Tag Archives: adult readers

Why I refused to read Harry Potter

no harry potter restriction circleIt’s not as bad as it sounds, please read on to find out more. I was first told about the boy wizard in high school, it would have been about 2000/2001, and I point-blank refused to read it. I even laughed at friends who were recommending it. You see the problem was that Harry Potter was a kid’s book, and seventeen year old John was no child.

I had my mind set on becoming an author and was sure that truly engaging writing (the kind that I could learn from) could only be found in books aimed at adults. I read magical realist authors like Rushdie, de Berniere, and Garcia Marquez. I also Immersed myself in classic literature and edgy new work. In short I thought of children’s literature as something of an oxymoron. Instead I was simply a moron.

Reality hit me at Stirling Uni in 2002 when I headed down to the MacRobert Cinema to watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with a friend. The film left so much unsaid, so many questions unanswered, that I borrowed copies of the first two books from her to catch up with what was going on. Then I borrowed another (you know, just to see what happened next), and then another. Then I ran out.

On the 22nd of June the following year I was queueing outside a Waterstones in Aberdeen at midnight. I patiently waited for them to open the doors and release copies of ‘the Order of the Phoenix’ to the street-load of waiting children dressed as witches and wizards (I wished I had come in costume too).

A good book transports you to another world, or offers a view of our own that you might not have considered. It opens up questions and makes you think, and if you’re lucky it takes you for an adventure. Magical realists can do that, classical literature can do that, gritty ground-breaking new fiction can do that, and (unbeknownst to my seventeen year old self) so too can a good children’s book do all of these things.

We can get stuck in a rut when it comes to what we read, fixating on just one genre, but we miss out by doing that. As students, a bunch of us traded favourite books, we all had widely different tastes and we decided we might benefit by shaking things up a little. To be honest I don’t think I’ll ever be a full horror, crime, or thriller convert (though I still like to jump into a good horror book as the nights start to draw in) but that wasn’t really the point of our experiment. Our wee book-swap gave me an insight into what qualities made these types of book so appealing to so many people, it made me realise just how hard it can be to pin down just exactly what counts as ‘good writing’.

I still cringe at the thought of how condescending I must have sounded as a teenager and I apologise to Adam for dismissing what truly was an amazing find, and I also thank Vikki for allowing me to see how rich and enjoyable children’s literature can be (even for adults).

Are there any ‘children’s books’ that you’ve found particularly engaging? Do you avoid popular authors because you think they’re somehow less remarkable because of their popularity? Feel free to have a chat about it in the comments below, or over at the facebook page or twitter account. As always, thanks for reading, Cheers, John

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Magical Realism

Vasnetsov_samoletFiction is changing but what it’s changing into isn’t something new. For a long time a sub-genre of contemporary fiction known as ‘magical realism’ provided a mind-bending literary experience to those who came across it, but sadly it sat at the fringes while traditional fantasy, science-fiction, and even thrillers enjoyed mass-market backing from readers who would no doubt have enjoyed magical realism if they knew it was available.

I was introduced to it by a teacher of mine (Mr Johnstone) at High School. Famous fantasy writers have been known to denounce it as a fancy way of saying you write fantasy fiction but I think there’s one very clear distinction: just as you probably wouldn’t explain the way that electricity is created and sent down power lines to power your toaster, when describing a scene in which you cook some toast, a magical realist writer feels no demand for an explanation for anything that the reader might regard as ‘magical’.

Terry Pratchett said that saying that you write magical realism is “…a polite way of saying you write fantasy and is more acceptable to certain people…”. In some regards he could be correct, fantasy fiction is certainly seen as more populist (and less literary) than magical realism. What’s more, magical realism sports a host of connections to post-modernist art and philosophy that makes it positively intellectual-sounding. However, fantasy fiction can itself be, though isn’t always, a tremendous vehicle for highlighting philosophical concepts as well. Pratchett was one of the best at doing just that.

But now, within children’s literature, we’re finding works that bridge the divide somehow. Explanations of how the magic works are left to one side as authors launch their characters straight into the adventure. Magical Realist sympathies can be especially evident in works like Pratchett’s Discworld (despite his protestations to the contrary), Garth Nix’s ‘Keys to the Kindom’ series (‘Mister Monday’ etc.), Philip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’, and many many more. In these books we are witness to a change in the way that magic is introduced, it is left as part of the fabric of the story with minimal exposition.

However, the exposition is still there, as it probably has to be for children. Perhaps we need to delineate fantastical elements in fiction for children. They are still getting a grasp of the reality and physics of their own world so it seems prudent to provide some explanation as to how things work in an alternate one. What’s more the explanation of the magic can itself often serve as a component of the plot.

I’m in this boat. Jack starts in our world (or something very much like it) and is exposed to things he doesn’t understand, therefore a necessary part of the plot (and his character development) involves him gaining a basic idea about how the magic works.

There are things that I’ve left to one side for now and things that may never be explained but I’m happy to admit that there’s simply too much explanation of the magic in my books for anyone to call it ‘magical realism’. While I still enjoy and respect the genre and can see how it really can work in children’s literature I can’t help slipping into fantasy

For me part of the fun of our world is to be found in finding out things. I couldn’t limit my characters by not allowing them to discover the ‘secrets’ behind the magic any more than I could answer my children with the ever-unsatisfying ‘just because’. For a child I expect that a truly magical realist work of fiction could prove equally intellectually unsatisfying, perhaps its one of these odd cases where a literary genre simply doesn’t scale well into a children’s version.

The books I’ve described above have no doubt been enjoyed by more adults and teens than children of twelve and under, they certainly rank extremely highly within my list of favourite books. However, for children reading what’s known as ‘middle grade fiction’ (more about it here) and those younger than them, I can’t help but feel that authors need to be ready for the ‘why’s and ‘how’s from their readers.

What genre of books do you think would/does translate well into ‘children’s’ versions? Which genre’s simple don’t translate at all? Am I wrong about the books listed above, do you think that children between eight and twelve enjoy them as much as teenagers? As always thanks for reading and don’t forget you can buy a copy (paperback or kindle edition) of ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame’ over on this page.

OK fess up, are you reading children’s fiction?

J._K._Rowling_at_the_White_House_2010-04-05_9Rough number crunching gives us an odd statistic (though with the popularity of Harry Potter, Skulduggery Pleasant, etc. this is perhaps not surprising). Basically children (for argument’s sake let’s say those aged from 0-15) make up a little less than 10% of the UK population but sales of ‘children’s fiction’ (as defined by the publishers) makes up more than half of the fiction sold here.

Let’s assume that kids read twice as much as adults. To be honest I’m not sure I would believe that, you just need to see the average group of commuters to see how many adult fiction readers there are. Anyway let’s assume that children are more avid readers. Even then that would be two kids fiction books for every child and one for every adult. Adults make up 90% of the population, so that’s still a 9:2 ratio.

To even out the ratio children would have to be getting through a whopping nine books for every one book read by an adult. Someone, somewhere, is reading a lot of kids fiction.

I’ll admit that, aside from a very small number of exceptions, I basically exclusively read children’s fiction. A big part of that is exposure; I work in an environment filled with children’s books so when I’m deciding what to read next my attention is already there, but what’s everyone else’s excuse?

Is it the simplicity of the story-lines? Is it the departure from the every-day themes which can arise in typical adult fiction (even the most fantastical)? Many of us read for harmless escape (that’s my main motivation anyway) perhaps it’s just as simple as that: children’s fiction offers a greater escape from the stresses of adult life.

I’d love to hear your opinion, so feel free to add a comment below. It’d be interesting to see the different reading preferences and reasons behind them. All the best, John

(information gathered from 2013 and 2014 statistics)