Katherine Rundell’s essay is a brilliantly smart and engaging defence of the importance of children’s literature for all readers, of all ages, writes our arts contributor Jo Hemmings.
Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise is the title of Katherine Rundell’s brilliantly smart and engaging essay.
I needed absolutely no persuading on this topic. I am so firmly in agreement that adults could and should read children’s books – and not only adults who have children – that I didn’t even need to read past the title. Of course, I’m glad I did, for it was a joy to read the personal and erudite thoughts of a person who is both passionate about a topic and has thought a lot about it.
Katherine Rundell is exactly such a person. She has impressive academic credentials – she is a Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University – and she is the author of five bestselling children’s books. Her breakthrough book was Rooftoppers, which won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award in 2014. The Explorer won the Costa Children’s Book Award in 2017. There are few people better equipped to write on this topic.
‘I am absolutely not suggesting adults read only, or even primarily, children’s fiction. Just that there are some times in life when it might be the only thing that will do.’ In lucidly providing us with her reasons for this, Rundell covers how children’s fiction came to be, the heroic optimism of fairy tales, politics, and the importance of imagination and hope. In a world of Brexit, Trump (I’m rather sorry to have to deface this piece by including such words) and now Covid-19, Rundell’s argument is that sometimes adult literary fiction does not help. The old narratives, most commonly seen now in children’s books, are the ones that best record human vice without despair. As she effectively puts it: ‘children’s fiction necessitates distillation: at its best, it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka.’
The best advocates for Rundell’s argument are in fact her own novels. Rundell is about the same age as I am, and so I’ve had to read her children’s fiction as an adult. I did not think there was anything odd or unusual when I did this. I read The Explorer recently because I have always been fascinated by the idea of the Amazon and exploring lost cities, and thought it sounded fun. It was fun. There were enough gory details to amuse its ostensible youthful audience, but packed into it were some real truths, the kind that resonate whatever your age – such as the Explorer of the title telling the children, ‘You will have to be honest: resist the urge to arrange your fears and angers at their most becoming angles.’ As she explains in this essay, Rundell writes such lines very deliberately because her goal when she writes is ‘to put down in as few words as I can the things that I most urgently and desperately want children to know and adults to remember’.
This is what stories are good at: changing to meet the different needs of different people at different times of their lives.
Not that her novels are at all preachy. They are engagingly written, nicely plotted and populated with distinctive characters. In the same way that Danny in Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World had a really cool Dad who went poaching and let him drive a car, Rundell gave us in her Rooftoppers the magnificent pairing of father figure Charles and adopted daughter Sophie, who communicate with each other by writing notes on the wallpaper. There’s a great moment when Charles literally wraps Sophie up like a ball in order to throw her across a gap in the rooftops so she can go and find her mother. These are memorable characters, with just the right amount of exaggeration and wonder.
What I also admire about Rundell is her total lack of cultural snobbery. In her section on fairy tales, she delves into the evolution of her favourite, Cinderella, which can be traced to an Ancient Greek oral tale, through the well-known Perrault and Grimm versions and on to many different versions around the world – and to Disney. It would be easy, perhaps expected, for someone in Rundell’s position to scorn the ‘Disneyfication’ of fairy tales and rue Disney’s role in establishing a mainstream version so powerful it risks eclipsing all others. But she does not. She writes that if she had kids she would tell them the Disney version but as one of many old versions ‘as part of a raucous and wild tradition’. I feel exactly the same way. I like reading different versions of the same story in the same way I like watching the TV adaptation of a book I’ve already read, so as to see how they interpret it differently. This is what stories are good at: changing to meet the different needs of different people at different times of their lives. Rundell’s point is that fairytales, myths and legends are ‘the foundation of so much’ that ‘as adults we need to keep reading them and writing them, repossessing them as they possess us’.
I have a little sadness that – in our culture and in our time – Rundell needed to write this essay. The hook of the essay is to respond to people such as Martin Amis, who once claimed in an interview that he would only think of writing a children’s book if he had a serious brain injury. Rundell relates her own experience when she tells others that she writes children’s books as resulting in ‘roughly the same smile I’d expect had I told them I make miniature bathroom furniture out of matchboxes, for the elves’. She is not the first children’s author to feel the need to explain themselves to others who are less enlightened. J.R.R. Tolkien questioned the assumption that children are the ‘natural or the specially appropriate audience for fairy tales’. C. S. Lewis wrote the essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children in which he advocated ‘writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say’ explaining that ‘where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that, will read the story or re-read it, at any age’.
Philip Pullman has recently described Rundell as ‘now unarguably in the first rank’. Pullman himself has published his own collection of enlightening essays called Daemon Voices, including one called Children’s Literature Without Borders, and he has publically waged a campaign against publishers labelling books as being for a particular age group. I feel Pullman is conceptually operating in a very similar space to Rundell when he writes stories and talks about them. The very title of Pullman’s recent novel, The Secret Commonwealth, the second in what will be his Book of Dust trilogy, refers to the idea of a secret community of fairies, mystical animals and everything fantastical; the dilemma of the story is the risk that the book’s heroine, Lyra, will turn her back on this, prizing rational thought to the extreme. Rundell is advocating a very similar idea when she writes in this essay that imagination ‘is at the heart of everything, the thing that allows us to experience the world from the perspective of others: the condition and precedent of love itself’. Something very interesting and empowering is going on in so-called children’s fiction at the moment and both Pullman and Rundell are at the heart of it.
I’m sitting here now flicking through this lovely little book again and on almost every page there is a passage I am tempted to quote and discuss. I’ll restrain myself. For Rundell’s essay is so imaginatively worded, so thoughtfully constructed and so rich in theme that you can do no better than to read it yourself.
Katherine Rundell’s Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available to purchase online now.