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Sunday September 3, 2006

Too grown up for kids’ stuff

I HAD the following conversation with a colleague last week (I’ll call her R): 

R: I remember that we had a children’s book on our syllabus at university. I still can’t understand why we were expected to read that book! 

Me: Why? Was it bad? 

R: I don’t know ... It was a children’s book. I don’t understand why they wanted university students to read a children’s book! 

I wanted to say, “Yes, I think many local university students I’ve met would have problems with even Peter And Jane.” 

I’ve had similar conversations with many people. It’s the old “children’s fiction (including teen fiction, also called young adult or YA fiction) is inferior to adult fiction” debate. Inferior? Some say not necessarily so, but just less complex and, so, not as challenging or satisfying. 

I beg to differ on all counts. I’m one of those readers who mentally divide books into categories that have nothing to do with the age they are supposed to appeal to. Thus, “good”, “bad”, “must-read”, “forgettable” and so on. 

R is both amused and puzzled by the fact that that I read mainly children’s fiction, and not just teen novels and children’s chapter books, but picture books too. She “blames” it on my job and the fact that I have kids. She’s amazed that I am not bored by their simplicity and inanity, wonders why I don’t feel “brain dead” from it all. 

The interesting (some would say preposterous) thing is that R has not read a children’s book in at least 15 years and her knowledge and experience of the genre is limited to Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Trixie Belden mysteries. That’s like saying all adult fiction is unremarkable after having only read Mills & Boon romances and The Da Vinci Code

But, “OK, OK, I’ll give them a try,” she said after another colleague and I stood tut-tutting over her. 

She asked us to recommend one really good children’s book. Just one? Impossible! There are so many very good ones. We told her to just go browse in a bookstore and she said, “Oh, but what if someone sees me, I would be so embarrassed ... hmmm, I guess I could pretend to be shopping for my nephew.” 

We were very tempted to smack her at that point, but, being civilised readers of children’s books, we merely gave her pitying looks and walked away. 

How do you choose a children’s book? How do you choose any book? If you’re the one reading it, you should know exactly what you’re looking for. Practically every genre is covered by children’s and teen writers. What are your favourites?  

Is there a writer of adult novels whose work you enjoy? He may have written a YA book! James Patterson and Isabel Allende have. So have Clive Cussler, Michael Chabon and Joyce Carol Oates. 

Children’s books offer unique viewpoints on a myriad of topics and issues. It’s not just about catching burglars or getting a date for the prom, nor has it ever been.  

Concentration camps, homosexuality, child abuse and Asperger’s syndrome are just some of the subjects covered with great sensitivity and insight by YA writers. 

Why risk missing out on really good books just because you feel Enid Blyton is beneath you. Anyway, if that’s really the way you feel, then forget Enid Blyton.  

Instead, try Michelle Magorian and Leon Garfield, Joan Aiken and Robert Westall. You could, of course, read behind closed doors or sheets of brown paper. In fact, these days, if a YA novel has crossover appeal (e.g. Harry Potter, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, His Dark Materials), the publisher usually releases it with two different covers: one for adult readers and the other for children.  

Yes, you can rest easy – the world is full of adults who read children’s books. 

For a list of children’s and YA books that I think have crossover appeal, visit my blog.  


  • Daphne Lee was a cheerful three-year-old before she became a grumpy old lady whose idea of heaven is curling up in bed with a good book, her husband, their three children, and a plateful of sausage rolls. You can e-mail her at daphneleemeilin@gmail.com and check out her blog at daphne.blogs.com/books. 

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