Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 26 Oct 2018

Children’s books and the adult reader

During this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival I went along to hear the great children’s book author and illustrator, Helen Oxenbury speaking about her career and the publication of a new book chronicling her life as an artist. I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of audience to expect and I suspect the festival organisers were also sharing my uncertainty because the tickets had printed on them a message to the effect that any children under the age of 12 should be accompanied by an adult. As it turned out there were, at most, one or two children under the age of 16 in attendance and a great many over 50s. During the question and answer session there was more than one person who prefaced their enquiry with a statement about the fact that they were there because they were collectors of children’s books  – something that is also close to the heart of us here at the Letterpress Project.

This started me thinking about two things: just how much of the current increase in the numbers of children’s books being purchased is down to adults who are children’s book fanatics rather than children themselves; and, secondly, what is it about children’s books that so captures the devotion of adults?

On the first question of how much of the upturn in the sale of children’s books is driven by adults, I have my suspicions but I don’t have any data I can fall back on – maybe publishers are collecting this but I somehow doubt it. There’s obviously a nostalgia market in children’s books – with even youthful adults wanting to buy back some treasured memory of their childhood - and I’m struck by how the label of ‘classic’ creeps forward in time in a way that makes even relatively contemporary books collectible.

It’s also true, I think, that it was just a matter of time until the wider public woke up to the quality of children’s writing and illustration. Great writers and artists were sure to eventually get beyond the snobbery that condemned them to the margins of the literary world and I think that’s happening now that the most recent generation of children’s authors and illustrators approach their later years – Blake, Briggs, Kerr, Oxenbury, Morpurgo, Foreman and all. The status of being ‘collectible’ no longer has to mean the Victorian or Edwardian illustrators or the so-called Golden Age classics.

One of the great commercial successes of the publishing world has been the emergence of, what has become called, Young Adult fiction. ‘Young adult’ is an imprecise term and covers a target audience that, I guess, might fall anywhere within the 11-16 age bracket. In marketing terms, the creation of a category that doesn’t use the word ‘children’ was a masterstroke for more than one reason. It does of course appeal to the young reader who would be offended by having the word ‘child’ appended to them but, just as importantly, it also helped to create a brand new market – crossover readers. In other words, adults who preferred reading these books aimed primarily at a teen market. The list is a long one – C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, Collins, Dashner  and many, many more.

Writing about this phenomenon in The Guardian in 2015, Georgina Howlett noted:

“Perhaps one of the most important things to note about the teen and YA market in particular, though, is that the majority of its readers (55%, according to a 2012 study) are actually adults. Yes, you read that right: adults. Once upon a time it would have been shameful for adults to read books written for teenagers, never mind admitting that publicly, but nowadays it has become so common that many have even taken to blogging to discuss and review what they have read. At YA events such as book signings and author talks, a staggering number of attendees are aged 18 or over – showing that the prior societal damnation of adults reading books for young people is no more.”

It's not too hard to see why Young Adult has made the so-called crossover and why it’s so popular - put bluntly, it's well-written, plot driven and accessible. But what about the appeal to the adult collector of those books designed for much younger children - those usually dismissed as 'just picture books'? Here the answer lies, I’m sure, in the partnership between the author and the illustrator. It is impossible, I think, to understate the role of the pictorial aspect and the extraordinary creativity and artistic skill that goes into the very best publications.

Whilst I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that all children’s picture books are works of art, the very best are magnificent – skilfully crafted, creative and a symbiotic merger of the best of the author and the artist. Perhaps the question at hand here shouldn’t be around why adults want to collect these children’s book but why more people don’t. And, just as mystifying, how did they manage to fly below the radar for so long?

I think those years of neglect may well be coming to an end but the strange apartheid that seems to exist in the literary world between ‘adult’ and ‘children’s books’ doesn’t seem to show many signs of coming down. They retain their own prizes and their own sense of separate identity – it’s almost impossible to image a children’s book making the Man Booker list, for example.

But the truth is that readers are well ahead of the publishers and critics – we’re out there buying what we think is the very best in contemporary literature and what we’re not asking is whether it’s a children’s book or an adult book.


Terry Potter

October 2018