There is a scene in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' where a lynch mob arrives in the night to break into the prison where lawyer, Atticus Finch, is guarding Tom Robinson, a black man, who is held in there for supposedly raping a white girl. Atticus' six-year-old daughter, Scout, recognises one of the men in the crowd as the father of a school friend of hers and blithely chats with him about his son, which eventually shames him into calling the mob away. This is such a powerful example of childhood goodness and innocence overcoming adult bigotry and cruelty; light overcoming dark. For me, this is also the essence of so many traditional fairytales: the innocent Red Riding Hood vanquishing the wicked wolf.
Interestingly, when I started to look up some of the details of this book and its author Harper Lee, online, I read an article which finished with the words: 'a book every twelve-year-old should read'. This is another area I feel compelled to explore: why is it that if a book has a young protagonist in it adults immediately assume that it's for children?
Like many teenagers, I read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in high school. I was a 'good reader', I had no trouble absorbing the words, but the story was so far from my comfortable middle-class Australian world that I only realise as an adult how little of it I really understood. As a teenager, I was hungry for Judy Blume: stories of boyfriends and periods and pimples, THAT was my life, not 1930s Alabama. Of course I could feel empathy for Scout, Atticus, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, I wasn't completely heartless, but it is only upon rereading this book as an adult that I can truly understand the whole historical and social context of the story. As a twelve-year-old? I doubt it.
Perhaps I was particularly narrow-minded or naive as a teenager, but having travelled extensively all throughout my childhood, I would be surprised if I was more so than any other teenager of my generation. Perhaps teenagers today, with access to the internet, are more worldly, who knows? All the same, I would hesitate to call 'To Kill a Mockingbird' a children's book. Or any of the other books I've mentioned above.
I recently gave a talk at a seminar for adults who teach extra classes in English to children after school hours. Many of those children and teenagers have English as a second language. One of the tutors put up her hand to ask me how she could get one of her teenage students to read more 'literary' novels. She'd tried him with 'Huckleberry Finn', but he just wasn't interested. I explained that I'd only recently read Huck Finn for my book group. As an adult. Huck Finn was no light read. For a start, the dialect and language, while fascinating to me as an adult, could seem possibly Shakespearean to a young boy. And, while it's true that Huck has many wild adventures, essentially the story is about a black slave trying to escape from his 'owners' to get back to his family and avoid being killed. There are some incredibly adult themes in this book, yet because it is narrated by a child people assume it is a children's book.
I suggested to the woman to perhaps try some contemporary Australian authors: we have some brilliant writers here writing stories for contemporary teenagers. He might find them more relevant to his every day life. Her student would seek out Huck Finn for himself when he was ready for it. As well as all those other brilliant books we are made to study in high school: Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, My Brother Jack. I mean, how as a sixteen-year-old girl was I possibly able to understand the life of a unhappy journalist lusting after his brother's wife when I hadn't even experienced a long term relationship, let alone a marriage?
I'd really be interested to know what other people's thoughts are on this. I notice many of these books are still studied at school in place of contemporary YA fiction, some of which is as well written as any of the 'classics'. Then again, perhaps if we never studied the classics at school we'd never read them at all? Who knows? And, while I acknowledge I could have only understood some of the themes present in these books, I am the first to admit that the stories still stay with me today, gently unfolding in my mind as my collective life experience permits me to understand them at deeper and deeper levels.
So, perhaps in the end to call books 'children's', 'YA' or 'adult's' doesn't mean anything anyway. Adults read Harry Potter and enjoy it and primary school kids read Twilight (gulp!). Perhaps you just find the story that speaks to you. Perhaps you understand as much of it as your life experience and compassion allows you. And perhaps, like 'To Kill a Mockingbird' has done for me, it will continue to influence you long after you've read it, and each time you go back to it you will understand it at a deeper level.
After all, when they were first told around the fireplace, fairytales weren't meant for children either.