Children’s Books for Everyone

Omar Bekdash ‘18, Junior Columnist

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“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

I was seven years old when my father read aloud to me the words above. I had no idea what “oozy” or “bare” or, of course, “hobbit,” meant, nor did I have the attention span to wrap my head around the author’s ubiquitous use of the comma. Most parents read twenty-paged books to their children. My father endeavored to read his favorite book, J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit, out-loud from cover to cover—all three hundred pages of it—as my sister and I sat cross-legged on the couch, leaning against his shoulders. The first few days were tough. How could a seven-year-old understand the amusing exchanges bandied about between Gandalf and Bilbo during one particularly good morning in the Shire? How could an immature second grader understand the quest that thirteen dwarves, a hobbit, and a wizard had undertaken—killing Smaug the terrible and reclaiming Erebor?

After some days of reading, I began to notice my groaning and moaning had begun to subside, as had my acrimony towards the whole ordeal. Not only was my dad becoming a much more entertaining storyteller, but I began to listen more. To understand more. To laugh more. Once my father reached the comical interaction between the trolls and Bilbo, or better yet, once I marveled at the clever riddles Gollum and Bilbo lobbed at each other in the dark—I became enraptured in Tolkien’s genius. Witty humor, daring escapes, catchy tavern songs, calamitous battles, and bonds of fellowship all came together, in adventure after adventure, to create The Hobbit. In one month’s time, we had finished the book. Soon afterwards, we begged our father to start The Lord of the Rings. We finished that a good deal later.

For all its messages and meanings, its teachings and themes, Tolkien had originally intended to write The Hobbit for his children, who, at the time, were as old as I was when I first read it. Immediately after writing the book, it was mostly held in high regard as an excellent, imaginative book for well-read children. But Tolkien knew that many readers at the time would separate his book from the realm of adult reading, leaving it to be exiled to the land of adventurous children’s book. Later, some years after he published the book in 1937, Tolkien quipped that if an author didn’t want to be labeled a “loony” for writing fantasy novels, he would call it a children’s book. Yet Tolkien believed some aspects of his children’s books certainly applied to adults, and vice versa. Not that this issue mattered much— a hundred million copies of The Hobbit exist, Tolkien is celebrated as a master author, and he has redefined the genre of fantasy.

One particular author had a little more trouble publishing her dream book than did Tolkien, who was already respected by the British literature community. The biographical drama Magic Beyond Words shows us the complicated life that celebrated author J.K. Rowling lived before publishing the first Harry Potter novel. While raising a child in poverty, she, over five years, crafted the book that would become The Sorcerer’s Stone. Rejected as too childish by many high profile publishers (who, in hindsight, really screwed up), she received her only contract from Bloomsbury, a publisher for children’s books. The rest, as they say, is history.

Children’s books end up being the best books, in many cases. Ryhan Moghe ’18 exclaims that the cozy, childish world of Harry Potter “allows readers to escape temporarily to a different world they feel at home in—and one they don’t want to leave.” And in creating this atmosphere of familiarity, Rowling followed the formula Tolkien had mastered: build a vast literary universe full of diverse characters and events; introduce an untested, special young man who must save the world from dark forces; and surround that main character with a group of utterly loyal friends. Humor is not simply used as comic relief, but as a part of the setting, a feeling the reader gets whenever he turns the next page. Elements of the story that may seem childish, like young main characters, giggly humor, magical monsters, and wild imagination, actually reinforce (and make enjoyable) the novel’s teachings.

As I reread my favorite parts of these novels, I am convinced they are not just “children’s books” because they happen to appeal to children. And teenagers. And adults like my father. In fact, my father now questions whether he enjoys Harry Potter or Tolkien’s novels more (I still prefer the magnificence of Tolkien’s Middle Earth masterpieces). These novels, especially Tolkien’s works, have not only expanded the realms of my imagination but also changed the way I write, the way I speak, the way I think.

Ms. John, an AP English teacher, contends that “engaging children’s and young adult literature introduces children to the pleasure that comes from reading any good book.” If Ms. John is right, an engaging children’s book could also form as a springboard, thrusting young kids into a world that appreciates literature of all forms. And the more one reads, the more one notices, appreciates, loves, and fears about the world. Certainly, I would not be the person I am today if I had not sat on the couch with my father and sister, listening to a “children’s book.”

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