NewsWire: Magic of children’s literature isn’t just for children — adults like it, too – Dallas Morning Post

by Aug 2, 2000Lord of the Rings (Movies)

The first edition of The Hobbit–that which sent the fairy-story genre into motion once again.
In Tolkien’s lauded essay “On Fairy Stories” he makes it clear that tales many people regard as a “waste of adult time” can truly be the most dignified form of the literary genre. This following article, though concentrating on Harry Potter and the fervor surrounding his current popularity, seems to ask the same question Professor Tolkien asked, the same question which led to his essay: What is a fairy-story? The successive question then is “Why fairy-story?” “On Fairy-Stories” is a wonderful essay that addresses these questions with a passionate heart and a deft hand. Here is an appropriate quote to ponder over for a moment:

“…the prime value of fairy-stories will simply be that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms. But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”

Check out The Tolkien Reader to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s complete essay. If I may, I’d also like to recommend C.S. Lewis’s essay An Experiment in Criticism if want a fresh study on what exactly a “good” book is.

Magic of children’s literature isn’t just for children — adults like it, too

By Bill Marvel

Dallas Morning News – August 2, 2000

Some of the children who waited impatiently in line recently to buy the latest Harry Potter adventure might have seemed a bit… um, tall. Hardly childlike at all.

That’s because they weren’t children. They weren’t accompanied by children. They weren’t even buying books for children. They were adults, and they were buying and reading Harry Potter for themselves.

It has been known in the book business for a long time that a lot of adults prefer children’s books to adult reading. They pass over the latest Bret Easton Ellis or Joyce Carol Oates or John Grisham to read and reread the Anne of Green Gables series, or the Little House on the Prairie books, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic “Lord of the Rings.”

And now, of course, Harry Potter.

John Rudin, a Nortel mathematician and statistician, for example, awaited a copy of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” on his doorstep recently, via Federal Express from He says adults are reading Harry Potter for the same reasons they read any good fiction: “Good plot, interesting characters, an intriguing mystery.”

When he was a child, Rudin read as a child: Winnie-the-Pooh, Superman comic books, Dr. Seuss. By fourth grade he had discovered the Danny Dunn science fiction series in his school library. At 13, a friend gave him “The Hobbit.”

“I took it with me on a four-day Boy Scout camp-out,” he said. “It rained and rained. I just fell in love with it and read it over and over. Then I discovered C.S. Lewis.”

Now that he’s an adult, when he isn’t reading nonfiction — lately, economics and politics — Rudin still reads Tolkien, Lewis and Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote science fiction for both young and older adults.

“A children’s book is a book with a slightly smaller vocabulary, no sex and no graphic violence,” he says. “What surprises me is that there would be any reason for adults not to enjoy them.”

Ah, but some can always find reason.

“These aren’t books for adults,” sniffed New York Times pundit William Safire in a recent column. “These are children’s books.”

His subject: Who most deserved a top literary prize: J.K. Rowling for the Harry Potter series, or Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, for his translation of the Old English epic “Beowulf”?

Guess which author won Safire’s vote?

“Let us not exalt Harry Potter as a cultural icon,” he wrote. While endorsing “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Alice in Wonderland” as classics fit for adult or child, he condemned the Potter series as “more than a little… waste of adult time.”

But if adults are wasting their time on the Potter books, they are wasting it “with a passion,” according to Jennifer Anglin, who operates The Enchanted Forest — Books for Children in Dallas.

She says one couple was flying in from Detroit to attend the Harry Potter debut party at her bookstore. The couple asked her to hold another Harry Potter party, just for adults.

Anglin divides adult fans of children’s literature into several categories.

“There are the picture-book followers, who love the illustrations by Mem Fox and Jane Dyer, Tasha Tudor, William Joyce, the Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith books.

“Then there is a resurgence among early 30-year-olds that don’t have children yet, who are rereading things from their childhood — `B Is for Betsy,’ the Carolyn Haywood book, `Gone-Away Lake’ by Elizabeth Enright, and Nancy Drew. These are wonderful books to bring back childhood, and they share them with spouses that were not read to.

“Fantasy still has a huge following, apart from the Harry Potter books. They say, `I’m hooked. Now what shall I read?’ They read The Golden Compass trilogy by Philip Pullman and the Chronicles of Narnia.”

Adults purchase 85 percent of all children’s books, mostly for children. But certain writers have always seemed as much adults’ as children’s authors: Mark Twain, for example, L. Frank Baum, E.B. White, Lewis Carroll, the ubiquitous Lewis, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling. And there are adults who, though they also read grown-up books, prefer children’s literature.

The publishing industry has come to acknowledge the adult audience for children’s books. The Children’s Book Council, a trade league representing publishers of children’s books, issues an annual list of titles with crossover appeal to adults. Now in its fourth year, “Not Just for Children Anymore!” lists such classics as “The Cat in the Hat,” “The House at Pooh Corner” and “Little Women” as well as “The Ink Drinker,” “Holes” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Harry has cast a spell over more than one adult who otherwise might never read a children’s book.

“I didn’t even read the Tolkien books as a kid, partly because my brother read them,” says Amy Boardman Hunt, who works for a public relations company and has a 20-month-old daughter. “I figured they were too dorky.”

Recently her book club chose three of the Harry Potter titles. “I’d always heard they were cute,” she says. “But I didn’t think I’d ever sit down and read them.

In fact, “I just raced through them.”

She describes the books as “the Rocky and Bullwinkle of fiction: They appeal equally to kids and adults.”

Harry has changed her reading habits, she says.

“Now I might read Tolkien, or the Chronicles of Narnia. But I might wait until my child has grown up.”

For Leni Sommer, an occupational therapist and special education teacher, children’s literature was an adult discovery.

“In some ways I feel I kind of missed out on a lot of children’s literature, because I jumped into adult books,” she says. “My mother was a nurse, and I read her nursing texts and her psych textbooks. By sixth grade, I was reading Dickens.”

“I rediscovered children’s books when I went to college. I had friends who were taking kiddy lit.” For the better part of a year, she read “The Lord of the Rings” chapter by chapter over the telephone to a blind friend.

Today, she says, she regularly rereads “The Lord of the Rings,” as well as Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain,” Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series and all of Madeleine L’Engle’s books.

Classic children’s tales share certain qualities, she says. “If you’ve read Tolkien’s essay `On Fairy-Stories’ or Joseph Campbell’s books on myth, these tales are all about the hero’s quest — the boy in humble surroundings, not knowing who he is,” a situation that, except for gender, equally fits Dorothy in Kansas, Bilbo Baggins in the Shire or Harry Potter, the geeky kid who doesn’t fit in among the Muggles.

Leslee Covington also read Dickens and Shakespeare as a kid.

“I didn’t get into `kids’ literature until I was in fifth grade, when a friend got into Trixie Belden books. They’re sort of like Nancy Drew books. I preferred them because she was closer to my age. I wanted to be Trixie.

“Then when I was in sixth grade, a friend of my mother gave me three of the Anne of Green Gables books. I’ve been a fan of hers ever since.”

The 44-year-old Bedford, Texas, bookkeeper says she keeps in touch with other adult readers of children’s literature through Kindred Spirits, an e-mail list for fans of Anne of Green Gables author L.M. Montgomery.

Covington’s other favorite authors include Louisa May Alcott, E. Nesbit, Maud Hart Lovelace, Noel Streatfield, Susan Cooper and, of course, Rowling, all of whom she reads for “that sense of wonder and hope and belief in the essential goodness of people that you don’t find in other literature.

“A lot of times, if you read modern novels you’re left with the feeling you want to take a bath afterwards. It’s an icky feeling. Louisa May Alcott is a favorite of mine. After I read her books, it makes me want to be a better person. So when I feel I’m getting kind of mired in the modern feeling of hurry, hurry, they kind of round me.”

“Children’s literature more often feeds the optimist in me,” says Dawn Draheim, a homemaker who says she has a husband, two dogs and a cat “but no other children.”

“Adult literature so often is dark and cynical, whereas children’s literature is — not necessarily brighter, but with more of a sense of hope.

“The kids always win.”

As always, thanks to Dan M. for the tip on the article…


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