Children’s literature – is it important to write for adults too?

Day 8 of Advent Blogging …

The title of this post seems, at second glance, to be rather ambiguous, for which I apologise. What I mean by it is whether, when a writer is penning a story for a child, they need, should or even do have an adult reader in mind too.

It’s often said that children’s films nowadays cater for the accompanying adults as much as for the child audience. Clever jokes, allusions and references that hopefully will go over children’s heads are in the most-lauded movies. I am thinking here, for example, of the Shrek series – certainly some of my favourite children’s films. But then are these strictly the property of children? Should they be?

Literature I feel often has the same tendency nowadays. I was reading Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Fete Worse than Death with Holly last night and was chuckling away at the various references he made to TV chefs (Heston Harboil in particular), as well as his imaginative changes in names of Romantic poets. Holly didn’t really get it all and I found I was explaining a lot of the text to her and why I was laughing, which broke the flow of the story up somewhat. It made me wonder whether this is a definite trend in children’s literature now – catering for the adults reading the stories to their children. Is a layer of adult ‘sophistication’ coming into this domain … and should it? I am not saying, by any means, that children should be talked down to – not at all. But ‘in jokes’ that are beyond a child’s knowledge and comprehension must surely be placed there for an adult’s entertainment and is that what we want to give children?

Much of the success of well-loved children’s authors (and by this I mean loved by children) is that they present a world that is recognizable to a child, even if it become bizarrely distorted, as is the case with Roald Dahl’s stories, for example. Authors such as Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, David Walliams, Jeff Kinney and Enid Blyton know or knew how to communicate with their child audience and don’t really bear the needs of the adult reader in mind.

I am not saying this is the ‘best’ way to approach writing for children, but I would be interested to know if the future of children’s publishing involves crafting stories that keep the adults hooked too.

What do you think?



  1. I think many classics have multiple layers which can be enjoyed differently at different ages. For example, I didn’t get the whole Christian narrative when i first read the Narnia stories aged 6, but now as an adult I the extended metaphor is so strong (I think something similar is going on with the Northern Lights stories – how many children reading it really see it as an exploration of the power of the contemporary, very real church, not just a fictionalised church). This is slightly different of course to the Horrible Histories (TV) /Goth Girl/Shrek layers which make such clear cut references to modern fashions and fames. I think they’re a space for them, though personally they are not my favourite type of writing. And hasn’t it gone of for years? I’m sure Dickens is full of similar things it’s just that now we don’t get them at all because we’re not surrounded by that particular historical culture.

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  2. Thanks for your comments, Zoe. I agree with you – there has always been a literary tradition of including allusions in fiction, poetry, etc. We’re all influenced by what we have read before, by what we believe in, etc. I guess what I was wondering about is whether there is a trend now in books, films, TV programmes, etc to write with two audiences in mind – to entertain the parents as much as the children? More, I guess, in terms of humour…? Because they are the ones buying the books? Or to satisfy the author’s / scriptwriter’s etc sense of humour?

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  3. Especially true for cartoon feature films. Paddington Bear, for instance is getting rave reviews from adult reviewers, but is aimed at children. Interesting to note that it is a PG – one presumes so that children don’t think it’s OK to slide down banisters without a parental ‘oh no you don’t!’

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  4. I agree with you and Zoe, in that the best children’s literature does seem to have layers of meaning that appeal to all ages – Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe being the most prominent example in terms of allegory, but I have to say I despise the references to modern popular culture in children’s literature. I have read both David Walliams and the David Baddeil to my kids, and although they did like the stories, I did have to explain references to Downton Abbey, the X-factor and various other concepts, which yes, did break up the story and seem unnecessary in my view. Roald Dahl didn’t factor in 1970’s pop or TV so why do modern authors?
    In terms of Paddington, my young children were both scared by it. The best bits of the film were the ones with Paddington getting up to mishaps in the family bathroom etc. What ruined it for them was the introduction of the ‘baddie’ Nicole Kidman and the scariness of the chase. Shame.

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  5. Hi Clare
    Many thanks for taking the time to reply. I know what you mean with regards the referencing to modern pop or TV shows in certain books. It does seem a rather odd choice to make, as this automatically dates the books too – will children in ten years’ time, say, know what X-Factor is (I hope not!). What a shame that the Paddington film was scary. That is one of the few books I would have thought would not be scary in the least – why on earth did they have to do that to it? Shame, indeed.


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