I’ve worked in bookstores off and on, mostly on, for a number of years, and, in case you hadn’t guessed, I gravitate towards the children’s section. The places I’ve worked haven’t gone in for the whole primary-colors-everywhere thing—or, worse, pastels—so it’s mostly just good books and enthusiastic people, and almost no one there who tries to tell me that I should be happy Hemingway wrote chauvinistic protagonists, because anything else would apparently misrepresent the period in which he was writing.
And we wouldn’t want that.
While I gravitate towards the children’s section, I’m still, as it turns out, a grown-up person, currently reading Vaclav Havel and holding two jobs.* Thus I found that many of my favorite kids’ books, in the present day and in my childhood, have one notable thing in common: the adult characters are people, too.
There are dozens of examples to choose from, but I’ll stick to a few. In The Circuit and Number the Stars, the protagonists’ parents make complex, weighty decisions on-page. They interact with both their kids and other adults. There are other adults, and they sweat, eat, doubt, laugh, and die like any other human. In Stone Soup, the adults themselves are the main characters, even though there are kids in the story. And there are plenty of other titles—Peter Spier’s picture book Father, May I Come?, for example, where two different generations of Dutch boys wish to join their fathers’ lifeboat crews, or Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons books, which I read in seventh grade, and in which the series doesn’t end when the protagonist grows up.
The primary joy of these books is in the stories, but as a kid who couldn’t see herself growing up to be much like the adults she knew, it was a really big deal for me to read books in which child characters I identified with grew up to be adults I liked. It meant, for lack of a less dramatic way to phrase it, that my friends and I might have futures. I don’t know why I thought for so long that people turned miserable and inflexible on their 21st birthdays the way that Cinderella’s carriage went back to being a pumpkin at midnight. It was a ludicrous idea, especially when so many of the adults around me were thoroughly interesting and lovely people in their own right. And yet that fear dogged me all the way through my teens.
So it was a big deal to read Number the Stars, where the adults risked their lives to help their friends, or Father, May I Come? where they held jobs like cobbler and appliance repairperson in addition to manning the lifeboat. These grown-ups weren’t antagonists, ineffective comic foils, or cardboard cutouts of family members. They had plans and dreams and people they cared about. The child characters were part of all of that.
Which meant that maybe my friends and I were also part of that, and maybe we could grow up to have a say in it, and maybe the plans we made would still matter when we were grown.
It was an even bigger deal for me to read Dealing with Dragons, where (minor spoiler, but hey, the fun part is how it all happens) a girl who’d made unconventional plans for her future didn’t get a tidy ending; even after she grew up she kept having adventures. And those adventures actually happened on the page, instead of just being implied by a cheery sentence in the last paragraph. I didn’t have to identify all that strongly with Cimorene to feel both surprised, delighted, and relieved at that.
It’s great (and important!) to see yourself and your peers reflected in what you read. It can be tough to see only that reflection, frozen static in time, with a clear past but no discernible future. It’s not just me. Kids at the bookstore sometimes voice disappointment about an otherwise good book where the grown-ups are boring. The teenagers in a book group I used to lead talked in the same vein.
Adults are people too, and we all benefit from that fact, in and out of fiction.
So for all of us who like our stories multi-generational, I present, at long last, the book whose cover graces the top of this post, Greenglass House: a cheery, welcoming story about an inn full of possible smugglers, thieves, and tabletop game enthusiasts.
Including a couple of kids.
The premise is entertaining all on its own. Milo, our protagonist, is twelve. His parents own Greenglass House, an inn that is rather popular with smugglers of some strange and fascinating varieties. At the moment, though, smugglers are far from Milo’s mind; he’s just finishing his homework on the first day of winter break (of his own volition, no less) and is looking forward to Christmas at the inn, when it’s just him and his folks. Unfortunately for this happy vision of peace and quiet, the bell rings to announce the arrival of a guest. Milo is thoroughly put out—but then a second guest arrives, and a third, fourth, and fifth, and he starts to figure out that there’s something very strange indeed going on in his house.
There are stories within stories. There’s hot chocolate I’d love to drink if I could only have milk. There’s intrigue and treachery and a somewhat alarming cake. There’s maybe a tiny, tiny hint of magic.
And there are grown-ups everywhere, of all ages and professions, if by “all professions” we’re mostly including the shadier ones. (Never fear, there’s also a cook.) They’re each after something that matters to them. Best of all, not a one of them is the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning.
Read it curled up under a blanket as the temperature drops again, and maybe try not to choose a future for yourself that involves aiding and abetting smugglers of illicit ballpoint pens.
*And yes, apparently my definition of adulthood is reading Vaclav Havel and holding two jobs. I was going to qualify that with some kind of caveat, but you know what? I actually think it stands. I mean, it’s not all-encompassing or anything, but it stands.