Why is it so easy to fall in love with children's books?

Children's book The Lie Tree won The Costa Book Award last night. We examine the cultural phenomenon of adults reading children's books

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Get everyone you know into a metaphorical room. Tell them you have a free copy of a book, for everyone present, and it's about the wrongful conviction of a black man in Alabama. Tell them it's an examination of race in America, of the destruction of innocence, and of a justice system that is an inherently weighted dice, forever rolling in favour of white privilege. And then ask them if they want a copy. Cue a lot of shuffling of feet, a lot of "ooh, that sounds a bit heavy for me", and a lot of "I have three books on the go already." 

And then, you'd pull out Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. And everyone would take a copy. 

Because not only is To Kill A Mockingbird a perfect novel, it's also a book that can be read and understood by children. It's told through the eyes of a child, and so it addresses the world at knee-height, with cock-eyed optimism and a brilliant sense of fun. 

I bring up To Kill A Mockingbird because another children's book, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, has come into its own kind of prominence today. The Lie Tree is a "part horror, part detective, part historical" story set in Victorian England. As the first children's book to win the Costa Book Award since Phillip Pullman's Amber Spyglass in 2002, it's a powerful symbol of how we view children's books within our culture. We're constantly told that adults have become more infantilised – the sheer number of adult onesies on sale should prove that – but the awarding of children's literature shows an appreciation of children as people, and their entertainment as art. 

Children and YA fiction, in general, seems to make bigger, splashier headlines than any other genre. Just yesterday, JK Rowling made news for calling Donald Trump a "death eater" in reference to his constant stream of xenophobic comments. It's not the first time Rowling has invoked the Harry Potter universe to comment on the news, often backing LGBT causes by reminding us that Hogwarts is gay-friendly. Meanwhile, Katniss Everdeen is consistently referenced as a role model for young women, and one of the only pop culture heroines that saves the lives of male characters more times than she eats breakfast. 

Why are we so keen to read, award and reference brilliant children's literature? For the very same reason that everyone in your metaphorical room is going home with a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. Children's books treat the world with the same open-hearted curiousity that we wish we could recapture ourselves, which is what makes them so good at condensing vast ideological concepts down to simple, exciting stories that stick to our bones. Charlotte's Web might not have turned us into vegetarian pig farmers, but it did make us linger – a little sadly, a little hopefully – at any rain-flecked spider's web that crosses our path. 


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