Fantasy isn't just kids' stuff anymore

Adults getting more into children's books

November 03, 2003|By Valerie Finholm | Valerie Finholm,THE HARTFORD COURANT

Have you read Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand?

Or Joyce Carol Oates' Freaky Green Eyes?

How about Cornelia Funke's Ink Heart ?

If you haven't seen these novels, you haven't visited the children's section of your local bookstore lately, where a bumper crop of new books that appeal to both children and adults is shelved among the Babysitter's Club series and The Cat in the Hat.

While there have always been children's books that are read and cherished by children and adults alike (Watership Down and Charlotte's Web come to mind), the recent crop of high-quality young adult books has been like rain after a drought.

The rainmaker, of course, is J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter fantasy series, while written for children, has become a sensation for all ages. Rowling's success has alerted writers to an underserved market: adult readers of children's books.

The results have delighted bookstores and librarians alike.

"Fantasy, like young adult fiction, was perceived as dead as recently as five or six years ago," said Ginee Seo, vice president and associate publisher at Atheneum Books for Young Readers in New York, which specializes in young-adult fiction. "All the action was in books for younger ages."

At R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., children's department manager Beth Brdlik said she has noticed the trend: Adults often wander into her department looking for books for themselves.

"I really think children's literature is more escapist, and adults need that, not just children," Brdlik said.

While most adults discover children's books and young adult fiction through their children, often by reading aloud to them, some of Brdlik's customers don't even have children, she said. Read-alouds have made many adults fans of books such as Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, written with double-entendres or references amusing to adults.

(Snicket, the pen name for Daniel Handler, writes in his latest book about "a friend of his" who once wrote a poem called The Road Less Traveled:

"The poet found that the road less traveled was peaceful but quite lonely and he was probably a bit nervous as he went along, because if anything happened on the road less traveled, other travelers would be on the road more frequently traveled and so couldn't hear him as he cried for help. Sure enough, that poet is now dead.")

Brdlik said she calls her regular adult customers when a good book comes in that she thinks they'll enjoy. Her most recent recommendation is British writer Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand, the first in a trilogy set in modern-day London. The book has gotten rave reviews in England - some describe it as the next Harry Potter - but is relatively unknown in the United States.

Like the Potter books, the appeal that young adult fiction has for adults is that its writers want to leave readers with some sense of hope, Seo said.

"It's not just about despair, nihilism," Seo said. "If you're truly writing from the young point of view, for children, no matter how bad things get, there is a sense that life can get better."

Jeanne Steig, the widow of author and illustrator William Steig, recently wrote in The New York Times that whenever her husband wrote a book for children, "they were always saved," while "his adult work was, well, harder and full of grief."

Arthur Levine, vice president and editorial director of Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Books, said great children's books that adults can appreciate is nothing new.

"I think it works the other way around, too," said Levine, who secured the American rights for the Harry Potter series after reading the first British novel.

"Some books that are adult books have a primarily teen-age audience, like Catcher in the Rye, Levine said. "And I've seen 14-year-olds carrying The Lovely Bones," another adult book.

"The lines are not clear," he said. "Books need to find their way to readers."

And some children's books find their way back to readers.

At the West Hartford Public Library, many adults come in to re-read books from childhood, said children's service librarian Carol Waxman.

"Harry Potter has brought out a nostalgic feeling in adults to go back to being a child again," Waxman said.

"People in their late 20s and early 30s say, `I don't remember the title, but it was about this,' as they try to find a book they loved as a child," she said. "A very popular book in this area in The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth," who was a local author.

"People are hunkering down and wanting good wholesome stories," she said. "You want to escape the everyday problems today with just losing yourself in the fantasy."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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