Why illustrated novels are a vital part of the overall picture
We need to have a serious conversation about how we talk about reading ages beyond themes and content
Series such as Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid have spearheaded a trend of novels where the words have become co-star to the illustrations
Children’s literature is no stranger to classification. Due to the nature of its target audience, each piece of work must be able to fit into a definable box (read shelf) so that it may fulfil its potential. If a title reads too young, readers will feel talked down to and if too advanced, it goes beyond comprehension. Nowhere else in literature will you find these kinds of distinctions. If you were to have this in adult fiction for example, would we categorise by age? “New adult” to “been there, done that” literature? I would love to see that bookshop!
Although there are no solid lines, the Irish children’s book market tends to work within five categories: picture book (0-5), early reader (5-7), middle grade (8-11), teen (12-14) and young adult (15+). It is already easy to see that some of these groups are too broad and some to narrow. One 7-year-old may be starting to read the Harry Potter series while a 14-year-old might just be finishing it and neither is inappropriate. Because of this, we need to have a serious conversation about how we talk about reading ages beyond themes and content.
Just because they still love books from another stage, doesn’t mean they won’t grow to love and appreciate the ones that come after it, right up until adulthood
It cannot be argued that age recommendations are unimportant when we think about books for young people. Even if no other information is known about the reader, knowing the age can at least give you an idea as to how best to navigate the shelves. But the question soon becomes: are we taking these “recommendations” too far? In the past year or so I have been speaking to more and more parents who are worried that their children are getting “stuck” on books which they think are too young for them either vocabulary wise or even just the quantity of words. Series such as Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates have spearheaded a trend of novels where the words have become co-star to the illustrations. Spaces between lines are bigger and in some cases illustrations are literally replacing words in sentences. Is this the start of a descent down into the world of the emoji novel? Are we reverting back to hieroglyphics? I doubt it.
When it comes down to it, only two things matter here. Are the kids enjoying what they are reading and are they getting any kind of value out of spending their time reading it? Now don’t get me wrong, we do need progression but I will come back to that in a moment. Based on my own observations and those of the overall book market, children revel in these books. Here are characters they can relate to, lovable but a bit of a disaster at times and you know what? They are hilarious. As in “laugh out loud because you may actually burst” kind of hilarious. They are exactly the kind of funny that most adults don’t understand and that is just fine. Most of us went through the phase as children of trying to explain to an adult something we found funny and getting the smile back of someone who is just trying to humour you but really doesn’t get it.
On a more complicated note is the idea of “value”. This can mean many different things – monetary, educational or personal – and they all apply here.
Not all caregivers can afford a new book every few days to keep up with the demand when their child flies through them. But here is where re-reading, book swaps and libraries come in. If a child loves a book, they will reread them. They become a comfort to them, to return to a world they are familiar with and that they know they love. On an educational level, these books are not part of the school curriculum. Recreational reading should be just that, fun and relaxing after a long day of school. At the end of the day they are reading and there must always be value in that.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t facing a challenge. I think we need to come to terms with the fact that in practicality, the way we categorise books is much more nuanced that the shelves on which they sit. The way we decide which books we buy must go beyond the industry standards. They are vital to the organisation within the industry, not within your home.
We must take what they love about these books and respect that and in doing so let go of the notions of what we did or didn’t read at that age and let them learn themselves
If we were to consider the idea that these illustrated novels belong to a category of their own, we would be able to discuss how we can speak to children to try and coax them into reading other styles, rather than belittling them and implying that they are dumbing down. We must take what they love about these books and respect that and in doing so let go of the notions of what we did or didn’t read at that age and let them learn themselves.
When left to their own devices, most will move on themselves as their understanding and curiosity grows and while we facilitate that move, it is theirs to make and enjoy. Just because they still love books from another stage, doesn’t mean they won’t grow to love and appreciate the ones that come after it, right up until adulthood. Believe me on this one, I should know.
Lorraine Levis is a children’s bookseller/buyer for Dubray Books and a YA and KidLit commentator