All of my growing years were spent in different libraries, chasing down books, and librarians for more books. Books were classified into various categories – children’s book, adult books, books I could never reach, books that were never stocked in the library. I grew up with the dream of libraries with no bounds, of subjects, and shelves. Now a mature adult, I am still struggling with the classifications, and the utter contempt with which we treat children’s books.
JRR Tolkien, one of the greatest, most profound story tellers of our times, wrote a masterful essay titled “On Fairy Stories” in 1947, arguing against any connection between children and certain subjects, including fairy-stories. In arguing against the very concept of a “children’s book”, Tolkien presents a new perspective. By labelling certain themes and books as preserves of children alone, he says, adults deny themselves a great deal of pleasure – and isn’t attaining more pleasure the corner stone of turning eighteen? Tolkien argues in his piece that “adults are allowed to collect and study anything, even old theatre programmes or paper bags.”
On the other hand, some of the best “children’s novels” I have read recently transcend that fragile line bifurcating books for minors from those for majors so beautifully that it makes little sense to hold on to antiquated ideas of what is good for whom. Take Christina Henry, who describes herself as a runner, reader, and a samurai and zombie movie enthusiast. Her protagonist Alice, in her book The Chronicles of Alice, is at another end of the spectrum from Lewis Carroll’s character.
She is moody, frail, full of forgotten magic, and also locked up in a “mental asylum”. Alice is haunted by the memories of a tea party held long ago, remembers blood, and has been raped, possibly by someone named Rabbit, or someone named the Walrus. Henry creates a dark, brooding world of fantasy, reminding you in part of the original tale, except there is no Wonderland at the end of the tunnel. The book is tagged as a “children’s book”, yet Henry doesn’t say so herself.
Books for children? Or adults? or both?
Consider a sampling of writers and books that adults can read with joy, even if they are formally supposed to be children’s books:
Arundhati Venkatesh, a self-professed “children’s author”, describes herself as a person who makes up stories, across continents, across bookstores. Her books are reminiscent of a gentle childhood populated by adults who are relatable, food that is familiar, and references to other books that are brave.
Anushka Ravishankar is a mathematician, who became a writer after the birth of her daughter. She is frequently referred to as India’s Dr Seuss, and has perhaps written one of the finest set of books I read in 2017, the Moin and the Monster series. The book follows the story of a monster who actively breaks all stereotypes – of horror, gender, colour, and predilections. It is witty, endearing, and so relevant in a society full of adults who actively deny people their rights to love, marry, and exist.
Dear Mr Henshaw, a wonderful book by Beverly Cleary, is a book written for a certain kind of people. It transcends the boundaries of what strictly constitutes “childhood”, and deals with difficult subjects, such as people who are divorced, yet perhaps still in love; loneliness, reticence, and the constant struggle in both dogs and humans to find kinship.
RJ Palacio’s Wonder, which was recently made into a movie, tackles the subject of facial difference, actually teaching us not to blend in, and very subtly points out how our “compassion” and “curiosity” must find appropriate ways to manifest themselves.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a splendid narration on differences. The cartoons in the book, and the emphasis on certain words like “disappear” and “retard”, make you stop and read the text again. Perhaps these are emphasised more for the benefit of adults, to make them see the world a little differently, even at their “mature” age.
Excluded from one another’s worlds
What we fail to realise is that the pointless and compulsive need to classify books as “children’s” prohibits us from delving into worlds that we may never have had access to ourselves as children. Most “children’s authors” have steadfastly kept themselves out of the confines of such a rigid classification, and in fact, our inclination to label them is only rooted in the main character of the book and their situation. For instance, if rape and physical violence are discussed, as they were by the teenaged Alice in Henry’s The Chronicles of Alice, it is considered a story for teenagers. Similarly, disability is considered through the lens of a ten-year-old boy in Palacio’s Wonder. But is there nothing for adults here?
Imagine, for a moment, growing up experiencing one language, and being exposed to a new one in adulthood. Where do the distinctions between literature for children and for adults lie in such a scenario? Do we start with so-called “children’s books” in the new language, because that’s where reading begins, even if we are adults by now? Do we stop ourselves from reading Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shonku series, or the poetry of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, or the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, if we come to those languages later in life?
Tolkien places a great deal of premium on the human imagination, and the ability to enter the “second world” of a book. A world where we as adults willingly accept Macbeth’s witches, or the victories of a certain lord of darkness, would be impossible without the element of fantasy that allows human brains to conceive of things beyond our immediate realities. These are the alternate worlds books create for us. If more adults today were imaginative, we would perhaps have a better brand of people – more tolerant and creative, capable of accepting defeat, and rising above violence and hopelessness.
Just as adults are shut out of the world of children’s book, so too are children denied access to mature forms of writing by being defined as a class that needs it own books. There is a dreadful undergrowth of children’s books dealing with “adult” topics, including those as ubiquitous as gender and violence. But the imitations – for lack of a better word – in children’s books are frequently silly, or fictionalised without intrigue, and, worst of all, patronising. This is deeply troubling, and symptomatic of the way we feed misled and ill-formed ideas to people who are poised to tackle the future.
A far simpler approach would be to distinguish between ideas – those worth consuming and those far from it, ideas that discuss language and poetry, history and the sciences, tragedies and triumphs. Instead of arguing over which book in the library goes into what shelf, we should perhaps be arguing for better, more inclusive libraries, full of people with imagination, and new stories to tell, in all possible languages.