Why You Should Read Children’s Books
Even Though You Are So Old and Wise
Bloomsbury Publishing 2019
This insightful and beautifully written essay fits into a slim 63-page hardback but contains as many worthy gems as many a longer study. In nearly a dozen sections Katherine Rundell, herself a children’s author, makes a powerful case for juvenile fiction not being inferior to adult fiction but worthy in its own right; and, more than that, it can offer what much adult fiction can’t or won’t.
The author tries to put her finger on what those qualities are and, in my opinion, pretty much succeeds. All this review will aim to do is to give a flavour of the main points she enumerates.
First she emphasises that children’s fiction is “not exclusively for children” as anybody who conscientiously reads this literature without being the target audience can confirm. Yet there are those so wedded to a false concept of ‘progress’ that they will think that kids lit is of less worth than adult fiction. As the author says, there is a place for fart jokes, dinosaur facts and diaphonous fairies, but there is more to this genre than these kinds of topics.
Four sections provide an overview of the history of children’s fiction down to today and celebrate the immersiveness of childhood reading and the genre’s intrinsic values: ‘wild hungers’ and, in Angela Carter’s marvellous phrase, ‘heroic optimism’. This last was in reference to the message that many fairytales (and fiction using fairytale tropes) provide what Rundell calls “the miracle of hope”. She correctly points out that fairytales “were never just for children” and that by providing a message of hope they speak to all ages, especially during times when it’s all too easy to despair from a sense of powerlessness.
Shen then has a section on politics — not party politics but this very issue of a balance of power. Children’s fiction, she declares, was and is “specifically written to be read by a section of society without political or economic power,” and its messages, often more hidden than explicit, can be mildly subversive if not dangerous. (In a good way, of course.) She later has strong words to say about a lack of diversity in UK publications for young readers, pointing out that though a little over 31% of school children are from minority ethnic origins, just 4% of books issued in a recent year featured BAME characters.
Her next focus is on imagination in kids’ books, for reading them “can teach us not just what we have forgotten but what we have forgotten we have forgotten.” More than that, book say something essential: they say “hope counts for something.” The miracle of hope fairytales provide is present in good literature, a counterblast to all that is ugly in life. Nil desperandum is what they whisper, and sometimes even shout.
And the place to find this hope, distilled into compact form? The library of course, the place so despised by law makers that they deprive it of funds, thus depriving young minds of hope.
Rundell finishes off her impassioned plea with a final powerful truth:
So defy those who would tell you to be serious, to calculate the profit of your imagination… Ignore those who would call it mindless escapism: it’s not escapism: it is findism.
Say it loud, then: Children’s books are not a hiding place, they are a seeking place. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a scoundrel.