Why do some books written for children draw adult readers while others don’t? Which ones deserve the attention of adults? I’ve tried to read (as I entertained the possibility of writing one) a large number of children’s books and am usually stopped by the simplifications of language, life, and fictional possibility that “YA” writers are required, or feel compelled, to adhere to. I grew almost instantly bored with the Harry Potterseries, but Louis Sachar’s Holes, beloved by young readers, is masterful—a grownup could love it for the grand chutzpah of its plot machinery and be as moved as young readers are by its hero’s dilemmas and bravery.
Many YA authors have half an eye on adults who may be reading these aloud, as I first read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and are generous with double meanings to delight the knowing—think Lemony Snicket. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase can be mistaken for a parody Victorian—country houses with secret passages, orphans, evil governesses, railroad-train compartments—but it is a rarer thing than that. It’s never coy or arch (which Aiken said books for children should never be), but it is heard differently by an adult reader, who greets the arrival of common plot turns, descriptive tropes, and matched good-evil characters with pleasure, like old friends showing up suddenly at the door, even as the young reader wants to know only what happens next. Aiken’s swift exactness in her chosen mode and period, and her honesty in fulfilling her contract with young readers, are continually tickling. My kids wondered why the dreadful dangers seemed to cheer me so.