It’s been quite a week for Neil Gaiman, what with the release of the movie based on his deliciously creepy delicious children’s novel Coraline, and the Newbery Committee awarding highest honors to The Graveyard Book (which I STILL haven’t read; my spouse nabbed it off my To Be Read pile before I could stow it safely away), and all. I do the holds-pull list at work, and just about every day I’ve gone in there’s been something by Gaiman on the list, meaning someone wants it enough to go to the trouble of reserving it: an audiobook of Coraline, one of his grownup novels like Anansi Boys, or—my own favorite—his surreal, deadpan picture book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish.
One thing that makes Gaiman so amazing—and his Newbery medal so newsworthy—is that he’s a writer who crosses genres, and audiences. Horror, graphic novels, kids’ novels, picture books, blogging—he does it all, and does it all well. (Plus, by all accounts, he’s just a super-nice guy.)
It’s unusual to find someone who’s so comfortable, and so well-accepted, among both the children’s and grownup literati. In our culture, we like to put people and things—literary or otherwise—into well-defined and exclusive categories: THIS is science fiction; THAT is literary fiction; THESE authors are for kids; THOSE OVER THERE are strictly for the R-rated-movie crowd. But the truth is, both life and literature are less definable and more complicated. So many adults (and not just teachers and children’s librarians) read and love kids’ books, and many kids dip into supposedly grownup books, both fiction and nonfiction.
Among authors who write for both kids and adults, many try
to separate their children’s-author and adult-author personas with different
websites or even by using pseudonyms, like Louise Fitzhugh, author of Harriet
the Spy, who also wrote dozens of paperback romances and hard-boiled detective
novels using various pen names, or the author of the Series
of Unfortunate Events books, who published them under the pseudonym Lemony
Snicket, and uses his real name, Daniel Handler, for his adult novels and
Then there are those who cross over from one audience to another. I admit, I occasionally get testy when writers who have made names for themselves in the world of adult literature venture into children’s books. And the truth is, often their kidlit efforts are awkward and embarrassing: most often, because they haven’t studied the genre, but make the assumption that because it’s for kids it’s easy. Sometimes, though, they hit it just right: I really liked Adam Gopnik’s kids’ book, The King in the Window, and when underground-cartoonist Art Spiegelman started focusing his talents on graphic novels for kids, I danced a virtual jig in excitement and delight.
As for authors and illustrators known primarily for children’s books, they can get caught up by ghettoization too: it’s surprisingly easy to find people who assume that people who work for, or with, children must be childlike, when the truth is, most children’s book authors and illustrators are, in fact, adults, and as interested in adult stuff as anyone else, regardless of their day (or second) job. So it’s a welcome surprise to see children’s author/illustrator Maira Kalman’s exultant New York Times piece on the Obama inauguration, which captured the excitement of “being there” as no video clip could. Another picture book artist, Christoph Niemann, just used kids’ toys to illustrate an ode to the sights of New York City in lego format on the New York Times blog.
As someone who loves working with kids and their books, but has been known to socialize with adults and even read adult literature, I get a big thrill out of crossover moves like these, or like Gaiman’s Newbery. They remind me (though I shouldn’t read reminding) that creativity didn’t get that way by scrupulously respecting boundaries, age-based or otherwise.
What’s a kids’ book? What’s a grownup book? Sometimes, that distinction is just irrelevant and all you’ve got in front of you is an awesome book, and an equally awesome author or artist.