Beyond Hope and Whimsy: Complex Themes in KidLit

These articles pop up every once in a while, where a writer declares that “Yes! Adults can read children’s books too! They’re good for the soul!” Most recent has been one featuring Oxford academic and author Katherine Rundell, who claims that particular children’s books should be essential reading for adults. You know, because of innocence and imagination and hope. All those special and unique qualities that only suffuse children’s literature.

I don’t disagree that kidlit encompasses a whole lot of hope and whimsy. And adults ought to explore the cavernous depths of children’s books. Everyone should read clever and bewildering picture books, hard-hitting middle grade books, and ever-relevant young adult books. Absolutely. She isn’t incorrect in asserting that “children’s books remind adults what it’s like ‘to long for impossible and perhaps-not-impossible things’ like justice, love, adventure and happiness, and to feel a sense of hope, however childish.”

But that’s just so reductive. And narrow-sighted too, to assume that adults who read children’s books are only looking for that imagination and hope. That they only want to revel in nostalgia, or escape into the fantasies that have served children so well.

There are so many of us who read children’s books for more than the so-called universal themes of childhood (do those even exist?). We enjoy the delicately-crafted thorns poking at social behavior, political power, societal structure, existential dilemmas, and so on. We also enjoy forming controversial opinions about classics, and diversifying ours and our children’s reading.

A picture book like Bluebird explores loneliness, bullying, even death and grieving. N.H. Senzai’s novel Escape from Aleppo gives an incisive spotlight on the complex situation in Syria. Yes, hope certainly motivates the children in both books, but the content and purpose move beyond merely viewing the world optimistically.

It isn’t just about the fanciful or the safe journey into adventure and back. There is darkness, ambiguity, and injustice too. My heart always wavers between being uplifted and concerned at the end of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. I’m convinced the young protagonist suffers a mental breakdown halfway through. That doesn’t surprise me considering it’s basically about a family crumbling after the death of their youngest son. Does T.S. return home at the end of the novel? Does he recover from his own set of traumas? No idea.

Recently Mitali Perkins tweeted about the breadth of her books:

With all these heavy subjects, it’s understandable that children’s books will enlist a young person’s sense of hope. Writing for that perspective means writing to children and young adults who need to see their place in society, and need to dream a future in it. But, the world from a child’s eyes does not erase the reality that child inhabits.

Just look at Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. We observe an African American teen’s entry into activism after witnessing her friend being murdered by a police officer. That book became essential reading—for everyone—in the last two years because of its relevance, hard-hitting honesty, and hope (yup, that too). But it’s the hope that maybe if we keep trying, every life will eventually be treated equally. It’s a hope weighed down by relentless work. And that’s the kind of hope many children have access to today.

There isn’t anything pretty about that, nothing comfortable and warm. And this is precisely why adults should be reading the broad spectrum of children’s literature. And why so many do already.

I studied children’s literature at San Diego State University with some of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever encountered. I learned about the gothic horror of Nancy Drew and Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland. Studied the historical role that geography and space have on American storytelling. Dove into the meaning of existence from the perspective of a windup toy (thank you, Alida, for turning me on to Russell Hoban). I felt at ease tearing apart the beloved books of my childhood in order to understand them as social and cultural markers.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson is one of my favorite books from my childhood, in large part because of the fantasy that Jesse and Leslie build. I won’t lie. I LOVE fantasy. And seeing two children create a world before my readerly eyes was mind-blowing for my little self. I still revisit the book, and feel the burn of imagination and childlike spontaneous joy.

And it also hurts me still. I’ve since learned that it isn’t a book about magic places, but about grief. About living through traumas. About not trying to overpower nature because the natural world will put you back in your place. It also reflects a history of urbanites trying to “get back to nature” and failing miserably. In short, I don’t get mere nostalgic pleasure from it, and that makes it all the more powerful.

Because I had the opportunity to study children’s literature, it never surprised me that this realm of literature holds so much more than curious imagination. An entire facet of academia is immersed in it. Children’s lit scholars across the world make their way studying, teaching, and writing about all the fascinating and frightening aspects of it.

To me, children’s books are about trauma. The trauma of going to a new school, of bullying, of being a minority, of feeling alone or different, of growing up, of facing the broken world that the adults have left them, of uncovering hope underneath all of this. That’s why adults do read children’s books, because they care about the child’s experience. And they want to learn about themselves as much as the young minds these books are written for.

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