For Adults Who Want to Try Kids Books
Today’s guest post comes from my friend and fellow book club member, Kris.
Kris Baker Dersch holds a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Washington. After over fifteen years as a public and school librarian all over the Puget Sound region, she is now a stay at home mom to two busy kids. Wild Peaches Books, her children’s gift and book shop, launches on Etsy this spring. You can find her on Instagram @wildpeachesbooks and follow shop updates at etsy.com/shop/wildpeachesbooks
A Twitter user called Ow! In the Library shared this thought that has since gone viral among those who love children’s books:
“Stop shaming people for reading kids’ books. Adult books are about sad people having affairs while kids’ books have a magic tree house or a worm driving an apple. You tell me who’s winning.”
I love the sentiment, but Ow! In the Library needs to update their references. For adults who have wondered if they should try kids’ books, the choices go far beyond the Magic Treehouse series, which was first published in the 1990s, or the books of Richard Scarry (featuring the apple-driving Lowly Worm!) which go back to the 1960s. On January 30, 2023, the American Library Association gave their awards for children’s books published in 2022. Among the award winners? A book about photographing the WWII era Japanese incarceration (Seen and Unseen by Elizabeth Partridge,) a book about celebrating the lives and not deaths of Holocaust victims (The Tower of Life by Chana Stiefel,) and a book about the choices of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, whose actions helped launch the Civil Rights Movement (Choosing Brave by Angela Joy.) Of course, if it’s whimsy you’re after, there’s also a great story of escaping city life to play with your dog at the beach (Hot Dog by Doug Salati.) In short, there’s a kid’s book out there for…well, for everyone.
In the early 2000s, when young adult literature became a publishing craze, adults quickly figured out that lots of these books had crossover appeal. I was working as a young librarian at the time and when we switched our teen fiction and new fiction section locations, I was inundated with questions about where all the great new books had come from. I was almost reluctant to hang up the new signs. While it’s now common to find adults discussing YA titles, many adult readers have yet to discover the wealth of books available if they visit not just the teen but the kids’ sections of their bookstores and libraries.
“Middle grade” books, that category below YA where books for kids about 9-14 live, has absolutely exploded. Why are these books a ton of fun to read? Well, for starters, they’re short. At around 20,000-40,000 words, they have half the word count or less of typical novels for adults, but this does NOT mean they’re simpler. Middle grade authors, who have to grab and entertain a very picky audience quite quickly, do not have words to spare. Think of one of the best opening lines in all of literature: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” from Charlotte’s Web. That book doesn’t mess around with getting you straight to the point. It hasn’t got the time. A lot of adult readers can get through a middle grade book in a day or two…is there anything more fun than a great book you can read in one sitting?
Two great middle grade books for adults who want a book that grips them are:
Maizy Chen’s Last Chance by Lisa Yee. If you asked me what the best book of last year that you probably haven’t read is, I’d recommend this to you. This won so many awards you can hardly see the cover and there’s a good reason. This book is set in a Chinese restaurant (is there a better thing in the world than a book about food?) that tells a story about her family Maizy never knew; the story her family desperately needs to remember so they start listening to each other. Totally relatable book to anyone who has ever dealt with being part of a family.
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat. Fantasy lovers will be immersed in this Thai inspired world where light is both power and wealth. One person’s escape and new identity leads to telling truth to power and you’ll be close to finished with this one before you realize it’s an excellent retelling of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
Another unique thing about middle grade books is the great formats kids love. Many adults have never read a novel in verse and find the idea of novel as poetry intimidating. But kids love the white space and once you get used to reading them, they can be quite addicting. Kids are too young to realize that poetry is supposed to be intimidating and as adults these are a great way to unlearn that. If you find this format intimidating, try listening to one as an audiobook.
Two awesome novels in verse to try:
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is really a memoir in verse of the author’s childhood traveling back and forth from north to south in the 1960s. The amount of beauty, history, and detail she manages to get into the book is stunning.
Starfish by Lisa Fipps. This book can be brutal at times (parents don’t always treat kids the way they should even in books!) but watching plus size Ellie learn to make space in her world is a journey worth taking.
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t spend just a minute talking about graphic novels, which are wildly popular with kids and a format adults are sometimes just getting used to. WAY more than comic book superheroes or Japanese manga, graphic novels are often the way middle grade authors tell personal stories that reach kids. Don’t be afraid to try these on audio as well…they are often narrated by a full cast.
Two not to be missed kids’ graphic novels:
When Stars are Scattered by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson. Award winning graphic novelist Jamieson helped Omar Mohamed bring to life his story of a childhood spent in a refugee camp in Kenya as an orphan caring for his disabled brother. While the chances of getting to leave the camp are astronomically small, he has to keep his eyes focused on goals and the future. Kids books have a way of telling really tough stories in an optimistic but real way, and this one does that exceptionally well.
New Kid by Jerry Craft. How this hasn’t been a movie yet I have no idea. The first graphic novel to win the prestigious Newbery medal, this semi autobiographical story of a young Black boy’s private school journey is gorgeous. It would be easy to reduce this story to stereotypes and preaching, but that’s not what Craft does here. This is a real kid with real friends, real teachers, and real life to deal with and as the reader you get to feel every beat with him.
We often see the same books shared over and over again. If you want to be the one who brings something new to the conversation…try picking up a kids’ book. And if you want a book group reading the shortest books you can possibly discuss, come find the #GrownupsPictureBookClub on Instagram. You’ll never believe what 32 page books are out there!
Lemoncurry52February 20, 2023 at 7:54 pm
Good reviews and suggestions. I either have read all these or they are on my to read list.