This post was indirectly inspired by Neil Gaiman’s excellent essay “What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book Anyway?,” from the November/December 2012 issue of the Horn Book Magazine. It is funny, thoughtful, and available via the Library databases!
In one of my earliest and strongest memories, I am four years old and poring over a beloved copy of something-or-other by Dr. Seuss. It was a book whose pages I had flipped many times, but now something was new: what about these words? Like hieroglyphics or Japanese, I knew that they meant something, and for the first time I was vexed that I did not know how to decipher that something. My determination to learn how to read words was born in that moment, but what I didn’t realize is that in the wake of this quest for literacy, there would be sacrifice. It wouldn’t be until years later that I re-learned how to really look at a picture book, and remember how to read all of the non-word stuff.
A similar thing happened again, a decade or so down the road. I was 13, and came home from the local Borders (R.I.P) with a copy of Tom Woolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I had a growing fascination with all things 1960’s (Hippies! Jimi Hendrix! Tie dye!) and was beyond excited to tear into this true account of drugged-out weirdos driving across the U.S. in a psychedelic bus. What I did not anticipate was my parents’ utter horror at my choice of reading material, and the book’s swift confiscation. These were, after all, the same parents who gamely encouraged my love of Stephen King at age ten—what could POSSIBLY be so objectionable, could so thoroughly corrupt my tender teenage brain? Obviously, I had to find out. I spent the better half of a year reading Acid Test huddled in my mother’s closet with a flashlight, in the half-hour bursts of time after I arrived home from school and before she returned from work. Honestly, I can’t say I loved the book beyond the illicit thrill of reading it, but another birth/death in my literary development took place in its wake: I was DONE with books written for my age group. From here on out, it was stuff about deadbeat grown-up miscreants or nothing (leading directly to my obligatory Beat Generation phase a couple years later, but that’s a story for another time).
I think these sorts of literary purges are essential to children and adolescents learning to navigate the world of Adult Content. It is only after swearing off of kids’ stuff, and many years of reading books by grown-ups, for grown-ups, that I have come around to loving picture books and YA literature once again. I find genuine pleasure in sifting through a beautifully illustrated 32-pager, and sometimes scarcely pay attention to those words that once caused me such agony. And re-living teenage years from a safe distance is akin to bungee jumping, or roller coasters: you get to experience the thrill of something wild & terrifying, well-shielded from any actual trauma.
To conclude, here are my recommendations for adults like me, who temporarily abandoned their literary roots and are ready to dive back into what made us book-lovers to begin with. All available at your local Library!
Gorgeously illustrated and sneakily hilarious. Also excellent: This is Not My Hat, by the same author/illustrator. Get it at Wheelock: J-P K67i.
I read The Giver as a tween, but never bothered with this or any of Lowry’s other follow-ups in the series until recently. WHEW am I glad I did. Get it at Wheelock: J L95ga. Messenger, number 3 in the series, is also great.
The first book in a trilogy called His Dark Materials. If you liked Harry Potter but could’ve used more character nuance & moral complexity (and more bear fights) (like, between actual talking bears), this is your series. Get it at Wheelock: J P96g.
These are just four titles among so, so many other excellent picture and young adult books. You can search around for more, or better yet, ask a librarian! Most public libraries boast experts on this stuff who would be thrilled to send you home with a mountain of new reading material…