Are Children’s Books So Stylistically Different from Books for Adults?

Just saw the following in a NYTimes review of J.K. Rowling’s new adult novel.  So I’m wondering — is this really so true? Seems rather an overgeneralization to me.

Rowling has not been able to shed certain stylistic features that are acceptable or even expected from children’s authors. Juvenile literature often uses physical metaphors to highlight emotional states because in children the two tend to be so closely allied. “The Casual Vacancy” has various characters feeling guilt “clawing” at their “insides,” a “hollowness in the stomach,” fear “fluttering” inside the “belly,” a “queasy” stomach, a “lowering in the pit” of the stomach, a “knot” in the stomach. In adult fiction, it isn’t necessary to load so many actions — or objects — with adverbs and adjectives. Children thrive on heavily signposted plots, on moral exposition masked as dialogue. Adults don’t need or want such direction.

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6 responses to “Are Children’s Books So Stylistically Different from Books for Adults?

  1. Anonymous

    I sometimes think adults are a little bit desperate to find proof that we are more advanced than children. For example, we take qualities that we admire and label them “maturity”–though these may be qualities found in both children and adults.

    I also think it worried a great many readers that so many adults loved the HARRY POTTER books. We’re supposed to be less susceptible to the meat-and-potatoes appeal of a story with nice protagonists and big chunks of plot; we are not supposed to seek out magic, humor, optimism or imagination. We ought to be too worldly-wise to tolerate a happy ending. Unless modern readers are so lost to all decency (or intellectual snobbery) as to prefer genre fiction, we are directed to read literary fiction, books in which the author’s exquisite (i. e. SPARE and HONED) prose is the main attraction.

    If we’re really on the ball, we might develop a taste for bleakness–books where the characters are damaged and flawed, and the plot is a slow unravelling of hopelessness.

    But it seems to me–if you look at the history of literature–these sub-fusc, often ambiguous, “literary” books make up a very small percentage of what people like to read. As for the qualities mentioned in the quote above…well, Shakespeare is full of characters expressing their feelings with physical metaphors; George Eliot is thick with moral exposition: Dickens loves adverbs and adjectives. And people are still reading Shakespeare and Dickens and Eliot, because they satisfy both the primitive, story-loving mind (which we ascribe to children) and the more poetic, philosophical and profound leanings that we consider adult. It seems to me that books that are trying to reach the latter without satisfying the former are somehow anemic–I may admire the spare, honed prose, but I don’t GIVE a damn about the story.

    The question I ask myself is: what did I love or lack as a child reader, and how is that different from what I love or lack as an adult? For me, the main difference is patience: I am a more patient reader now that I am older (though not patient enough to read much Sir Walter Scott.)

    But though I am more patient than I was forty years ago, I still appreciate books where I can dash through, hungry to turn the next page and find out what’s going to happen next.

    Am I alone? And what qualities separate the books I adored as a child and can no longer read from the books I adored as a child and continue to reread?

  2. I don’t think there’s really much difference except of course with adult books but basically we love the same books as a child and as adult. I guess we are just bunch of people who grows up but our taste is still the same like children.

  3. A few years ago I heard Diane Purkiss give a talk about Harry Potter in which she claimed that Rowling’s writing (heavy on the adverbs. etc.) marked her as a writer for inexperienced readers. She didn’t really limit it to kids. I think there may be something to that–she implicitly linked what Rowling was doing to what “genre” authors do. And I don’t think anyone’s ever claimed JKR is a great stylist. But lots of readers, adult & child alike, love a well-plotted novel that doesn’t make them work too hard.

  4. One of the stupider generalizations I’ve read lately. News flash: Books for adults also use cliches! Books for adults also have thudding obvious plots! Good kid books, like good adult books, avoid cliches and total obviousness! A-doy, as we said as yoots in RI! As for using “physical metaphors to highlight emotional states,” look to your classics of American and British lit: Your Shakespeare (Beatrice and Benedick much?), your Jekyll and Hyde, your Scarlet Letter…don’t get me started. (Yes, I’m hurricane-edgy, but easily irked by dopey sloppy generalizing under the best of circumstances.)

  5. I find that there are good and bad in all genres. Taste has a lot to do with it and one person’s classic can be another person’s boring, self-indulgent work. What I often find is missed in these debates (which seem to crop up all the time) is that reading fiction is meant to be a form of entertainment and escapism.

    For example –

    Harry Potter – In my view not written amazingly well in terms of use of language but it has massive entertainment value if you are drawn to the themes – as millions have been. The language works as an easy read which is probably as intended. Does it need to be anything else? I would say no.

    Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – lauded for its style and content. I’ve read and analysed it and my personal view is that it’s not a children’s book. It is an adult book with child appeal and largely adult themes. Personally I find the style of writing slightly better than Harry Potter but not by much. It has its own foibles like any work. Also very entertaining but I suspect it would be over the heads of most middle grade readers.

    Bartimaeus Amulet of Samarkand – praised for its wit and style. Again I’ve read it and for the genre I see little difference between this and Stephen King. In fact I prefer Bartimaeus to many established horror titles, because of the humour and inventiveness. Does it need gore to be good? I would say not.

    The real difference I find is that adult fiction lays on the violence, gore, abuse, romance, sexual content and generally all the themes adults seem to crave. And there I find the rub – personally I am bored of seeing or reading about murder, gore, abuse and sexual relations. But then that’s just my taste…. I prefer to have a laugh and read inventive ideas. Which is probably why I prefer to write about adventure, mystery, sci-fi as well.

  6. My first YA novel, Songs of Power, was published in hardcover. This is not uncommon with children’s and YA books because school and public libraries will buy a hardcover first novel for kids—and children’s librarians buy from the reviews.

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