Reach across the book aisle
As an adult I am often confused as to why some books are labeled children's books. As a middle school English teacher, I read my fair share of kid's lit; a ratio of what feels like 95% to 5%. I recognize that the majority of books marketed to children feel like children's books. Their dialogue is simple, their problems are simple; they are designed to help build young readers skills and love of reading. However, I have noticed there is an increasing number of books that can be found in the children's section by mistake. They are found there by mistake because while children or animals are the main protagonist the story is incredibly human and relatable. These stories are the stories that all should be exposed to and reminded of. They are stories that probably end up in this section because the author's last book was for the kids or they are designed to teach life lessons young readers will use when they become adults. However, as I read these books the lessons and themes the author weaves through the text are ones us adults need to be reminded of (now more than ever).
The One and Only Ivan: I picked this book up last winter because I had just finished my "adult" book and probably needed something for our Independent Reading block. It was the best serendipitous thing to happen to me. Katherine Applegate tells the story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla who is the main attraction at a failing mall zoo. Not exactly the most compelling pitch but the Newbery medal on the cover hinted that it was good. It wasn't good, it was GREAT. Without a doubt this book was one of the best books I have read in the past year. We journey with Ivan as he observes the human world behind his glass where he deals with loss, loneliness, new friendship, and so much more. Applegate doesn't mince words; the book is almost written like a poem. With that prose, we as adults are better equipped to fill in what she is hinting at and when we do it's bittersweet and uplifting. During my 6 AM commute, my fellow passengers would look at me and think, "Is she okay?" as tears would stream down my face. I could not put this book down. Once I was done, I wanted everyone to read this book. I reached out to my literacy team. My literacy team changed the summer reading book to this. Win! I sent a copy in a book exchange. Oh how I hope she loves this book. There is a reason why this book proudly sports it's Newberry medal, but it should he draped in so much more.
Brown Girl Dreaming: So around the same time, a year earlier, I picked up Ivan, I picked up this book. Jacqueline
Woodson is known for her realistic fiction verse through the lens of young boys. Breaking with tradition, this book is a poetic memoir about Woodson’s dichotomous upbringing in the 1960s in New York and the South Carolina. She paints a vivid picture about what it was like for a young black girl growing up during the civil rights movement in two different worlds. Her story is relatable whatever your background maybe. She struggles with finding her own voice. Coming of age is a common theme in almost every piece of literature geared towards children. However, it seems as if Woodson laboriously chose each word and poem to capture what it feels like to grow up. She does not sugar coat her experiences to help children understand what she is saying. As an adult, you read her words and it’s like smooth velvet that keeps the pages turning. This August, Woodson is releasing Another Brooklyn, an adult novel. From reading the blurb on Amazon it seems as if she is repackaging Brown Girl for an adult audience as prose. While I will be the first to buy this book, it saddens me that “children’s” books can’t cross the aisle in the bookstore to sit among the fiction.
Chains: This past spring my students and I read this book as our last literature unit. Told through the perspective of a 11 year old slave, Isabel, this character embodies the will, and chutzpah (yiddish for audacity) to seek out what she truly deserves. Just like a little musical gives the audience a different perspective on the beginnings of this nation, the reader is given an often untold story a new audience. Told as if it were 1776, through an uneducated slave, it's as if you are with Isabel as she fights her fight for freedom and preservation of what little family she has left. Isabel’s conditions are raw, the descriptions plant you on Wall Street as troops are discussing the British advancement. As an adult, it reminds you that you should never give up on what you strive for. Laurie Halse Anderson captivates all readers and helps us fall in love with history in a way textbooks cannot. This book will leave you wanting more, which is okay, since it is part of a three book series.
I could wax on and on about every book I have read that should be a traditional novel, but appropriate for younger audiences. This pigeon holes books where certain readers will never think of picking them up for various reasons. One might quip, but the main character is a child, or that the language is so simple. They are not wrong, but give it chance, and read it wholistically. Get lost in these books. Balance it out by reading the latest best-seller for adults. These are books that stay with readers long after they close the cover. Often I find myself thinking, will children even appreciate these books? Not really, but us adults will because only with life experience does the reader understand the author’s message.
More “children” books to read as an adult:
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
What are your favorite “children’s” books that moved you as an adult?