An Apology for Children’s Literature in the Hands of Grown-ups

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably clutched at a book that was deemed “childish” by other people. You read (and hopefully enjoyed) the book in secret, terrified lest someone find out that you are even is possession of Captain Underpants (But seriously, if you have any self-respect at all, avoid that book).

This article is pretty much your defense, something to employ to keep yourself from being embarrassed at finding a book you want to read (or from keeping your roommate from calling the Juvenile Detention Center). Our idol (ahem, role model), C.S. Lewis, had a word or two to say on this topic. You’ll quickly come to understand how foolish it is to be afraid of children’s literature as an adult.

First of all, before I get into the main point, I’d like to make two notes: one, the most impervious defense against any kind of criticism for trivialities on your part can be easily ignored on the basis that “it doesn’t matter what other people think”. Unless you ask for someone’s opinion or a piece of their mind, ignore them. “C.S. Lewis said I could and I don’t care what you think” is a sufficient defense.

Second, to my writers reading this: you have probably struggled with the statement that you must “cater to your audience”. Things like targeted marketing strategies are all very good and well, but if you end up writing something that you don’t genuinely care about, odds are no one else will either. If your writing ends up being a little more kid-ish (juvenile) then that doesn’t necessarily butcher your chances at being able to sell your book to young adults and teenagers. Just because you’re “too mature” for The Story Thieves doesn’t mean that you can’t read it.

Okay, on to the main point: In Lewis’ book, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, Lewis makes a three-point argument refuting those who believe that think that adults reading children’s literature (fairy tales in this instance) are, to put it bluntly, retards.

“A man who admits that dwarfs and giants and talking beasts and witches are still dear to him in his fifty-third year is now less likely to be praised for his perennial youth than scorned and pitied for arrested development.”

-C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories

Ah, poor old Tom-next-door…he’s one Narnia novel read away from being a juvenile delinquent! Maybe we ought to send him some modern, grown-up literature. Something with a lot of uncovered skin in it. That should cure him of his nasty, irrational love for (and here the speaker will pause and sneer for dramatic effect) children’s literature.

Blah blah blah. People who talk like that disgust me. As if they even remotely cared about the person in question (or cared to know about their interests, or even cared about anything other than themselves). Busybodies and meddlers, that’s what we call those kinds of people.

Aside from the obvious discrepancies the person in question is performing by even trying to dissuade “poor old Tom-next-door”, Lewis then launches into his three-pronged argument, and the first point of which is making a counter-accusation at his opponents, pinning the same charge on them that they themselves are parroting:

I reply with a tu quoque. Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.

-C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories

In effect, Lewis eloquently states that the suspicion and disdain for “childish” things is itself a mark of immaturity. This means that his very opponents are guilty of being childish by worrying about reading only “grown-ups’ literature”. Score one for Lewis.

The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?…I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed.

-C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories

Point number two for Lewis is the concept of growth as “shedding old interests and getting new ones” is false. Getting new tastes in literature is a sign of growth, but losing old tastes is not. That’s not growth; it’s simply change. Therefore, the most advanced (or mature) tastes are the ones that retain an allowance for children’s literature as well as an appreciation for fine art. One who can only enjoy erotica has a very undeveloped (or, in other words, immature) taste in literature.

The whole association of fairy tale and fantasy with childhood is local and accidental…the fairy tale has not been specially made for, nor exclusively enjoyed by, children. It has gravitated to the nursery when it became unfashionable in literary circles, just as unfashionable furniture gravitated to the nursery in Victorian houses. In fact, many children do not like this kind of book, just as many children do not like horsehair sofas: and many adults do like it, just as many adults like rocking chairs.

-C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories

And to top it off with a home run, Lewis strikes the head off the beast by cutting straight to the heart of the matter: to associate “children’s literature” with children is unfounded, as many children do not enjoy it anyway. “Children’s literature” is just a catch-all phrase for “literature that is now out of style”. Hence, it’s not “immature”, merely obscure, or even “undervalued”.

So now you’ve got your argument against the haters who will chew you out for reading The Chronicles of Narnia or some such novel. If you want, you could even send them a link to this article so they can read it themselves. Maybe I can make a writer out of ’em.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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