Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: The Crossover Novel: contemporary children's fiction and its adult readership

Rachel Falconer. The Crossover Novel: contemporary children's fiction and its adult readership. London: Routledge, 2009. ISBN 9780415978880.

Reviewer: David Beagley

British author Mal Peet was recently asked what he saw as the difference between children’s, teen and adult literature.  “Shelving!” was his reply – wherever the publisher or bookseller wanted to put it.  There is a strong argument down that line: a rose is a rose is a rose – a book is a book is a book.

Nevertheless, in the centuries since Locke and Newbery helped to establish our modern concepts of childhood education and children’s publishing, a nexus has existed between these two constructions that defines a children’s book as different to an adult’s.  Children’s books in our world must have Purpose.  This is not just the artistic expression of the author, but something for the greater good of the child reader.  That reader must be Educated!

It is immaterial whether it is in the moral uprightness that it takes to be a successful hero, or the journey of discovery to get to that uprightness and success, or the questioning of a corrupt, cynical adult world that conspires against that uprightness and success.  Child readers must be Educated by their literature where adults need not.

Why then, asks Rachel Falconer in this detailed and incisive study, are so many (supposedly already Educated) adults choosing to read children’s books?  There are so many that publishers are marketing (that indicator of all modern social trends) children’s books to them specifically.  Is it just lazy reading, seeking a less demanding literary fix in a busy, commodified world?  Is it nostalgia for the (perhaps imagined) lost innocence of childhood days?  Is it consumer response to blockbuster promotions of books and movies by parents initially dragged along by their children?  Or is there actually something of literary value that adults suspect they are being denied by their age?

Harry Potter is a prime example, and a key plank of Falconer’s discussion.  The first ‘adult’ cover for the Harry Potter novels was issued in 1998, just a year after the release of The Philosopher’s Stone.  By The Half-blood Prince in 2005, things had developed in the market such that the children’s and adult versions were released simultaneously.  Then, in the finale, the adult version of The Deathly Hallows outsold the children’s in 2007.

Clearly adults are not just reading books like Harry Potter or Pullman’s Dark Materials or the Narnia series as a quick check on what the kids are doing.  They are reading for themselves.  They are seeking out authors like Mark Haddon and David Almond and Sonya Hartnett for more than the ostensible child’s Purpose; something must be appealing to their adult sensibilities as well.

Falconer considers this very carefully.  She explores both the adult readers and the children’s books they are reading.  Her introductory discussion of ‘kiddults’ (or ‘adultescents’) discusses whether our commercial world encourages us to spend our childhood yearning to be grown up (Bratz?), then our grown-up years desperately trying to be young again (Botox?).  When do the two cross over?  Did I miss that moment of perfection in my life?  This continual dissatisfaction with the present, “the unreality of a suspended adolescence”, Falconer suggests, could be seen to push adult readers to “escape, or seek solace in the known and familiar.” (p. 41)

But as, hopefully, we are not all simply pre-programmed consumers, Falconer then uses a selection of current ‘crossover’ favourites as case studies to explore other possibilities for the phenomenon.  The Harry Potter books are the prime example of marketing and hooplah initially grabbing the initial attention, then the cliff-hanging desire to see how it all works out; but Falconer also sees Harry as the child growing into adulthood, having to put aside his childhood to face the woes of life and death.  In Harry’s acceptance of his fate, in contrast to Voldemort’s refusal to accept his, she sees that “there could be no more severe indictment of the kiddult who refuses to listen to a child urging him ‘to be a man, try’” (p. 72). Clearly there is a salutary message for adult readers in Rowling’s structured maturing of Harry.

Pullman’s Dark Materials series, Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and McCaughrean’s The White Darkness are similarly used to demonstrate particularly adult themes and sensibilities, as distinct from a child’s reading of them.  Each requires access to frames of reference outside the text: Milton’s Paradise Lost, the range of Autism spectrum conditions, and Scott’s 1912 Antarctic exhibition.  The psychology of each text’s protagonists is key to the outcome, as adult choices create the problems to be faced.  And there is in each story an element - Catholic theology, the autistic mind, violence and abjection - of ‘are kids really expected to know …?’  These texts raise the question of whether they are classed (by the publishers and booksellers) as children’s books simply because they have young characters, not because they are intended for a young audience.

When Falconer gets to Narnia, the reader’s choice is the focus.  Noting that so many re-readers of childhood favourites seek out similar physical copies of their remembered childhood artefact (hardcover with Pauline Bayne illustrations, for instance), she identifies this aspect of cross-reading as ‘reliving the experience one had as a child reader’.  The text itself ‘should look as it did when the adult first encountered it as a child’ (p.156).  This would suggest pure nostalgia for lost golden days and a focus only on the classics, yet Falconer shows that the nature of the reading must be different.  The adult cannot read as a child, despite the seeking out of the physical experience.  Years have passed, experience has been gained, other books read for comparison.  The reader is not discovering something totally new.

“Rereading of this kind is dialogic, not only in the sense that it is often shared with another reader, often a child, but also in that the rereader’s response to the text is always split between a former and a present reading.” (p.163)  Thus a reflexive awareness of oneself as a reader must follow such rereading of classics and favourites, and Falconer delves not only into CS Lewis’ writing on the subject, but also Proust, Barthes, Nabokov and Tolkien.

To the criticism that adults reading and rereading children’s books is backward looking and regressive, Falconer concludes that it is the reverse.  By letting the adult inhabit, for a moment, the child’s world denied them by age, she feels that it “will heighten our consciousness of a manifold time, in which the present is instinct with a sense of past and future.” Like Lucy Pevensey in the wardrobe “both adults and children edge forward to the future, while seeing the past take shape before us.” (p.189)

The Crossover Novel: contemporary children’s fiction and its adult readership is a detailed and rigorous piece of scholarship.  It is well supported by chapter-by-chapter notes, extensive bibliography and full index, and it raises much for consideration about both child and adult readers.  To the argument that both childhood and children’s literature are adult constructions, it adds a new and intriguing perspective. It recognizes that they may just be, in children's literature, something more than just 'The Purpose', 'The Educating' of 'The Young Reader'. There might also be a literary and personal experience for the adult.


David Beagley

Volume 13, Issue 3, The Looking Glass,September/October, 2009

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