"Oh, you're reading a real book this time." I'm sure my acupuncturist didn't mean to be cruel when she tossed off this casual observation. But that's how it felt to me.
You see, that "real book" did not refer to the fact that I was reading a traditionally printed-and-bound codex instead of one of those newfangled e-books. No, it was more elemental: I was reading a book for adults instead of one for children or teens.
Read children's and YA editor Vicky Smith's column last week on the Paolini Phenomenon.
It's an unpleasant but incredibly common phenomenon observed by those of us who inhabit the children's-literature world. Those who do not swim in our happy little pond make the casual assumption that children's books ≠ real books. When pressed, they universally pronounce the importance of children's books, but they still clearly believe that real grown-ups read real books, and those who don't are stuck in some kind of superannuated childhood.
The result of this is an uncomfortable defensiveness when we encounter this attitude. We adduce books of surpassing linguistic beauty (Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt), piercing emotional clarity (Olive's Ocean, by Kevin Henkes), clever narrative structure (Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little, by Peggy Gifford and illustrated by Valorie Fisher), impassioned investigation (The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, by Phillip Hoose), cool intellection (Feed, by M.T. Anderson). Our books, we seem to be saying, are just as good as yours.
In fact, many of ours are far better. So there.
The truth is, we can and do spend entire years reading nothing but books for children and teens and feel entirely fulfilled as readers. Sure, there are some turkeys, but the world of adult literature is hardly free of those. But the delivery of words, characters, plots and ideas can have just as much invention and delight in a children's book as an adult book.
Think back to some of the books that moved you most as a reader, and chances are very good that at least one of them will be a children's book. That's not just because of when you read it but because the book itself is as complete and "real" as the finest book for adults.
So what was I doing reading an adult book anyway? I don't know. Perhaps, deep down, I feel like I need to read an adult book or two in order to have some kind of intellectual legitimacy among those who don't inhabit my world. So when I'm at a cocktail party and someone asks what I've been reading, I can mention a title they might have heard of.
But when I meet someone who does inhabit my world at a cocktail party, it's an instant connection. For one thing, we can both exclaim over how nice it is to put off having to get bifocals because the type in kids' books is so easefully big. And then we talk about all the books we can't talk about with everybody else at the cocktail party. It's glorious.
The fact is that a few years ago I joined a book group for the express purpose of reading the occasional adult book. It's a great book group: adventuresome, intelligent and critical. We read fiction, nonfiction and, sometimes, kids' books. But the book that I was reading at the acupuncturist, the "real book," was my book group's most recent pick: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.
And I have to say that I liked a lot and that it did something I can't recall any kids' book has done recently (I would say ever, but then somebody would find one and prove me wrong, which I hate). This quite smart comedy of manners, set in an England that new ways bumping into old ways, depicts a truly satisfying love story between two widowed adults. So, although I don't think it was any "realer" than my usual fare, it was a refreshing change of pace.
I'm glad I read it. And I'm glad that my next book is a kids' book.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.