Children’s Literature: Not Just for Children (Duh)

As a children’s librarian I feel I’ve earned enough of a soapbox to proclaim and vehemently defend the age-old conviction that children’s books are not just for children (duh.) While that may seem like common sense to most, one look in a Barnes & Noble will tell you otherwise: if you’re looking for a copy of The Little Prince you’ll need to forage through the plastic trees, past the mural of jungle animals and the coloring table just to find it. It’s one of those instances, like trying to get into Chuck E. Cheese’s, where you feel like everyone’s looking at you, judging you for the lack of a child at your side (c’mon, like you’ve never done it.) That’s when you grab the book, pretend you’re buying it for your nephew and get the hell out of there.

That is, assuming that you’ve somehow heard of Antoine de princeSaint-Exupery’s classic, since you obviously don’t have a nephew, you hack. Amid whimsical, cartoon-y illustrations and a fantastical tale of a stranded pilot and the space-traveling little boy who changes his life, you’ll find some of the most poignant, startlingly wise lessons about life, love, death, and perspective. And when I say lessons, I don’t mean that this is the kind of book that aims to teach anything; its truths are recognized by simply experiencing them. The Little Prince is an allegory of human nature and the struggle to grow up without losing your inner child, which is precisely why it’s always in the kid’s section. Virtually any book that suggests it’s okay to never grow up is automatically branded towards kids because, ironically, adults have more serious, more important things to read.

Except for when they have kids of their own. THEN they not only turn into vigilantes about what their children are exposed to, scanning every last book and movie for educational content, but if they as adults are forced to delve into it, they want to be entertained, too. It’s become a tricky business, cranking out stuff that’s appropriate for kids but will also grab their parents’ attention (and wallets.) The huge success of the Shrek movie franchise will attest to that- think the kids caught any of those sly references the grown-ups laughed at? Nope, and they’re not supposed to. But aside from what’s cleverly marketed to appeal to adults over their children’s heads, there are some things that, although meant for children, are like candy to adults as well.

Take for example, Shel Silverstein’s polarizing book, The Giving Tree, about the “friendship” between a tree who gives and a little boy who takes. You either love it or you hate it, (in either case most likely after bawling your eyes out) but it certainly makes you think. Since it was published in 1964, millions of grown-ass people have been arguing about its deeper implications, ranging from environmentalism to sadomasochism. Adults have this tendency to over-analyze even the simplest of stories, rationalizing that since it was written by a fellow adult there must be some hidden meaning. Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t, but whenever I read it to kids they mostly just get a little sad and then revert back to asking if it’s almost time for lunch.

Image      The point is that lessons and learning experiences can be garnered from almost anything, as long as you have a mind to look for it. I guarantee you can read The Little Prince right now and learn more about your life than you would by reading Freud’s whole anthology (maybe.) But what if you haven’t heard of it? What if you don’t watch Reading Rainbow and don’t have a reason to peruse the kid’s section at the library? You’re just supposed to miss out on some of the greatest works of literature, I guess.

Except, HELLO, frig that. I say fly your rebel Crayola flag high! Get in there and see what you’re missing! And don’t forget to check out the bestseller rack, ’cause it ain’t the kids buyin’ those books- it’s teachers, librarians, and parents who are very carefully choosing the next generation’s classics. So grow out your John Waters mustache and unabashedly haunt the kid’s section. (Just uh, inspect the books and not the kids, please.)

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