Literature for the ages

Not only has J.K. Rowling helped a whole generation of children learn to love reading with her Harry Potter series, she also has adults to re-discover the appeal of kiddie lit. Or perhaps she has demonstrated, to publishers’ marketing departments, that some stories hold magic for people of every age.

Whatever the case, some observers see a new trend in the rise of children’s literature with cross-over appeal for grown-ups, while those with a longer perspective say Rowling’s success marks a return to an older tradition.

Writing for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, essayist Jeet Heer puts herself squarely in the latter camp and in good company: She cites Professor of English Beverly Clark as an authority to back up her observation that the current intergenerational appeal of the Potter series and other “children’s” books is a return to an older view of literature.

As literary scholar Beverly Lyon Clark demonstrated in her superb 2003 book Kiddie Lit, in the 19th century there was no clear-cut and obvious division between kids books and adult books. Herman Melville was praised for writing novels that “a child can always understand.”

Professor Clark adds, “My favorite illustration of the shift early in the 20th century … is that 19th-century commentators considered The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn pretty  much equivalent, but in the 20th century one has been relegated to children’s literature while the other is a leading candidate for the Great American Novel.”

As for that trend? Clark notes that there are a goodly number of recent kiddie lit cross-overs. “There’s Twilight, as you mention. Hugo Cabret perhaps? (Indeed Charles Hatfield is a great source on graphic novels and other illustrated works.) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime–but that strikes me as the kind of novel with a young protagonist that has always been eligible for crossover (e.g., Annie John is an earlier example).”

And next on the list may be The Hunger Games, the young adult series by Suzanne Collins and soon-to-be Hollywood blockbuster, points out Professor Clark.

Wheaton’s student-run Philosophy Club and Associate Professor of Philosophy John Partridge plan to host a Hunger Games Study Break to discuss the series.