It used to be that as you grow up, you’re expected to enjoy books and other entertainment that are more appropriate for your age. Today, it’s not uncommon to see adults and children sharing the same enthusiasm for Pokémon Go or the latest entry in the Wizarding World series. It’s no longer a question that children’s novels or young adult (YA) fiction can, and will be, enjoyed by adults. In fact, even The Guardian has published thoughtful opinions about the topic here and here.
Children’s novels can be especially endearing or entertaining for adults because the main characters are often children on the verge of important social or psychological developments. It’s fairly easy to transport our minds back to formative periods of our own childhoods. This makes that important sense of escapism, our major purpose for reading novels to begin with, less elusive for adult readers. While the novels may be simpler to read, the quality of the stories and the author’s intentions are relevant to any reader.
Here is a short list of some 4th to 6th-grade level children’s novels that stood out for me as a children’s literature educator. I think that if you or a young reader in your life, give these novels a chance, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
The House of the Scorpion is a dark, brooding, dystopian tale about a boy, a kind of ward for a powerful drug lord, coming to terms with his identity and the individual freedom of others. The story takes place in a newly-created drug empire country between the United States and Mexico. The novel draws parallels between science-fiction classics Animal Farm and 1984 but stays original in its alluring plot and memorable characters.
The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
The City of Ember is the first in the Book of Ember series. It starts like a generic, youth-focused dystopian story but ends like an M. Night Shyamalan film (a good one, I promise). The two main characters struggle with difficult decisions regarding family and commitments.
Mouse Guard by David Peterson
This graphic novel depicts a mostly-traditional fantasy genre story of camaraderie and rescue but with fearsome (i.e. adorable) small animals as the characters. This is a great comic for Game of Thrones viewers and for anyone who loved The Secret of Nimh while growing up.
Blood on the River by Elisa Lynn Carbone
Historical fiction novels are great in children’s classrooms because they help animate historical events with an intriguing narrative. Blood on the River depicts early colonial America through the eyes of John Smith’s page, an orphan boy who learns the value of culture and perspective. Of course the book has some historical inaccuracies, but the message it delivers rings true today.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman received numerous awards in recognition of the equally chilling and warming story, as well as the the enchanting art, in The Graveyard Book. The opening lines and accompanying artwork in chapter one offer a provocative entrance into another one of Gaiman’s amazing, twisted worlds, herein which a boy is raised by ghosts in a very old graveyard.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
The lessons offered in Wonder by R.J. Palacio about living with a visible deformity or disability and being around people with those life-altering characteristics, are so important for children to learn. Reading Wonder as an adult is a reminder to live with empathy and understanding for others, and to be confident in yourself.
Doll Bones by Holly Black
Doll Bones follows a group of pre-teenagers on an odyssean journey to return a supposedly haunted doll to a grave site. It shows remarkable, yet realistic, personal growth in all of the three main characters and reminds us of the efforts, or moments in our lives that made us shed parts of our childhood. This is my personal favorite in the list, and I highly recommend it for people who enjoy journey-type stories.
Elementary and middle school teachers will often struggle with developing ways to teach a children’s literature unit. They have to figure ways to highlight themes and character development and all manner of elements important to a young readers’ literature class.
Adults can obviously dispense with all the reading activities, all the comprehension and vocabulary checks, all the chapter quizzes, and even the dreaded final project and read these novels for pleasure only. And why not?
Just because you are an adult doesn’t mean that you have to stop enjoying children’s or YA fiction. A great story will be captivating no matter what age you are. If I’m right, then I hope you’ll find some gratification from one of the books on this list.
Cover Image via ParallaxPerspective