If there's one thing to learn from the success of this year's Summer Reading Challenge, it's that children should never be underestimated. Especially when choosing a book for them. The challenge's Creepy House theme with its unpatronisingly complex and 'grown up' book list, has seen nearly 250,000 stories powered through by young readers so far. With such an interest in these more challenging titles, why not go to the next stage and give children books previously considered 'too grown up' for them to understand?
Award-winning children's author, Cressida Cowell (How To Train Your Dragon) has been helping out. She contributed a few words and tips to kick start a short story competition for the Summer Reading Challenge.
In a Guardian article Cowell says: "Never underestimate your audience. If you think that eight-year-olds aren't interested in major philosophical and political issues you are completely mistaken. Put in clever plot twists that link books two and book 10 in a complicated fashion. I promise you, the eight-year-olds will notice, and they will write to you saying how much they appreciate it."
I'm in full agreement. Some of the best children's stories have large plots which keep children and adults entertained - a winning combination for a book at bedtime! The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, Harry Potter and The Moomins have spanned across children's and adult audiences. But why stop at the expansive and philosophical? This is where the next level that was previously classified as far too grim or 'grown up' enters.
According to Philip Pullman in an introduction to his Grimm Tales for Young and Old the Grimms removed some of the more grisly parts of their own stories. I hear that delightfully inventive and gruesome features such as Snow White's evil stepmother dancing in hot shoes until she drops dead were taken out. In Pullman's collection he brings back some great gore and while promoting it, argued "the bloodthirstier the better".
Kafka's classic The Metamorphosis (the one about persecution and a huge bug) can be enjoyed by children too. Matthue Roth creator of My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents and Giant Bugs, read the famously surreal short story to his young daughters. Shunning the pile of traditional children's books, they chose the illustrated cover of a collection of Kafka's short stories. An unexpected hit with his children, he went on to develop his own illustrated version.
Not only that, but George Orwell's Animal Farm in its original form makes a fantastic children's story. It's true that when I was nine I totally missed the allegory, but the tone of right and wrong were still easy to understand. It's that kind of writing that kicked off my interest in reading.
The success of the Summer Reading Challenge shows that children just need the right stories to get stuck into a book. There are many books available to be enjoyed by children, and not all of them are quite what adults expect. Allowing children access to more of the books we enjoy as adults can encourage more to start reading and then they can decide whether books are 'too grown up'.