Monday 19 August 2019

'A defibrillation for the adult mind': why we should all be reading children's books

Katherine Rundell
Katherine Rundell
'Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise' by Katherine Rundell
Rick O'Shea
Sinéad Moriarty
Monica McInerney

Sarah Webb

I was almost 10 before I could read confidently so I was lucky to be born into a family that valued reading aloud. One of the first books I can remember reading 'by myself' was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It was a struggle but the pride I felt at finishing it solo stays with me to this day. I studied English in college and along with my required reading I also continued to devour children's books - and I've simply never stopped.

When I tell people I regularly read children's books for pleasure, they tend to look at me a little oddly, but I stopped worrying about that a long time ago.

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In recent years, more and more adults are joining me. It started with 'crossover' editions of Harry Potter, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and other bestselling children's books, and it's now common for enlightened book clubs to include award-winning children's titles in their line-up. The best children's novels are wise, full of wonder and also generally short - what's not to love?

So I was eager to read Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by one of my favourite children's writers, Katherine Rundell.

In the small red hardback, she quotes WH Auden, who once wrote: "There are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children."

She goes on to explain why she herself reads children's books: "Children's novels to me, spoke, and still speak, of hope. They say: 'look this is what bravery looks like'." And she ends with a plea, to "go to children's fiction to see the world with double eyes: your own, and those of your childhood self".

RTÉ broadcaster Rick O'Shea, who also runs a hugely popular book club on Facebook, says he has always read children's books.

"Whether it was queuing up at midnight for new Harry Potters (I didn't use my kids as the excuse, I swear!) or devouring Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy."

He says he isn't bothered by people who consider reading children's books to be 'childish'. "I think that attitude is changing very quickly these days," he says, "but, to be honest, if you think children's books are too childish for you, then off you go!"

Bestselling writer Sinéad Moriarty thinks "Irish adults are probably more open to reading children's books because we were all raised on stories - myths and legends that crossed all boundaries between adults and children".

"We are a nation of storytellers and the stories children are told, and have always been told, are just as interesting as the ones for adults. So I think we are definitely more open to embracing children's books than most other nations."

Interested in Sinéad's theory, I asked Rundell herself (who spent her childhood in Africa and is now based in England) if some nationalities are more open to reading children's books than others?

"I have a Russian friend, who finds the occasional attitudes of dismissiveness towards children's books that you encounter in the UK astonishing… in Russia, children's books are studied seriously, and seen as part of the canon," she tells me.

Bestselling Australian-born, Dublin-based author Monica McInerney also loves reading children's books.

"I'm never surprised by how well-written or wise children's books are," she tells me, "but what does surprise me sometimes is how very sophisticated they are in their themes. They don't shy away from big truths, from intense human dramas, from deep emotions. There's a real strength and immediacy to them."

I will leave the last word to Rundell: "I think children's books can, when read with an adult eye, be a kind of defibrillation for the imagination - a way of kick-starting the hidden and forgotten parts of ourselves.

"And I think we ignore the importance of the imagination at our peril: it's at the core of everything most valuable. There is such a casket of riches out there - so many strange, spiky, chaotic, heart-spinning, irrepressible (children's) books - waiting to be discovered and re-discovered by adults."

'Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise' by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury) is out now


A casket of riches waiting to be discovered

If you are interested in giving children's books a try, here are some recommendations:

Katherine Rundell

Katherine Rundell

Philip Pullman, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Quartet, The Wind in the Willows and Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci books.

Rick O'Shea

Rick O'Shea

Anything by Sarah Crossan, Sarah Davis Goff's Last Ones Left Alive, Matt Killeen's Orphan Monster Spy (set in WWII) or maybe even Kelly McCaughrain's Flying Tips for Flightless Birds.

Sinéad Moriarty

Sinéad Moriarty

The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti, Wonder by R J Palacio, Toffee by Sarah Crossan, Blazing a Trail by Sarah Webb and Lauren O'Neill.

Monica McInerney

Monica McInerney

Anything by Kate di Camillo, The Treehouse Series by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit.

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