Reviews 2010

The Crossover Novel: Contemporary Children’s Fiction and Its Adult Readership

The Crossover Novel: Contemporary Children’s Fiction and Its Adult Readership. Rachel Falconer. New York: Routledge, 2008. 280 pages. £75 (hardback).

Within one year Routledge has published two books on crossover fiction in the Children’s Literature and Culture series. This is an indication that in the first years of the new millennium the phenomenon of adults and children reading the same children’s books has had a great impact, not only on the book market, but also on the study of children’s literature. Taking the enormous success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter as a starting point, Sandra Beckett (2008) discusses the different forms of crossover fiction, today and in the past, in various countries all over the world. She does this by giving an impressive number of examples, providing the reader with a good insight into the extent of this trend, the kinds of texts involved and the reaction of the publishing market.

Rachel Falconer looks at the phenomenon from a different perspective. Her study has in fact a “double-barreled focus” (7), concentrating not only on crossover fiction but also on cross-reading. The main question she poses, is “why so many adults are reading children’s fiction and discovering value in books which are not, or at least not primarily, addressed to us as adults” (7). According to Falconer this question can only be answered by reading the texts and at the same time looking at the reading habits and preferences of children and adults. In the first chapter her approach to the crossover trend still covers a wide scope. After a short impression of cross-reading in the past and the success of Harry Potter, Falconer discusses the impossibility of a strict definition of the kinds of texts involved: “‘cross over fiction’ can really only be defined by what it does, rather than what it is” (31). Because her focus is on contemporary crossover texts, Falconer concentrates on adults reading children’s books, because that is what is typically happening today. In the second part of the first chapter she explores some broader societal issues to explain what she calls “the hybridisation of child and adult perspectives” within today’s children’s books. She ascribes the growing interest in children’s literature and its entrance into the adult cultural mainstream to the celebration of youth and youth culture, to the attractiveness of being a “kiddult” in today’s society.

The next five chapters consist of a close analysis of five crossover texts, published in English, but also very well-known in other countries: the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness and David Almond’s Clay. These books are chosen because of their popularity, but most of all because they demonstrate different aspects of crossover fiction and cross-reading: the opposition of lightness and darkness (Rowling), the meaning of growing up in today’s society (Pullman), the importance of a child’s view in adult life (Haddon), the experience of abjection (McCaughrean) and the exploration of religious and spiritual roots (Almond). Chapter Seven discusses the adult’s nostalgic re-reading of childhood classics by focusing on C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. Adults not only read contemporary children’s fiction, but they also tend to re-read their childhood favourites. Falconer contends that this can comfort readers as well as stimulate them into new responses to literature, the world and themselves. Re-reading cannot be simply reduced to “dumbing down” (165).

The in-depth analyses of the different crossover texts are convincing and thought-provoking. Together they show the many-sidedness of the crossover phenomenon. Departing from theoretical insights related to literature such as Italo Calvino’s thesis about the development of mental qualities through reading literature, and Gaston Bachelard’s notion of children’s enlarging gaze, Falconer offers her readers interesting perspectives on the attractiveness of these texts for the child as well as the adult reader. Her analyses are illuminating and may open up new discussions on the (un)suitability of literary texts for certain readers, and on the arbitrariness of categorizing texts according to age.

In her analyses of the books, Falconer is able to draw a link between the text and the characteristics of the adult and child reader. She is less successful in connecting her more general observations on the “kiddult” society from Chapter One to her case studies. Although in the conclusion she returns to the importance of youth in today’s society as a partial explanation for adults reading children’s fiction, her observations on this point remain too superficial. This weakness counts for little compared to the virtues of this study, which provides many new insights in the role that crossover texts can play in adult and child readers’ lives.

Works Cited

Beckett, Sandra L. Crossover Fiction: Global and Historical Perspectives. New York and London: Routledge, 2008.

Helma van Lierop-Debrauwer
University of Tilburg/University of Leiden, The Netherlands