Have adult readers hijacked children's books?

February 14, 2010 by  
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I noticed yesterday that the new-ish Mark Haddon book, Boom!, came wrapped with a black band suggesting it was “for children of all ages”.  I’m intrigued. There’s a quote on Amazon from the Bookseller review: “A hilarious adventure by Mark Haddon, who has an innate and dazzling rapport with his target audience”. I guess if I work with those two statements, I could naturally come to the conclusion that his target audience is everyone. Or, at the very least, that’s who his publisher wants it to be.

There’s a huge number of adults that read and like children’s books. I’m one of them. I like to think we’re a discerning bunch, and possibly know a good story better than readers who put up with pages of wobble and drivel in adult books. How many adults will finish a book simply because they’ve started it, and not because they’re enjoying it? I bet you those books are for grown-ups. It rarely happens with children’s books – okay, Harry Potter’s “100-page hanging around in a tent” in the Deathly Hallows bored me to tears, but I still got to the end.

But when you see publishers actively selling children’s books to an adult audience, I think there’s a problem. “Children of all ages” doesn’t wash with me. It seems confused, and that can’t be good for anyone, author or reader. One of the reviewers of Boom! on Amazon helpfully writes: “As soon as it arrived I realised that I had made a big mistake because this is very clearly a children’s rather than an adult’s book.

This readership crossover issue clearly works both ways. Adult’s books packaged as children’s books are as confusing to kids as children’s books for grown-ups.

I was recently chatting to a bookseller about Bog Child, by Siobhan Dowd. The book’s beautifully written, and I’m sure we’ll see it on the BBC as a Sunday night drama at some point soon, but we spoke about it winning the Carnegie prize and she told me how in shadow reading groups within schools, the children just didn’t get it. So how did it win the prize if the children didn’t enjoy it? It was voted for by adults, of course.

Now that’s possibly a different problem – children’s book prizes being voted for by adults, who have different sensibilities to a child – but it highlights the confusion that’s created by not targeting a readership. With children’s books, writing for a set audience is usually imperative to success, and if the book breaks out into other markets, so be it.

But I think the fact of the matter is that children’s books are now judged differently, as much as to how they’ll be received by adults as children. Because of this, children’s titles are often reviewed with an eye to the adult reader, which can be incredibly unhelpful.

I write children’s books for children. It’s lovely if adults like them but they’re not who I write for. It’s unlikely my stories will ever make school reading lists, mainly because I want children to enjoy them. I want my books to be fun and exciting, and I hope they help children think that books are great to read.

I remember I am David sending me to sleep at school, and that’s an awful thing to say. Children’s books shouldn’t do that. They should excite, inspire, and make children readers for life. In contrast, shortly after finishing that book, we read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator in class and I loved it. To me, that says a lot about how to get kids to enjoy reading – save history for the history class.

So let children’s books stand and fall on whether they’re good children’s books for children. If they’re brilliant, adults will like them anyway.

  • Yes, absolutely.

    We have the same problem here in the US with the Newbery award, which sometimes honors books beloved by teachers and librarians but accepted with apathy by the actual kid readers. For example, the 2008 medal went to Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz. Great book, but really, can you imagine any kid enjoying a book of monologues and dialogues about medieval life? Really?

    Of far more relevance are awards voted on by the kid readers themselves. In the UK the Red House awards are done that way, aren’t they?

    • Yes! You just have to see their voting form to know it’s for children. The Blue Peter prize, from a famous kid’s TV show here, also has children picking their favourites.

  • Wow, excellent post. I think you really have hit on something that’s been an issue in children’s lit for a long time. As an adult I do love reading some of these award-winning books, but I too find myself wondering if kids will care for them in the same way. If certain awards become a signal to kids that a book is confusing, dull, or preachy (as they perceive it, anyway — the book may be superb from an adult perspective) then the award can end up having the very opposite of the desired effect on readers.

    • Thanks! I think the awards issue is one worth raising. We should celebrate the books children like, as they’re the ones that will make readers of them in future.

  • I’m also an adult who loves children’s books. I have the excuse of working in the children’s book department of Waterstones, but whether I read the books because I work that section or got the job in that section because I love the books is really a chicken and egg type question…

    A lot of adult books do have crossover appeal into the kids department – examples of books that come in children’s cover editions include Mark Haddon’s previous offerings, Before I Die and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I find these books incredibly useful in persuading PARENTS that their little ones are maybe ready to move into adult books. For example, last month I dealt with the mother of a 17 year old A-level literature student whose son had “almost outgrown Alex Rider” but she didn’t think would be ready for adult crime or fiction, or interested in classics…

    (The mind boggles)

    The question of awards is an important one as they do have real influence over what uncertain parents and grandparents choose to buy, but I think the major issue here is that of content. An adult novel will often be written in a style accessible to a young reader, but the emotional, sexual or violent content will be inappropriate. The children’s books that really appeal to adult readers are often the ones that address this issue and offer a story with themses that can be read on a variety of levels, be they emotional, spiritual or otherwise.

    • Hi Caroline! It’s great to have a bookseller’s perspective. I love adult books written in a style that’s accessible to all ages. I actually think that’s one indicator of a good storyteller, whatever age they write for, and that’s probably why many younger readers approach 1984, and similar titles, because the story is cleanly written, tightly plotted and accessible – just like a children’s novel. And the sign of that being a good book is that it also has an exciting, cracking good story!

      A good children’s book is a good adult book, but you just have to use your imagination for the gory bits.

  • Stanton J. Price

    Alex: I have to disagree with you somewhat about the distinction between adult and children’s books. You are right about many things. Children’s books should be judged by children and not by adults and writers of children’s should be able to aim at a young readership w/o having to meet standards for adult books. Still, for at least of your readers, the distinction has no meaning. When I was in the fourth grade I was allowed to have an adult library card. In junior high (now called middle school)I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina,among many other “adult” books. In high school, I read Francoise Sagan among adult writers. Actually, apart from sci-fi, there were not many books then for “young adult” readers. None of this ruined by life as far as I know. And now, at 70, I’m reading you, Rowling, Diana Wynne Jones besides books on the history of Britain. One of things you do that makes your books so attractive to an adult like is that you imbue your characters with real emotions. Your characters live and that’s all that matters in a book whoever it is written for.

    Finally, one more comment. I spent most of my life as a health lawyer doing business litigation and teaching. And I learned it’s much harder to write a short brief or letter than a long one. The ability to ruthlessly prune words is something that makes a writer successful, whether he’s a lawyer or a children’s book writer. And may you produce many more brilliant books

    • I agree that for readers the distinction has no meaning. I remember reading James Herbert horror books when I was 13 – not as accomplished as War and Peace, I agree – but it did seem to fill a gap. Even in the 1990s there was little YA material available. I guess that did push you further into adult books earlier. And that’s possibly against the theory that children these days grow up much quicker.

      Thanks again for your comments, I really appreciate you stopping by.

  • Stanton J. Price

    It sounded as if I were boasting about what I read and that wasn’t it. I was just saying that book categories never meant much me. All my life I have read everything. Actually, it was a friend of mine who told me to read War and Peace. A lot depends on who your friends are growing up.

    • Oh no! You’re absolutely right. It was a friend who showed me James Herbert. Your peers are so important. And in children’s books, the playground buzz is the best form of marketing. You want people to pass on your books

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