the same book and record their experiences. 🙂

      • Aww…dang it! Well, I guess I’ve been living under a rock, then. Time to check out this new genre.

  • Reblogged this on Punto de Partida and commented:
    Muy bueno tu post, lo comparto

  • This is a great article. Not only do I think its okay for adults to read YA, I think its great as an adult to go back and read a few kids’ classics that I missed when I was the “appropriate” age. At that time, I was more interested in reading adult books because it was cool and grown up. Now, I feel a little behind and unhip if I haven’t at least sampled the latest YA novel.

    • Thanks! I think it’s okay to read whatever genre you want regardless of the age group etc. you belong to.

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  • I really like your blog, in particular this post (:
    I like the idea of read child’s books and i’m still loving my first book of my childhood as the first day.
    I wonder if i can re post this in my blog with your corresponding credit (but in spanish). Can i translate your post and share it to my followers?

    • Sure! That would be awesome. Thank you!

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  • Hi there, I’m new to this whole blogging thing (this is actually my first ever WordPress comment), but your article concerns an issue I have thought about a lot. I appreciate your open-minded approach to the business of categorizing literature by age group. As someone who has had children’s books published (mainly in Turkish), I know that the industry has something of a fetish about assigning age ranges. Understandably they want the appropriate readership to find their books as quickly as possible, but the result is often that the whole process is dictated to by a marketing mentality.

    I have a feeling that such classics as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Little Prince’ would not stand a chance of publication if they had been written today. An editor would feel bound to send the manuscripts back with a polite suggestion that a clearer focus was required with a specific target audience in mind! (I recently self-published an E-book with the following title: ‘Yelkouan Spell: A Child’s Tale for Everyone’ – How’s that for covering all the bases? For Everyone!! Ha, ha ha! – I personally have a theory that the e-book revolution, which offers anybody the possibility of total artistic freedom from commercial constraints, has further removed any risk-taking that may once have existed in the traditional publishing houses which themselves now peruse the e-book market as a kind of experimental testing ground, snapping up anything odd that actually seems to be making good money).

    I also believe that some of the best ‘children’s literature’ transcends that category. Often there is a subtle use of humour directed variously at children and adults (as in Rene Goscinny’s ‘Le Petit Nicolas’); or the use of allegory which allows the story to operate on more than one level. On this last point I have written a longer post that you may be interested in: https://tgedavis.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/the-terauns-treasure/

    Apologies if I’ve expanded the debate beyond its original focus on YA crossover, but that’s only because I agree entirely with your position that labelling (often for commercial reasons) should not be blindly accepted as a limiting factor on our reading habits, and that much of the best stuff of any genre or age category can be enjoyed by almost anyone.

    • Thanks for choosing The Book Wars as the place to publish your first comment. We’re thrilled! Your comment is very insightful and provides a glimpse into a publishing industry that is mostly foreign to us. I wonder if publishing houses perceive e-publishing as a threat to their business and whether they are taking steps (if indeed they are) to work around or negate this threat. Maybe they are resting their laurels comfortable in the idea that the prestige offered by traditional publishing somehow negates the success e-publishing has. I don’t know. I’m going off on a tangent.

      I too wonder sometimes how books that are classics would be received in contemporary times. I think crossover should be taken more seriously as it seems that many of YA readers are adults while young adults themselves and publishers do pander more to readers with more disposable income available.

      Anyway, wishing you all the best in both your blogging and your writing ventures.

  • Great to hear back from you Nafiza. Yes, the industry is changing very quickly these days and that’s bound to cause turbulence for the traditional commercial models. I suppose we should all see it as a time of great opportunity. There’s an excitement to change especially if you manage to predict the direction it’s heading. The Book Wars site certainly seems to be a venture that’s making the most of 21st century literary culture! Keep up the good work. I’ll be checking it out regularly. Tim