There is a silly debate taking place about whether adults who read children’s books, including young adult books, are infantile and should have their driver’s licenses revoked because they’re obviously not mature enough to play dodge ‘em cars on the freeway and text while their two thousand pound vehicle hurtles down the road. Grown up, indeed!
The outraged discussion, which keeps cropping up, seeks to justify why adults should be allowed to read books written for children and teens. Last time I checked, this is not a totalitarian society dictating what we can and can’t read (censorship efforts aside). From the time we can read our first sentence, we get to choose whether we read “up” or “down.” That goes for kids as well as adults. For adults to be chastising each other about the books they choose to read is so buttinski that I hope the conversation goes away.
Here is where the argument for not reading children’s books as adults truly falls apart. All the best books have something important for everyone, no matter who the publishing company decides the audience is or which imprint published the book.
Brown Girl Dreaming is an important book for adults who are looking back, making sense of choices and divergent paths, and the world we have known, still challenged by the experiences of others.
This world of other people’s experiences, whether they are nonfiction or fiction based on truth, is one that the reader seeks to crack open every day, peeling back the skin, and enjoying the succulent rewards inside.
One of the themes in Brown Girl Dreaming is home. Like the author Jacqueline Woodson, I had two homes. One with my widowed mother in the big city, the other with my mother’s parents in a small, rural city. In one home I stayed inside to be safe and my mother drove me wherever we needed to go. In the other home, we were close enough to the forests and hills that I could run there to touch them, ride my bike to the library, play foursquare with the other kids in the street, stepping aside when cars passed, until it was too dark to see the ball.
Jacqueline Woodson brings back to me the forlorn feeling of moving between two homes, growing beyond my friends because of those two homes, and the underlying feelings of betrayal. On some level, I blamed my mother for not leaving me planted in one place. She knew that, even though I never said it out loud. On another level, one might say I had the best of childhoods because I had a variety of experiences.
Ms. Woodson’s memoir in verse is riveting, not for what happens, but for the ability of the reader to empathize so closely with what the main character is feeling. Whether you grew up in a four-block radius and didn’t leave your environs until you went to college or you moved fourteen times by the time you were eighteen, the feelings of family, the spanning of generations, loyalty, attachment to place, the value of friends … these are parts of life that can be understood by all ages.
An adept writer, Ms. Woodson chooses words that vibrate in just the right way, painting scenes, examining people until we can begin to walk among them, comfortable observers. That’s a gift to every reader and was surely never written for “ages 10 and up” only.
The same can be said for reading programs: you don’t get to decide what age person can read which books. People, including kids, have choices. Their parents, who know them best, can help with those choices. Let them read “up” or “down.” We only know what’s best for us individually. And sometimes, two chapters in, we realize we made a bad call. That’s part of the choice-making process too.
For this reader, an adult, Brown Girl Reading was an excellent choice, an important book. Perhaps you’ll think so, too.