Let’s talk a little bit about adults and children’s literature

I’ve been doing a PhD (is that the right phrase? Do you do this sort of a thing?) for nearly a month now and so far my brain has resembled one of those Stretch Armstrong dolls I always wanted but never got for one reason or another. You can sort of feel the moments when everything starts to come together, just a little bit, but then you realise that that coming together is somewhere far and distant in the future and what you actually thought was coming together really isn’t, but it sort of maybe is and maybe could if you do this certain thing.

Basically books, man, knowledge and books, like whoah.

And as part of this erudite conversation I’ve been having with myself, I’ve been thinking a lot about adults and their relationship to children’s literature. (If you’ve got time, I’d get you to have a look at this by Dr Matt Finch where he talks about Alice Munro and the notion of what actually is a ‘suitable’ (my emphasis) read for young adults.)

Yesterday, I met with my supervisor again and whilst talking about everything in the world, we touched upon the notion of adults reading children’s literature. This came from a book I’m reading which seems to sort of disregard everything that made the author who they were today. “But when I grew up, I put away childish things”. That sort of thing. 

Which is fine, but it’s not a complete view of the way we get to be who we are as adults.

It’s not acknowledging the building blocks of our selves.

Our readerly journey begins as children and sometimes I think we forget that (and I’m using we in a spectacularly global manner here, please forgive me for the inherent generalisations in such usage). Sometimes I think that people sort of think they came out full formed as readers, that what they read as children does not matter. That what it was was childish. (And oh, how I twinge with that term). That what is was as a temporal experience that cannot and should not be revisited or even, in some cases, acknowledged.

And I don’t know if that’s right.

I don’t know if it’s fair, even, to those books or to us.

We are all made and shaped by literature, by the text that our society is as a whole. By the textuality of our worlds. By the textuality of our existence, our own personal narratives. I love the fact that I read, write and get to research children’s books. I love the fact that I am part of this narrative, this hugely important narrative that shifts worlds and builds people. (Every time you read your books with your kids or take your grandkids to the library or whatever, you are buying into that narrative of change and potential and brave new worlds and I think you’re all world-changers and rather brilliant for doing that).

Children’s literature, young adult literature, picture books, non-fiction, apps; everything that comes under that increasingly umbrella-like term is something that is incredibly vital and something that has made and continues to make who we are. We give it to our children, we share it in schools and libraries, and we do that because we believe in it. We want it to say certain things, to share certain things, to be certain things to the child of today.

The child that we once were.

10 thoughts on “Let’s talk a little bit about adults and children’s literature

  1. Oh, I remember that Stretch Armstrong feeling! So pleased to hear it’s going well.

    You’ve reminded me of Nikolajeva’s aetonormativity: the prevailing assumption that adulthood is the ‘correct’ form of existence. And now I’m unpicking ‘childish’ as a pejorative, when making something appropriately childish is what I do all day. Thank you, lots to ponder here.

  2. I think any suggestion, such as that by St Paul, that when you grow up you put away childish things is to deny what it is that makes you you and no other.

    There’s an approach which invites you to remember your first strong conscious memory, usually associated with an emotion. It can be a slight or hurt done to you, or the warm sunlight on your body when you were in a pushchair, or the disappointment that getting your own way wasn’t as satisfying as you thought. The suggestion is that this remembered feeling or incident is a major influence on your philosophy, and friends I’ve spoken to have found this largely a truism.

    “The Child is father of the Man” suggested Wordsworth, and I think those childhood experiences hugely decide the narrative of how you live your life. Do you bleat about life being unfair? Do you have a Polyanna disposition? Do you have a faith or no faith at all? Often it’s possible to pinpoint key childhood moments when these ‘truths’ became true for you. And good children’s literature has a habit of reminding us of truths that are universal without being overtly moralistic about it.

    I’ve lent my grandsons my copy of The Chronicles of Narnia so I’ve had to borrow this C S Lewis quotation in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (1952) included there from Wikiquotes (though I suspect you know this one already). I don’t always hold with what Lewis writes, but I think he uses an apparent dichotomy here to in part say what I believe both of us are also trying to say — and I like the way he subverts St Paul’s statement too.

    em>Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow.

    But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

  3. This is a lovely post. I agree that reading as a child – and reading children’s literature as an adult – needs to be unpacked a little more instead to find the building blocks of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, and why.

  4. Veryy good post.

    Transactional Analysis teaches us that our “Life Scripts” (the way we, subconsciously, see our lives unfolding) are established in childhood. Those Life Scripts, be they negative or positive, stay with us. The Adult, Parent and Child in us all is always in us. The Child represents the spontaneous jump for joy, but also that familiar shudder when we feel scared. We deal with that spectrum of emotion as Adults, but feel them as we did as a child, raw and true.

      1. I’m particularly interested in that Transactional Analysis line. We all contain elements of the adult, parent, and child within us. So how much are those labels/identities defined relative to one another? I’m fascinated by the idea that psychology or psychiatry could relate to these literary issues; that they might be about reading our personal narratives and the textuality of the world as it manifests in our behaviours and our feelings.

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