Thursday, 9 February 2017

Adults in Wonderland

Why adults are (and should be) reading MG

‘No book is worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty.’ CS Lewis

Some books are labelled for children. Some adults read them. When a lot of adults read them they are called crossover. His Dark Materials and The Lie Tree are award-winning crossover novels. The crossover label gives adults permission to indulge; but look, there's a crowd of big people swarming the genre wall without a permit. Many adults are out there avidly reading, blogging and reviewing children’s books. While some do it for career reasons and to screen books for their own children, many do it for their own reading pleasure.

Great Middle Grade Reads is a Goodreads group with over 2000 members, of which a large majority are adults. I asked them why they chose to read children’s books.

Two words: HYGGE and PLAY

Hygge: the Danish art of cosiness, has been trending since mid 2016.

Children’s books are hygge.

Story is hygge. Story simplifies and orders the random and chaotic in a way that is satisfying and reassuring.

When Hillary lost the US election her impulse was to retreat with a good book. What better way to escape the flux without? What more comforting book than a childhood favourite? What else can return us so accurately, literally word for word, to childhood? The pleasures of nostalgia and rediscovery combine in the dual viewpoint of now and then.

'Some of my favourite stories are the ones that helped get me through those (middle grade) years, to make me laugh, to clarify my own wonky emotions and feelings by way of characters. MG will always have a special place in my heart.'

As well as old favourites, adults are seeking out fresh reads which give access to the mental landscape of childhood.

'I like to shut the door on the current day, and throw myself into a fun or magical adventure (with a) happily-ever-after ending.’

With children’s books readers feel safe from ‘excessive gore, violence, bad language and sexuality’. Irritation is expressed with adult books where authors use the f-word to ‘show how cool they are’. The values promoted in children's books are equally hygge: ‘loyalty, friendship, courage, perseverance and goodness.’

'As many MG books have a happy ending they are nice to read when you are feeling stressed or need a bit of escapism from the real world.'

YA books do not share this comforting function since they are ‘darker and grittier and adolescence is angsty and emotionally tumultuous’.


‘A physical or mental leisure activity that is undertaken purely for enjoyment or amusement and has no other objective.’

Like hygge, play is having a moment. Adult colouring books are best sellers. The Duchess of Cambridge is said to be a fan. The TV programme, The Grand Tour, is three blokes living out play fantasies on wheels. Trampolining, soft play, tree climbing, board games, collage nights, crafts, obstacle races, are all growth areas for adults with a strong element of play. They combine freedom with creativity, absorption with a carefree mindset. Play is refreshing, experimental, surprising and anarchic. It’s also good for you. Play is an antidote and a release, a necessary balance to constraint.

A more receptive corollary to this active play is playful books. If there’s no zipwire handy we can always pick up Peter Pan and scramble in some rigging.

It was agreed that adult books can take themselves too seriously. MG was seen as ‘pure fun; it’s about the thrill of the ride, entertainment and enjoyment.’

'Being an adult is stressful sometimes and can be rather dull. Reading MG allows me to rediscover my inner 11 year old.'

One reader likes to give her reading self a break from books that can be a ‘chore and a thought challenge,’ ones that ‘drown in waves of analysis, description and interpretation.’ Another finds the experience of reading children's books liberating, since she can read without the feeling that someone is ‘looking over my shoulder placing too many literary or social expectations on my experience.’

A key element of play is the exercise of imagination. Crossover readers felt the lack of imaginative latitude in modern life and sought it through children’s books.

CS Lewis makes the point that juvenile tastes for the adventurous and marvellous used to be everyone’s tastes. Mythology, folklore and fairy tales were not originally written for children. They simply fell out of fashion for adults in favour of social and psychological ideas. He argues that the early wonder tales ‘tap into the wonder a child has about the world.’ In less rational ages this wonder did not subside at adolescence. It was preserved into adulthood. Myths once provided the back story for the way things are rather than evidential chronicles and science. A good myth gives imagination ‘room to walk around.’ The mythic structure of many children’s books reinstates that liberty.  

‘I wanted to read something without boundaries. Children have fewer boundaries and so do children’s books.’

Children’s books ‘explore important issues in imaginative ways.’

'Good children's authors tap into the wonder a child has about the world, and are in touch with the natural child in themselves.'
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The remaining comments focused on style.

Adults are reading children’s books for the overall quality of the writing as well as for specific elements of style.

Children’s fiction does not demote story to a vehicle for messages and flourish. Narrative is foregrounded and celebrated as a pleasure in itself. Lewis was particularly enamoured of the fairy tale, its ‘brevity, restraints on description, flexible traditionalism, inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas’.’

Good kid’s lit is ‘a lesson on how great writing appears to be easy to do, when in reality it takes great skill'.

‘When it takes an entire page to describe a room I get bored.’ MG tends to stick to ‘precise essentials. What is needed to hold a child’s attention works for adults too.’

The concision of a restricted word count was welcomed by some readers. When time is lacking children’s books can deliver ‘a really good story in a shorter number of pages'.

'MG books tend not to preach. Being preached at makes me want to stick my fingers in my ears and sing 'la la la'.'

'I love that MG is constructed so perfectly as to create an amazing story in so few pages, and it can still impact life.'

On vocabulary there is an enjoyment of simplicity for its own sake and also from the point of view of relaxation: ‘I don’t need to concentrate so much when I’m tired'. Conversely there was praise for the rich vocabulary of MG classics, ‘so much richer than much that is about today'.
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There are ample reasons why adults are choosing to read books currently classed as MG. Children’s books satisfy universal desires for security, pleasure, play and wonder. It's also refreshing to find deeper themes dressed in simpler clothes. Added to this are the scope of ideas, the range of subjects and the quality of writing. 

So light a fire, grab a blanket and a bun (I prefer Jo March’s bag of apples), and settle down with a warming read.

We are all muggles who want to go to Hogwarts. Open the right book, and we can.