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Why do adults read young adult and children's literature?

For years, adults have traveled with Alice and experienced her adventures in Wonderland. They have seen a utopian society through the eyes of Jonas in Louis Lowry's "The Giver," and they accompanied Anne Shirley on her imaginative misadventures at Green Gables farm.

It should come as no surprise that more recent young adult and children's literature -- such as Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" and Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" -- are also popular with adults, said Philip Nel, Kansas State University professor of English and director of the children's literature graduate program.

"Children's literature is literature," Nel said. "It may be written for people with less height and less vocabulary, but it's still literature."

The phenomenon of adults reading literature targeted toward younger readers is nothing new, Nel said. He pointed to Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which were read by both children and adults when the books were published in the late 19th century.

"Oh, the Places You'll Go!" by Dr. Seuss is another successful children's book, he said. It becomes a bestseller every graduation season -- because it is given to adults and not to children.

"I think if you're writing for children, it's harder because children are more demanding," Nel said. "Adults will read a book even if it's boring after the first 50 pages if the reviews say it’s a good book. I don't think children will. I don't think they should either."

Demanding Young Readers Help Authors

Nel said this demanding characteristic of younger readers helps authors create some of the appealing qualities of young adult and children's literature:
  • attention to narrative
  • a powerful story
  • a sense of wonder
  • efficient story-telling
  • developed and credible characters

Adults Reclaim the Pleasures of Reading with Good Stories

"I think in some ways literature for children can bring adults back to the pleasures of reading, because literature for children is much more connected to and invested in the pleasure of reading," Nel said.

"Literature for young readers frequently offers an interesting plot with compelling characters -- features that attract older readers who also enjoy a good story," said Karin Westman, associate professor and head of the department of English.

"Literature for younger readers often tackles larger cultural issues through personal stories, and older readers may like the opportunity to think about the world in those terms."

Book Marketing for Both Adults and Children

Sometimes young adult and children's books are published and marketed to both young adult and adult readers, Nel and Westman said. Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" and Collins' "The Hunger Games" series are two successfully marketed examples.

Even the Harry Potter books were marketed to both young adults and adults in the United Kingdom. When "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" was published, the adult cover had a black and white train on the cover to give it a more grown-up look, rather than the colorful illustration on the children's book. Eventually, the books became so famous that the adult covers didn’t matter, according to Nel and Westman.

Author Talent Creates a Good Story, Told Well

But it's more than just a marketing tactic that makes young adult literature so popular. It's the talent of authors, such as J.K. Rowling, Lewis Carroll and L.M. Montgomery, to create a good story told well, Nel said, who added he thinks it's silly for people to express surprise at the popularity of young adult books among adults.

Children's literature is universal

"It's not the 'dumbing-down' of America," Nel said. "Children's literature is always read by adults. They write it, edit it, market it, sell the manuscript for it. Children's literature is universal.

"One should be surprised that grown-ups don't read more of it because it is the most important literature you'll read," Nel said. "These are the books that you read when you're still in the process of figuring out who you are."

For a list of recommended young adult and children's literature, go to: