Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 08 Aug 2019

Why you should read children’s books, even though you are so old and wise by Katherine Rundell

Katherine Rundell’s passionate, polemical essay extolling the virtues of reading children’s literature throughout your life has been made available in a pocket-sized hardback by Bloomsbury Publishing at a piffling £3. And you get an awful lot for your money – packed between the covers is a 64 page essay, a sample from her book ‘The Explorer’ and an author profile. Perhaps less quantifiably you also get a whole lot of Rundell’s almost overpowering enthusiasm.

She is herself the author of a growing list of award-winning and award-nominated young adult books and she also doubles as an academic fellow in English Literature at All Souls College, Oxford. So her mission here feels both personal and academically evangelical and she doesn’t hold back.

Her starting point is Martin Amis’ typically arrogant and ill-judged comment:

‘People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book. I say, “If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book.”’

She uses this, along with some other judiciously selected examples, to show that culturally children’s books have always been a Cinderella subject when it comes to literary prestige. But Rundell, I think rather astutely, mounts this core defence of the genre:

“…the writing we call children’s fiction is not a childish thing…Children’s fiction has childhood at its heart, which is not the same thing.”

But, she insists, this is not a book that suggests all children’s books are worthy of adult time and effort – she is not interested in making a case for “books that rely on fart jokes, on the sheer tantalising fact of dinosaurs and on the physical gorgeousness of fairies”  but on those that allow children to have “as rich a story as the adult writing would demand for themselves.”

Rundell takes us back to the very beginnings of what we now call ‘children’s literature’ and especially to fairy tales which, she notes, were common property, shared between adults and children alike. She also illustrates the ways in which the fairy tale is constantly evolving to meet the new needs of succeeding generations but without losing their essential purpose:

“Real fairytales are about hunger: hunger for power, above all: but also hunger for justice, for love, for change and transformation, for other humans.”

I especially like the fact that she’s unequivocal about the political nature of children’s literature and the way in which the very best seems to always have at its heart the notion of social justice:

“Children’s books are specifically written to be read by a section of society without political or economic power.”

For adults, buying or revisiting the best of children’s literature can refocus the bewildered adult – help them to refocus on the things that matter; imagination, creativity and hope. Stories, she argues, “can put forward truths, via narration, which cannot be baldly stated by abstract theoretical language.”

There’s also a concluding section which deals with the growing threat to book shops – it’s no good, she argues, winning the argument about the importance of reading children’s books if you can’t get your hands on them. On-line sources only really work if you know what you’re looking for but bookshops give you’re the expectation of unanticipated finds.

This is an essay of hope and inspiration and one I strongly urge you to read. Battle-weary advocates for children’s literature are all too familiar with the dismissive Martin Amis attitudes that are so prevalent at all levels in our cultural and educational establishments, it’s good for them to have this little red book on their side.


Terry Potter

August 2019