Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Adult and child perspectives

I read some reviews on a children's book that got me thinking about the different ways that adults and kids react to books. The book in question has consistently glowing reviews from professional sources (by which I mean sources such as the Horn Book, SLJ, Kirkus, etc.), but younger readers' reactions were decidedly more mixed. Their comments reminded me of what I hear about some children's books, which can be summed up as: This is not really youth here; it's more like youth seen through adult eyes. The adult filter, the adult writer speaking to the child reader, is palpable.

The reality is that most children's and YA books are written by adults. Yet many of these books manage to channel a young voice, a voice authentic to the age of the main character. And it's not a question of limiting vocabulary or "dumbing down" anything--"dumbing down" being a deadly mistake for just about any audience. It's not about vocabulary at all, so much as it is about perspective and point of view.

To me, the beauty of reading is the disappearance of the barrier between one mind and another. It's the reason I think that text has survived in the era of movies and TV; even in the most gripping and introspective films, I never feel as if I'm inside the character's mind the same way I do when I read. And in books where the adult filter disappears, the narrative distance is quite close, and reading can be an even more intense, relatable, and "in-the-moment" experience.

It's not necessarily wrong to write a book where the adult filter is apparent. The adult filter is present in some children's classics that have lasted generations. To me, the real question is: What purpose is the adult filter serving? Is it to lend experience and dimension to the story? Or is it for the adult to assert how the child, or childhood itself, should be? Does this narrative distance work for the story or against it? Writers can think about which kind of book they want to write, and how the different segments of the audience may respond to the choices they make.

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