J. K Rowling’s series of Harry Potter books are arguably the most popular books of the twenty first century so far, both for adults and children. Originally published in the children’s section with brightly coloured illustrations of the fantastic, the covers soon got a paired-back refresh to sit a bit closer to the adult shelves. The books and the films have an enormous fan base, larger than its intended child one. Fans go crazy for Potter world, spin-offs, theories and quizzes on Pottermore or Wizarding World – what house would the sorting hat put you in? When watching The Order of the Phoenix Live with Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall last week the conductor even began by asking that question and the cheers were so enthusiastic, as were the boo’s when Slytherin house was said too. As we approached the impressive building of RAH it was striking to see the number of adults queuing with hats, t-shirts or socks printed in the colours of the Hogwarts Houses on. It’s not just Harry Potter, of course, that strikes up this kind of fandom. Franchises like Marvel, DC, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings too have huge fandoms that spark events and dress-up. With each rooted in Science fiction and fantasy, is this what makes fans so invested and obsessed?
I have only just read the Harry Potter books. I know. I’ve been living under a rock all this time. I read them all over the summer in preparation for my classes on children’s literature at university this year. I didn’t have to read them all and I wasn’t really expecting to but they were very compelling and I got through them so quickly because of that. I had seen bits of the films before and never really got into them but through reading the books some of the plot points in the films suddenly made so much more sense. The world of wizards, elves, giants and goblins came alive. It felt strange reading these at 20, or reading any of the books i’m reading for this module. Theres a certain nostalgia that goes with it along with a sense of imagination and wonder that’s so often missing from more adult literature. C.S Lewis once said that you reach an age where you read fairy tales again, that they aren’t really just for children because there are deeper truths hidden there. Neil Gaiman agreed saying that if a topic feels too deep, too sad, or too frightening for adults he writes it for children instead. In a children’s book the truths are concealed or covered in magic – if we take the darkness from the real world and put it into the fantastical then we are more separate, more protected from it, and if the light overrules the dark (as it so often does) then we are reminded of what we can overcome in the real world.
Adult vs Children’s Literature:
How do we define the difference between adult and children’s literature? I began by mentioning the marketing differences in the Harry Potter books depending on the intended audience and its in part laughably true that the cover is so often what we judge our books on. The more monochrome and minimalist the cover the more likely that the intended audience is over the age of fifteen.
But for the first print and for the publisher It’s mainly to do with the age of its main characters, the thinking being that we identify more with a character of our own age than one dramatically different. Its also down to the style of writing, children are obviously less likely to be able to read a book with complicated sentence structure and vocabulary (but then Alice in Wonderland or any book by Roald Dahl might make the case that a child is more capable at learning now words than we might think).
When Children’s literature first began as a category in publishing the books were mainly of the educational or moral or religious kind. The purpose was not so much to entertain but to teach children the alphebet and multiplications. If it rhymed it was thought that the child would remember it better and so the rhyming got a bit out of hand and children’s literature as we now know it was born.
An Infantilisation of literature?
In A. O. Scott’s article ‘The Death of the Adult in American Literature’ (New York Times) Scott makes the case for the use of infantilisation in comedy as it is about truth telling. But also arguing that many of the man-child comedies are inherently sexist. Apart from this detour, Scott begins to point out the increased popularity of books that have children as their protagonists and its impact on our culture and the way that we perceive adulthood and ‘growing up’. He argues tentatively that we no longer see the distinctions between adult and child as clear cut and that we see childhood as something to retain rather than ‘grow out of’. It’s true, YA has become a booming genre since the beginning of the twenty-first century from Twilight to The Hunger Games to Harry Potter to Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking. With each presenting growing up in different ways, is our fascination with it more to do with identity than an age or period of time? Growing up, Adulting or whatever else we decide to call it is something all of us go through as we figure out who really are and become more independent. Many of the child protagonists in these books we love are pretty independent though – Harry Potter fights off many monsters in his time at school not to mention the evil wizard that no wizard has managed to dispose of not for lack of trying, for example. Even in Charles Kingsley’s victorian novel, The Water Babies, is very independent as a chimney sweep, relying on his master very little and he doesn’t think twice about running away. J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit is one of the exceptions in not having an infant as its protagonist, instead we follow 50 year old Bilbo from the shire into the depths of the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo, although an independent adult, is a hobbit and so, like a child, is shorter than everyone else and the underdog with little expected from him due to his ‘hobitness’ and his lack of experience with the wider world. What most characters in children’s literature have in common is that they are incredibly brave – they are all Gryffindors.
So, maybe literature is labelled a bit too significantly when it comes to age, but the books we’re all loving is an indicator of the changing ways we perceive adulthood. No longer in the western world are we expecting people to reach an age of maturity but expressing a desire to maintain the inner-child within us, Or to quote Walt Disney ‘That’s the trouble with the world, too many people grow up… growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional’.
Or maybe the more iconic phrase is from Peter Pan – ‘Don’t grow up, it’s a trap’.
We are the generations learning from movies and books that remind us of how great it is to be a child so why would we stop now? For many of us children’s literature was our way into reading; the gateway drug that made many people grow into lovers of the written word and stories. Perhaps then it is not about infantilisation so much as a memory of what we knew alongside a hunger for adventure, escapism and a new perception of what it means to be an adult.