Monday, May 16, 2011

Children's Books for Adults, Adult Books for Children

For almost a month now, an adult picture book has been a bestseller on Amazon, and there's still another month before its official release. While totally irreverent and not at all appropriate for children, it's the irony of Go the F**k to Sleep that has so many people talking. But really, this controversial book really isn't as controversial, unique or earth-shattering as you might think.

Many books we think of as children's classics were not intentionally written for children at all. (Okay, maybe the authors were writing them for children, but the publishers never differentiated.)

Aesop's Fables Aesop (6th centenary BC)
The Tales of Mother Goose by Charles Perrault (1695)
Grimm's Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1812)
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss (1812)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll (1865)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)

Of course there were a few exceptions, like John Newbery's (yes, that Newbery) A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) and Johanna Spyri's Heidi (1880). Otherwise, children's stories were published in magazines but not printed in volumes until long after they had proven their popularity.

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen (1835)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1883)
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894)
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnet (1905)

It wasn't until the turn of the 20th century that books started to be published specifically for children. And then it took years for the phenomenon to catch on.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (1902)
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)
Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie (1911)

Even today there is a stigma attached to children's books--they don't sell as well, they don't have the same literary value, they just aren't as good as books for adults. The NYT's Sunday Book Review and the New Yorker Magazine both have recently perpetuated this misplaced criticism. So many books are marketed for adults though their characters and themes tend to work better for young readers.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card(1985)
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2002)

Yet a lot of books that are published for children do well with an adult audience. (Twilight Moms, anyone? Or what about that billion-dollar empire created by J.K. Rowling?) And you can't forget all the picture books adults love to think they're buying for kids, but really they are written to appeal to adults' sentimentality.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964)
Love You Forever by Robert Munsch (1986)
Oh, The Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss (1990)
You Are Special by Max Lucado (1997)
It's a Book by Lane Smith (2010)

Children's books have a much bigger influence on the publishing industry than a lot of readers realize. They change the way we look at literature, literacy, publishing and sales. I still remember the time when YA books were not distinguished from children's books or adult books, and it wasn't until Harry Potter that the New York Times made a separate bestseller list for children's books. If a non-traditional book makes people pay a little more attention to the struggles of the picture book industry and reminds us that reading to our children is good for them and maybe even better for us, than I hope the publishing industry continues to produce books that challenge the market.

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