Saturday, August 15, 2015

Adult Books Versus Childrens Books and Where I Fall in the Divide

Adult Fiction Versus Childrens Fiction

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If you don't know, I am twenty-six and I work at a bookstore/coffeeshop/cafe. I am also an author, and I read a lot. I have trouble not reading - just leave a piece of paper with writing on it anywhere near me and I'd have to use massive amounts of willpower to refrain from reading it. I'm a compulsive reader, and if something interests me, I'll give it a try.

Until a few years ago, when I was taking a course on writing for children, I never really looked at the "age designation" of a book. I just glanced at the cover, flipped it over and read the blurb, and then read a few pages to see if it was the kind of thing I might like. That course assigned me the task of finding books that were marketed specifically to certain age groups. I had to read them, dissect a few, and basically sum up what the course was teaching me: there really are books written for distinct age groups, such as middle graders or working adults. 

It also showed me that I hadn't ever examined this idea in relation to myself.

Of course, one of the byproducts of being homeschooled was the fact that I wasn't in a specific "grade" or "age group." I read what I wanted outside of school reading lists. If I wanted to read Homer's Iliad when I was eleven, there was no one around to tell me it was more of a high school thing. If I preferred a dry textbook on the mechanics of writing to a fun book on writing that was aimed for younger kids, no one noticed. This same thing happened when I "hung out" with other people. If I wanted to go sit with the grandparents, I did. If I wanted to play with younger children, I did that too. I didn't have a designated friend group, and I really didn't hang out with many people my age. And I was always completely fine with this. In fact, I've always enjoyed independence (maybe too much!).

Which leads me back to that reading thing. Some of you might have read Ruth Graham's buzzed about Slate article from last year. This one. It was around the release of The Fault in Our Stars movie, and she was bemoaning how adults were no longer embarrassed to be reading "books that were written for children." Honestly, that article (and all the spleen-filled or rational ones that popped up refuting it or affirming it) just made me laugh. I agreed with Graham about The Fault in Our Stars. I even found myself nodding along to some of her points. And it still didn't make a whit of difference when I sifted through pages of books that looked interesting on Goodreads.

I just don't care if a book was written for my demographic (working, single, female, mid-twenties) or not! 

This led me to the question: Why do I read? At first glance, it's like asking why you breathe, or eat, or sleep, or anything else natural. But I know it isn't that way for everyone.

So I came up with 5 really basic reasons:

1. I read to learn more about the world and the people who live/have lived in it and the times they lived in.

2. I read for the sheer pleasure of a good story: the anticipation and excitement of the beginning, the emotional connection to the characters, the breath-holding panic that it isn't going to turn out right, and the satisfying warmth at the beautiful, perfect ending.

3. I read to relax or unwind, to forgo worries, tasks and daily concerns at far less cost than a trip to the spa or a vacation.

4. I read to challenge my brain. Whether it's tricky plots or new ideas, or intricate examinations of the truth or substance of a thing, working out your brain is just as important as working your body.

5. I read to write. So many authors, from Stephen King to Margaret Atwood, recommend reading as one of the first and best things to do if you want to write. Which sort of builds on reason #4, above.

So, keeping all those reasons in mind, what does this have to do with the Adult books versus Children's books debate?

Not much.

If a book fulfills any one of those reasons, I will consider it worth a look. Whether it was written by Dr. Seuss or James Joyce makes no difference to me when I pick it up.

Granted, I judge books on a different scale. I won't fault Mo Willems because his hilarious and fun Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! didn't explore the themes of childhood like Peter Pan, which in its turn, didn't explore adolescence like Hatchet, which doesn't quite capture the struggle for existence like The Call of the Wild. Because books are written for different ages and maturity levels, and tastes. But I don't think that means that you should be embarrassed to read a book because you aren't the target audience. I think it goes a lot deeper than that.

And adult novels? I'm not really sure if I'm the kind of adult they had in mind . . .

While I can't really relate to YA or MG protagonists, I almost always cannot relate to Adult protagonists.

In the advance review program I'm currently participating in, it is all adult literature, and predominantly fiction. I turn to the nonfiction for a breath of fresh air (I love Adult Nonfiction!).
When I pick up the second (twentieth) adult novel, it contains many (or all) of these things I cannot relate to:

Protagonists who:

  • Are really, really, wealthy. And that's really all there is to them.
  • Have lives consisting of drugs, parties, and waking up in strange places - and that's the book's plot.
  • Are trying to decide if they really love their spouse/significant other, or that random person they met through "serendipity"at [insert event here]
  • Are businessmen who deal with lots of important assets and can't find time for their families, and are therefore depressed and considering drastic options
  • Are extremely foul mouthed, irresponsible, beautiful, talented, and magically retain their jobs
  • Randomly super-attractive people who show up at just the perfect moment
  • Are college students who party, do drugs, and can't figure out who they are, who still . . . keep their jobs, finish their classes, and manage to be admired by their friends/picked up by the best looking person in the room. Really?
  • Are incredibly gifted and tragic young people who are squandering their gifts left and right, who have parent-issues and spiral into artistic demises.
  • Have oodles of affairs. With everyone in the book. Why? I have no idea.
  • Are so confused that they go through life in a haze, hoping random events or people will give them meaning. Ends with them deciding it was all worth it, and me being really confused as to the point of this exercise in complete futility.

I don't know about you, but I can relate to these people far less  than I relate to the average second grader.
But that isn't my main point. I can't really relate to Harry Potter either. And someone can probably relate to one or some of the things above - but not me.

I don't read novels based on how much I think they might resemble or can impact my life. I don't read books just because the protagonist is like me. I know me-I'm far more interested in reading about different kinds of people, or things I don't know and haven't experienced.

If it's a good book, it's worth reading. And I'm not going to get into good vs. bad books, because that wasn't the point of this post. I'm also not questioning the fact that not all books are appropriate for all people (I wouldn't hand a nine-year-old The Road or The Goldfinch, etc.)

PersonallyI don't care if a book was written for middle-aged parents, retired teachers, or preteens. You can't judge a book's worth on its intended audience. This insults the readers and the authors.

Are there mediocre (and even bad) books? Yes. But I doubt that had anything to do with their target audience. Ultimately, I think that if you refuse to read a book based on who it was written for, you could be missing out on something brilliant, and that's sad.

The power of a good story is universal. And I think that is something we can all agree on.

So what makes you read one book over another? Have you ever put a book back because you realized it was written for a different audience than you first supposed? Do labels like YA, Middle Grade, or Adult Fiction help you or hinder you in your search for good books?