I read a great post yesterday on the online magazine The Tribe about why adults ought to read more children's books. The author argues that great children's books share much in common with great adult books in terms of plot, character and pacing. The difference is that because the authors are aware of the fickle attention spans of their target audiences (e.g., kids), they try that much harder to reel you in.
This wasn't the first time I'd heard this point of view. A year or so ago, Pamela Paul took to the pages of the New York Times to talk about the rising popularity of kidlit among adult readers.
I'm currently undergoing a variation on this theme myself: at my 11 year-old's urging, I'm reading the first book in George R.R. Martin's wildly successful fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire.
Yeah, I know. A lot of people don't think of this as "kid lit," though I think it's reasonable to describe it as cross-over fare aimed at both teens and adults. I also know that some parents will want to haul me into social services for letting my (then ten-year old) read this stuff, especially if they've seen the HBO series, Game of Thrones, based on the first novel. (I haven't.)
But for me, this is about as close as I get to children's fiction.
Let me say up front that I'm soooo *not* your typical fantasy fiction reader. As with my taste in films, I tend towards the irrepressibly realistic (some would say dire.)
But I'm loving A Game of Thrones and here's why -- if you haven't already tried it -- you should also give it a go:
1. It's realistic. If you're like me, when you hear the term "fantasy fiction" you immediately conjure up maps of countries that don't exist, an array of dungeons and dragons and -- as a wanna-be fantasy writing friend of mine put it so aptly -- "animals that talk." All of this can be found in Martin's kingdom of Westeros. But as anyone who has read his novels knows, what makes them stand out is how utterly realistic they are. Sure there's a demonic human being known as "the hound," a whole lot of sword-fighting, and some kind of evil monster-like species I haven't quite yet sussed out that doesn't bleed. But what really pulls the reader in is the feeling that -- as in the modern world: actions have consequences. As one reviewer put it in the New York Times, "When people are stabbed, they die; when kingdoms ignore debts, the bankers show up. The characters understand their world, and we understand the characters."
2. It's historically grounded. A lot of that realism flows from the fact that the book at times reads more like history than it does fantasy. There are literally more than a thousand characters in the series and Martin helpfully adds an appendix to the end of the first book so that you can figure out how the different clans relate to one another. The net effect is not dissimilar to reading something like Hillary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, in that you feel like you're reading a fictional account of the internecine struggles among the factions in a real kingdom. Martin himself has allowed that he was frustrated with a lot of the post-Tolkien fantasy literature because it was so often grounded in a kind of "Disneyland Middle Ages" where they had the trappings of a class system but no sense of how it actually worked. He's out to set the record straight.
3. It's about growing up. One of the main reasons I started reading A Game of Thrones -- other than that my son insisted that I try it -- was an article about the fantasy genre in the Wall Street Journal by Lev Grossman. In it, Grossman systematically takes apart the standard biases that many (grown ups) bring to this sort of literature. One of the points Grossman makes is that fantasy -- pace Harry Potter -- is often dismissed for being about "the moment when a powerless, mundane person realizes that he or she is anything but." Grossman accepts this characterization, but then goes on to point out that by the time we're 35 -- if not older -- most of us are still figuring out who we are and what we want out of life. So why should a coming of age tale be any less resonant for adults than it is for kids? As someone who blogs about adulthood as a journey, I had to agree.
4.The violence is graphic, but the sex is not. When I tell people that my 11 year-old has read the entire series, they often react with horror. So of course I had to go back and read the first book after he'd finished the first five volumes in order to know just how badly I'd screwed up as a parent. The fact is, there is tons of brutal violence described in minute detail. But is that really so much worse than your average video game (which I do, as a parent, limit)? And as for the sex, so far at least, it's few and far between and quite muted. You pick your poison as a parent. (Can I patent that?) And I think that in this case, the superb story-telling and breadth of characters Martin introduces us to far outweighs the "bad" bits.
5. You will bond with your teen. My son is on the cusp of being a teenager and all that entails. But right now, every morning my son asks me which chapter in of A Game of Thrones I'm on and we have a lengthy discussion. And for me, that would be worth it even if I hated the book.