Essays

The Wonder of Reading Children’s Literature As An Adult

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A caged, talking gorilla breaks free of his captivity with the help of some buddies in Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. Two neighbors become besties while one of them receives messages from the universe in Jen Wang’s Stargazing. A gallant mouse seeks fun and adventure in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Desperaux.

These are the stories that could only happen in children’s literature, bringing with them a sense of wonder that permeates kid lit. But kid lit has lessons for adults, too. Thanks to reading children’s books as an adult, I felt a jolt that transported me out of my jaded attitude. I started to realize that my life, too, held the promise of wonder, that all things could be possible, whether in a fantasy story or in my contemporary day-to-day existence.

Kid lit taught me when I was young to put my faith in hope, and I was lucky enough to reconnect to it when I was in my early 30s, bringing with it a renewed sense of curiosity about the world around me, and the fantastical ones I might visit through books or writing of my own.

To experience wonder is to become vulnerable, to confront the fact that your life might look differently, that a dusting of magic might help you realize the lack of it in your own life.

What is “Wonder”?

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, wonder is: 1) something or someone that is very surprising, beautiful, amazing, etc. and 2) something or someone that is very surprising, beautiful, amazing, etc. In a literary sense, wonder is caused by an encounter of the everyday with the extraordinary. For example, through the lens of wonder, a cat is no mere house pet. No, a cat could surprise us with its behavior, personality, and quirks, markings and coat. Its chitter-chatter that could be a language only we understand, a fantastical cat with hidden powers and magic reminding us that the world has the capacity to deviate from the norm and subvert our expectations.

Wonder is a concept found overwhelmingly in children’s literature, from picture books all the way to middle grade and graphic novels. Pitched for kids who are learning more about the great, wide world they live in, children’s books with wonder harness a young reader’s fathomless belief that life is full of fantastic surprises, enchanting experiences, magical worlds, and spirited characters whose troubles mimic their readership’s challenges, like forging friendships, finding acceptance, and navigating tricky home lives.

Remarkably, middle grade is a catch-all for books that might have been pitched for older readers because, as stated, anything could happen in kid lit. One example is M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin’s co-written middle grade masterpiece, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge. The characters in this extraordinary novel told half in prose and half in illustrations are not children at all but rather fully formed adults. And yet this book is full of wonder, from the fantasy world building to the universal themes of friendship, prejudice, and working together with enemies. Edging into YA territory, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge shows how publishers know they can release a book and find a young readership if the book is laced with enough wonder.

Getting Back in Touch With Wonder

For me, I recaptured wonder by reading a ton of kid lit for my MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. By reading the children’s books of today as well as revisiting some of my old favorites like Harriet the Spy, I found my sense of wonder returning, wonder that sustained me during my difficult childhood when books taught me anything was possible, including transcending my negative experiences. Worlds cracked open in my own creative writing, as I imagined books about talking cats and secret portals and a Peter Pan retelling. But my relationship with wonder extended beyond writing stories saturated with it; I also found myself experimenting with reading and writing genres and sub-genres in adult fiction that captured wonderful stories.

I found a crossover between “books for adults” and childlike wonder through the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and, in particular, fabulist books that blended magic and realism. By asking us to consider and accept the magical, indeed, these genres of fiction allows us all to suspend our disbelief and prepare ourselves that anything could happen, no matter how strange, how weird, or how uncanny. We become vulnerable by opening our minds to wonder beyond the semi-comforts of adulthood, for living in children’s fiction is no bubble. Existing alongside wonder, middle grade protagonists also encounter hardship, challenges, and misfortune.

Finding Wonder for Adults

But in order to experience wonder, one has to be open to receiving it.

As adults, we are mired in the real world of grownups, with bills to pay, careers to have, and the stress of living with multiple expectations like social, vocational, familial, and financial obligations.

Where do we find wonder in our daily lives? Where do we run up against something or someone that inspires in us a sense that everything is possible?

If we are going to channel that same reaction to wonder that we had as children, we must set aside the rules we think fiction and life must operate under. We need to prime ourself to look at and experience our world through fresh eyes, to accept the inspiration that wonder creates, to brave the scary thought that anything — safe or otherwise — could happen. To seek wonder is to be vulnerable, to risk hurt and pain, to go beyond the logic of the world we know, to chance that we’ll run up against evil.

To seek wonder is an act of bravery.

So how do we recapture wonder as adults? One way to experience wonder is through the power of literature. Speculative fiction — an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, and horror — thrives on creating a feeling of wonder in readers both young and adult. Similarly, magical realism and fabulism can spark wonder in their fans. For sure, there is no shortage of wonder in books for adults.

On the other hand, even routine readers of “adult books” in these genres can stand to learn something from children’s literature. Revisiting children’s books as an adult involves opening up your mind to explore the world in new ways. The danger in that is recognizing the lack of wonder in your own life. But if you’ll chance it, you might also find that finding wonder will inspire you to go after your dreams from younger years and believe that anything is possible. Hope. Happiness. Ambition.

And courage.

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