Why Children’s Books are so much better…

Better than books written for adults, that is. How’s that for a broad, sweeping generalization? I have plenty more, if you need them.

Recently, someone started a thread on the Kindleboards about why we still love children’s books as adults. It got me thinking about the question and, opinionated brat that I am, I came up with several answers that the world needs to hear. I realize that such things are subjective, but if something’s subjective, doesn’t that mean the subjective nature of it is also subjective? That, in turn, means that it very well might be objective.

Children’s books, due to the nature of children, are afforded a great deal more flexibility than adult books. You can get away with writing about giant peaches and talking insects and come up with quite a story. If you try the same thing in an adult book, you come up with a dreary, Kafkaesque tale of giant, talking bugs that is forever foisted on unsuspecting students as an example of culture, and they better appreciate it or they’ll probably end up working a blue-collar job for the rest of their life (oh, wait…that is Kafka).

It’s the difference in creativity. Children are much more comfortable with wild and unsuspected leaps in imagination. They aren’t as withered as your typical adult. Not yet, at least. Therefore, they’re happy reading about hobbits, flying houses that crush witches, orphans living on Prince Edward Island or hiding in boxcars, pirates, goblins, thirteen-year-old spies in Manhattan, creatures named Gurgi, wolves plaguing Willoughby Chase, and on and on.

Adults, on the other hand, have lost their imagination and simply don’t dream anymore. They plod. They’ve forgotten the shadows of grace and of fairyland that stretch lightly across our landscape, as light as gossamer and so easily torn by the stern practicality of paying the bills and keeping up with the Joneses.

So what do you get with most adult literature? You get the same thing, that’s what you get. It’s predictable. You may either sup at Outback Steakhouse, the Olive Garden, or McDonalds. One hundred and one brand new, sparkling thrillers starring a rogue, misunderstood detective (or lawyer or ex-Special Forces soldier or policeman or you-fill-in-the-blank) with a penchant for bucking the system, getting the good-looking fill-in-the-blank of the opposite sex, with a reversal at the beginning of the third act, and then a heart-stopping wrap-up in the last couple of chapters. One hundred and one brand new, sparkling romances….etc, etc.

If it isn’t predictable, then the remainder of adult literature is usually pretentious twaddle (yes, yes – I realize I’m still making sweeping statements). They’re the literary equivalent of going to a nouvelle cuisine restaurant in Carmel, getting snooted at by the  waiter, served a large plate festooned with one tiny dab of red wine truffle reduction upon which perches a sauteed quail’s foot drizzled with pureed chestnut hulls, and then presented with a bill equivalent to the national debt of Uganda. And you’re supposed to feel improved, cultured, uplifted. You’re not necessarily expected to enjoy it, mind you, but you had better feel more refined.

That said, when children’s books are bad, they are bad (see all the countless books churned out that preach about how Sally and little Fred must save the planet from climate change, or save the spotted howler monkey, or recycle aluminum cans and tell Mommy that she must swap out the lightbulbs for squiggly ones, and that we must be friends with the purple polka-dotted kids who just moved in down the way, because they are purple polka-dotted…).

But, when they’re good, they’re extremely good. Okay, enough pontificating for now.

4 thoughts on “Why Children’s Books are so much better…”

  1. Okay, here’s the deal: you may continue pontificating so long as you always include at least one sentence that’s as beautifully lyrical as the one about gossamer shadows of grace.
    But I’m not sure I agree with you, entirely (alas, such is the nature of sweeping generalizations). If you think same-old same-old writing is restricted to adult literature, you’ve obviously not read much Enid Blyton in your childhood (I did, and loved it), or taken a look at the children’s section in bookstores recently. Nor is imagination restricted to childhood. You’re making the mistake of overgeneralizing (oh, wait, you pointed that out yourself). Seems to me you’re kind of romanticizing children’s minds, and un-romanticizing (whatever the opposite of the word is- trivializing? hum-drum-icizing?) adult ones.
    I think that children’s books are often so much more enjoyable because they’re “story” in a purer form. Less swirls and squiggles and attempts to impress the sophisticated reader, less adult-eration, just good storytelling.
    This also goes back to what you were saying some time back about categorizing books into age groupings. Where does children’s literature end, and adult literature begin? The Grimm’s fairytales had nothing to do with children, originally.

    1. Exactly. Less swirls and more good storytelling. I think you’re making my point for me. Honestly, I don’t think I’m necessarily romanticizing the literary sensibilities of children. Rather, it’s more a case of pointing out that, in general (I’m safeguarding myself here), adult sensibilities are much more narrow when it comes to flights of fancy (ie., you can write a Wizard of Oz book for a child, but if you try to do it for adults, it’ll probably get bogged down in either cynicism or gruesomeness – an “innocent” Wizard of Oz book for adults? Doesn’t exist.).

  2. Less “adult-erating” is one of the things I appreciate most about children’s lit. Another is very practical: takes less time. When I’m really hungry for a story, I can get my fix in about 2 hrs, start to finish.

    1. Interesting. I never thought much about the etymology (is that the right word?) of the word “adulterated.” I don’t know the root meanings, but I assume there’s a substantial cross-over between “adult” and “adulterated.” That really isn’t much of a vote of confidence for us adults.

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