Continued Sense of Wonder: Adults and Kids’ Books

Jackie McMillan is the Children’s Collection Specialist at Dunedin Public Library. She set up a book discussion group especially for adults to discuss themes in Children’s Books about 18 months ago, and here she talks about the group and those like it.

C.S. Lewis was not only a writer of children’s books but also a reader of them. He once remarked that the taste for children’s books is not peculiar to children, but ‘is simply human taste, going on from age to age, silly with a universal silliness or wise with a universal wisdom…’ In other words, there’s no reason why adults should not read children’s books, and of course many of us do.

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As the Children’s Collection Specialist at the Dunedin Public Libraries, in New Zealand’s UNESCO City of Literature, I offered at the beginning of 2016 to facilitate a forum for adults interested in children’s literature.

This idea arose from a lively conversation over drinks at the end of a 2015 symposium about children’s literature, called A Sense of Wonder, hosted by the University of Otago’s Centre for the Book. We discussed our childhood reading and the impact of certain books upon us. I had also recently read Rick Gekoski’s Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir, in which he describes how early reading forms our characters, and recounts gleefully stealing his children’s copy of Matilda to read in the toilet one Christmas day.

For children, uncritical and undistracted reading influences imagination. As adults we can also recapture that same joy and delight in creativity through reading, or rereading, books written for children. Imagination is not only a childhood gift and—paraphrasing C.S. Lewis again—a good children’s story can be enjoyed by any reader.

For children, uncritical and undistracted reading influences imagination. 

Enchanting and inspiring

So I proposed a discussion group for adult readers of children’s books,specifically for people outside of academia or professional groups, such as librarians or teachers. Library Management approved my suggestion. The group first met in April 2016 and has now met six times, meeting quarterly, and it brings together a diverse group of people who didn’t know each other beforehand.

We wanted to capture in the group’s name the idea that literature intended for children and young people can continue to enchant and inspire adult readers. So we adapted the original symposium title by naming the group: ‘Continued Sense of Wonder: An Adult Conversation about Children’s Literature’.

We advertise the meetings, using websites and posters, as an open conversation rather than as a club: this has made it easy for newcomers to join in. This advertising, combined with word of mouth, has brought in established locals as well as people new to Dunedin, or even New Zealand, all keen to meet like-minded people and talk about children’s books.

The meetings are fun and informal. Participants, typically around a dozen adults, are aged from in their twenties through to seventies, and there are more women than men. Each person brings along a book (or two) relating to a set theme and talks about it for about five minutes. Reminiscences of childhood reading or new discoveries are given equal consideration, and formats discussed range from picture books through to young adult material. I record the books discussed and distribute a list afterwards, and I also provide a colourful booklist of related titles at the library for people to take away.

Reminiscences of childhood reading or new discoveries are given equal consideration. 

Book discussions abound

Of course, there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ and there are other groups who meet to discuss children’s books. Maybe you know of one? I found some overseas. In the US, there is Chapter and Verse, “a national” book club for children’s literature enthusiasts made up of eight book clubs across three states meeting monthly in bookshops or libraries. And in the United Kingdom, Cath Hogan at the Oxford Story Museum has run a monthly group called the 1st Thursday Book Club for just over two years.

When I approached The Sapling regarding this piece, they suggested I find out more, via Crissi Blair and Emma Rutherford, about the New Zealand book groups they had heard of which sounded similar to ours. Across Auckland there are established groups called Book Chat associated with Storylines. Crissi put me in touch with Angela Soutar from the North Shore-based Book Chat, which recently wound up after over 25 years. At their group they looked at whatever children’s books participants had been reading. Angela explained the advantages of meeting face to face ‘is that we can do a review for each other quite quickly, as opposed to writing one and putting it online, and we would be able to get information about good books which we wouldn’t normally read.’

Alex Heyes and Kathryn Van Beek

Crissi Blair’s long-standing monthly group meets above the Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden, and focuses on a YA book each time. Crissi values the opinions of others: ‘I appreciate their intelligence and ability to articulate their thoughts about each book, and know that we’ll always have a diversity of opinion.’ Both Angela and Crissi enjoy being able to pass on to children the insights they have gained about a range of books. But there is personal pleasure too, for as Crissi says, ‘I enjoy these books for many of the same reasons that another reader might like an adult novel: characters, sense of place, new points of view, and a special and original voice.’

In Wellington, Emma Rutherford is part of a group where most members have some interest in writing. Their group began just over a year ago and meets monthly in a private home. The Wellington meetings are theme-based, like Continued Sense of Wonder, and cover a similar range of books with a mixture of new and classic titles. Emma finds her group ‘is very relaxed and the loose structure around a theme means conversation can just develop naturally.’

Chairs at the ready at Dunedin Public Library

The themes covered in the Wellington and Dunedin groups in the last year have remarkable synchronicity: where in Wellington they have looked at Bears, Inspirational, and New Zealand books, Continued Sense of Wonder has looked at Animal Tales, Non-fiction, and New Zealand Tales. Other themes we have covered in Dunedin so far include Books in Translation and Fairy Tales. I wonder, is there something in the air?

Maybe you have been thinking about starting a group too. I hope you feel encouraged to, because as the second person to talk about bee books said at our last meeting: ‘It’s quite a buzzy evening!’

NOTES: Thank you to Emma Rutherford in Wellington, and to Crissi Blair and Angela Soutar in Auckland for the information about your groups, and to all who attend the various groups around NZ.

Jackie McMillan

Jackie McMillan is the Children’s Collection Specialist at Dunedin Public Libraries, which means she buys children’s books for a job. Many people tell her that that is their dream job and she doesn’t disagree. Jackie’s love of reading as a child saw her volunteering in school libraries from standard four onwards, but she wishes to tell her 10 year-old self and others that you cannot really read on the job.