Intergenerational reading

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal got me thinking about children’s books, and how my attitude towards them has changed over the years.

I’m not sure when I decided I had outgrown children’s books, perhaps when I was in high school. I read a lot, for pleasure as well as for classes, but I tried to make even my pleasure reading the sort that developed my mind rather than just entertaining it. Children’s books hardly seemed suited to that purpose.

When I was in college, browsing in the college library as I often did for books for my own enjoyment, I came upon the Narnia Chronicles one day and decided to reread them. I was amazed at how much more I could appreciate them than I had when I was a child, and realized that they had a great deal to teach adults as well – and that they were just plain good reading.

It took until I had children of my own, however, to get back to reading children’s books just for the fun of it. I had looked forward to reading books like Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows to my children, as my father had done for my sister and me.

I discovered, however, that by the time their understanding and attention span had grown to where they could enjoy books that had more words than pictures, they preferred to pick their own books and read to themselves. Well, I hardly wanted to discourage that. So they read the children’s books they selected, and I read the children’s books I would have liked to read to them, by myself.

For a while I felt a need to justify this to myself by thinking that I was reacquainting myself with familiar books from my childhood and finding other books new to me (though often not new books at all), so that I could suggest them when my boys wanted something else to read. But I found that I enjoyed them so much that reading them seemed a worthwhile activity in and of itself.

I particularly enjoyed reading the books that were the basis for the Disney movies we bought and watched (over and over and over!) with the boys. I discovered The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, The Rescuers by Margery Sharp, The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, and Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus. I had heard of the original Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie but had never read it before, so I found a copy and read it.

I reread Bedknob And Broomstick by Mary Norton (which I had read as a child and found very scary; now it is simply fun reading – and a much better story than the Disney movie, in my opinion), Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming (also far better than the Disney adaptation), Alice in Wonderland, and The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander (this one at least I was able to share with the family by getting it on a CD to play in the car during a family trip). And I reread A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens at least once every few Christmases.

As the boys got older, we found books we could all enjoy reading together. My husband and I insisted on reading each of the Harry Potter books before letting our sons read them, especially as they got darker in the later books in the series. I found some other series, Passages by Paul McCusker and Raising Dragons by Bryan Davis – though as I bought these as gifts for my older son I had to wait until he finished each book before I could enjoy it.

I reread The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, then discovered the delightful The Boggart by the same author. I reread childhood favorites such as The Enormous Egg and The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear by Oliver Butterworth, as well as several of Michael Bond’s Paddington books. Just last year I found a used copy of Lassie Come-Home and enjoyed rereading it.

I had never read the Great Brain books by John D. Fitzgerald before our older son got one as a present (soon to be followed by all the others we could find), but I enjoyed them also (once he had read them), and was glad to see our younger son devour them also when he was old enough to enjoy them. The one series that both boys got into that I never found an interest in reading was Katherine Applegate’s Animorphs.

Given my great enjoyment in reading and rereading these books, it seems odd that some people would think it strange for adults to read children’s books. This columnist actually considers it embarrassing for adults to read children’s books. I have to wonder what children’s books he has actually read, even back when he was a child, to make such a judgment. This article is less judgmental, but implies that if life were better, adults wouldn’t feel the need to “retreat from the disappointment of reality.”

The article in the Wall Street Journal attributes the growing popularity of children’s books among adults as part of “a broader cultural shift as the taste gap between generations collapses.” Producers of all sorts of entertainment – music, movies, games – try to appeal to children and adults at the same time. Children’s apparel is similar to that of teens and adults – much to the dismay of parents who have trouble finding what they consider appropriate clothing for their children.

If this means that tastes in general are going downhill, or sinking to the lowest common denominator, that’s not an encouraging sign. But in terms of books and movies, at least (I listen to very little contemporary music unless someone else has it playing nearby), my experience is that there’s a fair amount of good stuff out there that adults and children can enjoy together. 

It’s not like adults are reading nothing but preteen books, or children are abandoning cartoons and silly songs to pursue only entertainment aimed at adults. (There are no doubt some people who do just that, but there’s still plenty being sold that does not have much intergenerational appeal.) There is so much to choose from, people can choose whatever they enjoy, and if that means parents and children choose the same thing, that’s a good thing. Why shouldn’t parents and children enjoy the same books, music, and movies?

With children just beginning to read, of course, it’s different, and it’s a good thing that there is such a wealth of good books for them to enjoy. I don’t remember that I minded reading about Dick and Jane in school, but I’m very glad that at home I could read Dr. Seuss and other fun books (many of which came from frequent trips to the library).

My younger son, when he first moved from picture books to chapter books, enjoyed books about Junie B. Jones, Flat Stanley, and Cam Jensen. I didn’t mind reading these to him at bedtime, but when he took to finishing them on his own I didn’t mind, or feel a need to find out for myself how the book ended. There’s a place for such books for children just developing the habit of reading for pleasure.

But by the time they’ve advanced to longer, more difficult and complex books, I see no reason why those books shouldn’t appeal to a wide range of ages. People have always loved stories, and for most of history, I don’t think people were segregated by age as storytellers entertained and educated their audiences.

The idea of books written specifically for children is not particularly modern, but the wide variety of children’s books we are now accustomed to is relatively recent. This rather lengthy article details the development of children’s literature, from books instructing children on good manners and wise behavior, to the development of more imaginative books written largely for entertainment.

I’d like to think that parents and children enjoying contemporary “children’s books” together could lead to them enjoying classics together also. I’m sure that Saki‘s stories aren’t considered children’s literature, but it never occurred to me as a child that there was anything odd that my father should read Winnie the Pooh to use one night and Saki another. (I admit, as a young child I had trouble appreciating some of Saki’s stories as much as my older sister did, and I preferred Winnie the Pooh or The Wind in the Willows. But as an adult I bought my own copy of his stories.)

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