Adults read kids' books to escape modern life


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The Independent Online

From commuters absorbed by the Harry Potter books to the fantasy appeal of JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, the mystery of why some grown-ups like reading children's books may finally be solved – they are hacked off with modern life.

In a forthcoming book, a Cambridge University academic argues that classic children's titles attract older readers because they give them things neglected by modern society, such as face-to-face communication, home-cooked food and a tolerance of eccentricity.

Dr Louise Joy claims such books represent a "symbolic retreat from the disappointment of reality".

"Books such as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach offer a world where self-consciousness is overthrown and relationships are straightforward," she said. "But relationships in the real adult world are often fraught by miscommunication and the impossibility of understanding one another properly."

Dr Joy will unveil her theories in a book called Literature's Children, which focuses on Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and AA Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories, as well as the works of Tolkien, Carroll and Dahl. She will present her findings next month at The Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

She claims The Hobbit's characters hanker after simple meals, whereas "in the real world we rarely sit to down to a home-cooked meal". Adults are drawn to The Wind in the Willows because its characters speak clearly to each other to "provide information", while normally "we are always anxious about how we come across".

Winnie the Pooh's varied characters "seek out each other just to pass the time". "Present-day society is obsessed by the idea of seeking out a perfect soulmate who is just like us," Dr Joy added.

The academic said her research also applied to modern children's books which resembled older classics, such as Harry Potter.

Julia Donaldson, the children's laureate and author of The Gruffalo, said: "I have recently re-read The Wind in the Willows and also the 'Alice' books, and they are very different. Alice's world can often be disconcerting and confusing in a dream-like way, something which struck me more as an adult than when I read it as a child."