My love-hate relationship with reading has been tipping a little more into the hate category recently. For the first time ever, I’m in four reading-heavy classes. Add a language on top of that and it feels like all I do is decipher dense texts. And I’m burnt out.
This state of mind has proven particularly distressing because I still acutely feel the absence of reading for pleasure. However, recently a copy of “Coraline” in the Little Free Library near my apartment offered 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, it can reignite curiosity.
I understand the taboo — who wants to pick up a book that says it’s for middle schoolers? I’m a grown-up now! I don’t want to be in middle school again! That was horrible! “Coraline” is categorized as being a fourth to seventh grade reading level, according to Scholastic. Fortunately, I had enjoyed the movie adaptation very much, and so I didn’t heed this label. Upon reading, I found that the simplicity of the text didn’t hinder its ability to tell an engaging story.
My misconception could be in part due to my previous misunderstanding of how “simplicity” of a text is usually defined. Publishers often base their reading level assessment on lexical complexity, without regard for how different age groups tend to engage with the content and themes. Harper Collins, which published “Coraline,” recommends the San Diego Quick Assessment of Reading Memory for evaluating children’s reading level, which only considers the grammar and vocabulary that a child has recently come to understand. However, categorizing words into reading levels this way implies that people who fall above a given reading level will not gain as much from simply worded stories than, say, from "Crime and Punishment.” Not once while reading “Coraline” did I think, “Wow, this story is so good. If only the words were harder, that would really push this over the edge.”
The lexical complexity of a text does not determine its quality. For example, on the Flesch-Kincaid index, which uses sentence length and syllable count to determine the reading level of texts, Ernest Hemmingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” falls at a fourth-grade reading level. This demonstrates that the complexity of words isn’t as important as how an author uses them. The author of “Coraline,” Neil Gaiman, was able to use simplistic lexicon to weave an immersive story that stayed with me.
But “Coraline” has pictures — how humiliating for a 20 year old! Here’s the thing: Pictures are valuable additions to books. My edition of “Coraline” features illustrations by Dave McKean that look like edgy indie-rock album covers, which particularly appealed to me.
The practical function of pictures in children’s literature is to make the text more comprehensible. And although higher-level readers don’t need images to understand advanced text, by writing off pictures as immature, we dismiss the possibility that pictures could open up new avenues of appreciating a text.
Good visual art contributes something new to stories. Pamela Paul, an opinion columnist for the New York Times and a picture book author, uses the phenomenon of a child laughing at the pictures in a storybook to explain this point: “While you are reading one story, told in words, she is reading another, told through art. The illustrator doesn’t merely reflect the words on the page; she creates an entire narrative of her own, adding details, creating secondary story lines.” When I was reading “Coraline,” there were several times where the illustrations offered narrative details absent from the written work. It was one thing to read about the delicious chicken that the Other Mother gave Coraline upon their first meeting, and something entirely different to see the Other Mother towering over a defenseless chicken roast, plunging it into her shadow, all while craning her neck to smile at me as if to say, “you’re next.”
Picture books’ ability to break down complex ideas into simple imagery is a powerful tool for clarifying abstract ideas and can be beneficial for readers of all ages. Additionally, seeing an idea can reduce the distance between the reader and the text. For example, the poem “Two Headed Calf” by Laura Gilpin emotionally decimated me, but reading Adam Ellis’s illustrated version removed a layer of visual ambiguity. Neither experience was better than the other, but they were decidedly different. To write off illustration simply as a means of teaching children to read is to restrict the lenses through which we view literature.
This leads me to perhaps the most valuable aspect of reading children’s literature as an adult: It allows adults to reconnect with the ways we thought as kids. Childlike wonder and captivation with all things magical and inexplicable underlie much of the genre of children’s literature. Children lack both experience and political and economic power, so children’s books center on the themes of bravery and curiosity. But these topics can also resonate with anyone rendered powerless during times of political and social turmoil.
In many cases, authors write children’s books to provide tools for kids navigating life as they get older. Speaking to the purpose of children’s literature, Neil Gaiman told CBC Radio that "(w)hat is important is to tell (children) that a bad thing can be beaten. … When I went into Coraline, that was what I held onto.” In a rapidly changing world, I wonder whether it’s worth looking once again to these books as guides for comfort and strength.
If I’ve learned anything from the turbulence of the past two years, it’s that life is too unpredictable to restrict myself from certain book genres because they are “not meant 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’ve grown older, I’ve become jaded, perceiving the world as unjust and uncaring, but that doesn’t mean that is the verifiable truth. Children’s books resist this belief by presenting a world full of possibilities. It’s nice to be reminded that things can turn out well in the end and that we have the power to make it that way.
Megan Slusarewicz ’23 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.