My love-hate relationship with reading has swung a little more into the hate category recently. For the very first time, I am in four intensive reading classes. Add a language to that and I feel like I’m just deciphering dense texts. And I’m exhausted.
This state of mind is particularly distressing because I still feel acutely the absence of reading for pleasure. However, recently a copy of “Coraline” in the little free library near my apartment gave me insight: reading children’s literature can help overcome both burnout and cynicism. Its verbal simplicity and use of illustrations are not weaknesses but strengths, and when read sincerely they can rekindle curiosity.
I understand the taboo – who wants to pick up a book that says it’s for college kids? I’m an adult now! I don’t want to go back to college anymore! It was horrible ! “Coraline” is classified as a fourth to seventh grade reading level, according to Scholastic. Luckily, I had enjoyed the film adaptation a lot, so I ignored that label. On reading, I found that the simplicity of the text did not prevent its ability to tell an engaging story.
My misconception might be partly due to my earlier misunderstanding of how “simplicity” of a text is generally defined. Publishers often base their assessment of reading level on lexical complexity, without considering how different age groups tend to relate to content and topics. Harper Collins, who published “Coraline,” recommends San Diego’s Rapid Reading Memory Assessment for assessing children’s reading level, which only considers grammar and vocabulary a child has just learned. However, categorizing words into reading levels in this way implies that people who are above a given reading level will not win as much from simply written stories as, say, “Crime and Punishment”..“Not once while reading “Coraline” I thought, “Wow, this story is so good. If only the words were harder, it would really push this to the brink.
The lexical complexity of a text does not determine its quality. For example, on the Flesch-Kincaid Index, which uses sentence length and number of syllables to determine reading level of texts, Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” falls at a reading level fourth year. This demonstrates that the complexity of words is not as important as how an author uses them. The author of “Coraline”, Neil Gaiman was able to use a simplistic lexicon to weave an immersive story that stuck with me.
But “Coraline” has images – what a humiliation for a 20 year old! Here’s the thing: Pictures are valuable additions to books. My edition of “Coraline” features Dave McKean artwork that looks like edgy indie-rock album art, which I particularly liked.
The practical function of pictures in children’s literature is to make the text more understandable. And while high-level readers don’t need pictures to understand advanced text, by labeling pictures as immature, we rule out the possibility that pictures can open up new avenues for appreciating text.
Good visual art brings something new to stories. Pamela Paul, New York Times opinion columnist and picture book author, uses the phenomenon of a child laughing at storybook pictures to explain this point: “As you read a story, told with words, she reads another, told through art. The illustrator doesn’t just mirror the words on the page; she herself creates a full narrative, adding details, creating subplots. When I was reading “Coraline”, there were several times when the illustrations offered narrative details that were missing from the written work. It was one thing to read about the delicious chicken the Other Mother gave Coraline when they first met, and something completely different to see the Other Mother towering over a helpless roast chicken, plunging it into her shadow, craning her neck to smile. to me as if to say, “you’re next.”
Picture books’ ability to break down complex ideas into simple images is a powerful tool for clarifying abstract ideas and can benefit readers of all ages. Also, seeing an idea can reduce the distance between the reader and the text. For example, Laura Gilpin’s poem “Two Headed Calf” emotionally decimated me, but reading the illustrated version by Adam Ellis removed a layer of visual ambiguity. Neither experience was better than the other, but they were decidedly different. To abandon illustration simply as a means of teaching children to read is to restrict the lenses through which we view literature.
This brings me to perhaps the most valuable aspect of reading children’s literature as adults: it allows adults to reconnect with the way we thought as children. Childlike wonder and captivation with all things magical and unexplainable underlies much of the genre of children’s literature. Children lack both experience and political and economic power, so children’s books center around the themes of bravery and curiosity. But these topics can also resonate with anyone rendered powerless in times of political and social unrest.
In many cases, authors write children’s books to provide tools for children to navigate through life as they grow older. Speaking of the purpose of children’s literature, Neil Gaiman told CBC Radio that “(w)what’s important is telling (kids) that a bad thing can be beaten. … When I’m went to Coraline, that’s what I hung on to.” In a rapidly changing world, I wonder if it’s worth looking at these books again as guides to comfort and strength.
If I’ve learned anything from the turmoil of the past two years, it’s that life is too unpredictable to limit myself to certain genres of books because they’re “not for me.” Children’s literature may not challenge me lexically, but it pushes me to reflect on the usefulness of my adult beliefs. As I got older, I became jaded, perceiving the world as unfair and indifferent, but that doesn’t mean that’s the verifiable truth. Children’s books resist this belief by presenting a world full of possibilities. It’s nice to remember that things can turn out well in the end and we have the power to make it happen.