Some die hard Harry Potter fans at the Long Beach Comic-Con 2010. Photo by Popculturegeek.
Chances are that if you’re living in America in 2011 you know someone who’s an avid fan of the Harry Potter series. Perhaps they wait, clad in sorcerers outfits, in lines that circle whole city blocks just get their hands on the newest edition to the series. They discuss the storylines with their friends entranced by the plot twists. They love the characters, and giggle over their silly blunders, and chances are… that avid fan is an adult.
The now famous series heralds the dominance of the so-called “crossover fiction” genre in which adults who love children’s books find themselves more socially accepted literary fans. The phenomenon has continues to spread like wildfire, affecting all areas of the book world, making publishers revise marketing tactics, flummoxing literary critics and leaving librarians wondering where to stack these new ‘crossover novels.’ Meanwhile all that matters to the 12 (or 32)-year-old sitting beneath a tree deeply engrossed in children’s fiction is that they have found a great story that awakens their innate love of a well-spun tale.
Leading London bookseller Waterstones revealed that half a million copies of the adult edition Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix have sold since it was released in 2003. The company declared 2005 ‘The Year of the Crossover Fiction Book’ and reported that five out of the top 10 fiction bestsellers in 2004 were children’s books. To boot, the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary award, The Whitbread Award was given in 2001 to Phillip Pullman’s “children’s book” The Amber Spyglass. The award was again bestowed upon a so-called children’s novel in 2004 for Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
The Harry Potter series, though undeniably responsible for a surge in adult readership of children’s literature, is not the end of it, nor was it even really the beginning… The concept of a division between adult and children readers did not really exist at all until the mid-eighteenth century when literacy levels rose due to compulsory education and the cost of publishing declined- two factors that changed a literary landscape which had previously led authors to simply aim for the highest amount of readers possible, regardless of age. It was also around this time that the sense of childhood as we know it began to assert itself in literary society. Even amidst this new panorama, several books emerged that spoke to a common audience between adult and child-drawn genre barriers. Authors such as Jonathan Swift, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, J.M Barrie (creator of Peter Pan), Lewis Carroll, and C.S Lewis are just a few who published books that either purposely or incidentally attracted readers of all ages. It’s worth considering, though, that some of these authors’ books existed for some time before being given an artistic second-life thanks to the gleaming cloak that comes with being labeled a “classic” (Falconer 153). In this light, appealing to an audience of all ages is not really a new concept at all- what is new is the hype, and perhaps the immediacy of response from adult readers.
Perhaps modern society’s skewing of lines between childhood and adulthood has rendered crossover fiction more attractive. Adult fiction is expected to be highly specialized, intricately woven, and lacking in the kind of straight-forward wonderment of children’s literature, which gives adults the opportunities to continue searching, exploring, wondering and fantasizing about the big questions that adulthood could never answer (Falconer 154). In fact, an adult novel that depicted the battles between good and evil in such black and white terms would be considered a shallow look into the “real world” undeserving of a placement in the adult fiction category.
Perhaps adults reading crossover fiction have had enough of the “real world” of literature and are looking for an escape, but they may also find a more unapologetically straight-forward view of the world and its many questions, its constant doubt and sobering complexity. Maybe these questions don’t ever really change throughout our lives, maybe they just disguise themselves with newer words and more confusing configurations.
The current zeitgeist is one of information inundation. The Internet, ever at our fingertips, gives us everything in nano-seconds. Yet these circumstances have not made the age-old, ‘big questions’ any clearer. While the age of the auto-analytic and the psychological evaluation of society by society–as well as by the individual–has rendered us a meticulously dissected (and confused/morally ambiguous) lot to be sure (Salecl 48).
It is in light of this environment that harshly rebukes quick and easy answers that adults have come to be more attracted to the clear-cut banalities of children’s books that offer easily identifiable characters and solve complex moral issues with ease. In which case, these fairy tales become a breath of fresh air.
Famed crossover novelist Phillip Pullman puts it this way,” In a book for children you can’t put the plot on hold while you posture artistically for the amusement of your sophisticated readers because, thank goodness, your readers are not sophisticated. They have got more important things on their mind than your dazzling skill.”
Perhaps some adults are simply done with all of the pretention and over self- awareness of post-modernism, and what we really want at the end of the day is just a well-told story.
Falconer, Rachel. The Crossover Novel: Contemporary Children’s Literature & it’s Adult Readership. New York: Routledge, 2008.
Salecl, Renata. Choice. Great Britain: Profile Books Ltd, 2010.