I like to think that when I was younger, I regularly read “adult” novels. By the time I was 13, I had finished To Kill a Mockingbird, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. I devoured books of all kinds, from Jeffrey Archer’s rags-to-riches sagas to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
But, lest you forget I was (and legally, still am) a kid, I also read plenty of children’s stories during that time. I read plenty of Rick Riordan, Lois Lowry, Rosemary Sutcliff and J.K. Rowling as well.
But this indiscriminate reading has consequences. For one thing, I was (and still am) a little confused about some of the books I read. Were they children’s books or adults’ books? Some kind of felt like both. (Take Terry Pratchett’s Nation, for example. I remember thinking it was a children’s book. But now I’m not sure.)
But that leads to the greater question: what is the difference between children’s and adults’ books?
Some people will say that the difference lies in reading level—but then, most novels, both children’s books and adults’ books, fall between grade 4 (10 year-old) and grade 9 (15 year-old) reading levels, including Ernest Hemingway (Grade 4), J. R. R. Tolkien (Grade 6), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Grade 8), and J. K. Rowling (Grade 6). Obviously, kids can read adult books—it’s just that, for the most part, they don’t.
Others might say that it is the themes: adults’ books, in general, are thought to have deeper and more serious themes. But with children’s books nowadays tackling kidnapping (Coraline), the Holocaust (Number the Stars), dystopia (The Giver), general death (Bridge to Terebithia), and child abuse (Matilda), I can’t really say that adults’ books are by any stretch more serious that some children’s books.
The best way to figure out what makes children’s books different is to look at several and search for key similarities. I found a list of some of the best, so we’ll just use that.
Charlotte’s Web. A Wrinkle in Time. Harry Potter. The Chronicles of Narnia. Matilda. Forgive me if I’m wrong (I’ve been bad, I didn’t actually read all 100 books), but the main trait that they share is that the protagonists are all children.
Which sort of makes sense. The aim of any writer is create relatable characters, and, in the case of children’s stories, the best way to create relatable characters is to create characters that children would understand: other children.
Of course, as I said, there are outliers, such as The Hobbit (which is about a fifty-year-old who goes on an adventure with a bunch of dwarves who are no younger), but, it seems, in most cases, even if the main character is not necessarily a child, most of them face similar things. Throughout the story, they’re
- Patronised/ignored by other characters (usually adults or older children).
- Not particularly skilled (at least, initially).
- Usually in a daze about their world and trying to come to terms with it.
Which perfectly relates to children. (Unless you were some prodigy, you’d know how all three would feel.)
And looking back at that list, I would certainly classify Terry Pratchett’s Nation as a children’s book. But that aside, what other elements do you think children’s books have?