Not far from any discussion about literature is someone waiting to elbow in with a ‘should’. Most common: everyone should read more because books are a gateway to knowledge (non-fiction) and empathy (fiction). There are numerous ‘shoulds’ about what to read, too. Lists abound: 100 books teens should read/men should read/you should have read by now/you should read before you die. Amazon and Goodreads are in on it. The BBC and bloggers are in on it. A list is an easy way to assert individual taste and literary knowledge, as well as convey an impression of readerly zeal and attainment. No acknowledgment of subjectivity required (those lists would be named differently), and the lists seem to proliferate the more our canon-determining institutions wane. Our desire to assert order and value is strong; throwing out the canon completely makes us uncomfortable. Instead, we interrogate it by creating more of them, scores of personal mini-canons across the internet.

As a literary category, a special range of ‘shoulds’ gets rolled out for children’s literature. And while kids’ lit represents a healthy chunk of the contemporary marketplace for books (around thirty to fifty percent, depending on who you ask), its cultural status has always been compromised. Some of that has to do with how we view children and value the (gendered) work of rearing and educating them, and some of it has to do with how we categorise books and assign value to them more generally.

Literature is complicated, and we manage complicated things by trying to order and simplify them. Literary categories, such as genres, do some of this work for us, and we love to attach value judgments to genres, too—for example, through the binary thinking that sees commercial and literary value as mutually exclusive. In this paradigm, the rewards for both writer and reader are different: escapism versus stimulation for the reader; money versus status for the writer. The value of ‘literariness’ is not material but cultural.

This kind of thinking is famously problematic. Although such categories might be broadly or superficially useful, they tend to crumble quickly under scrutiny. They are too reductive to allow for the nuanced interactions between cultural, historical and geographical contexts of writer and reader, identity politics, market forces, issues of class and education, markers of institutional status (such as prizes, or publication by traditional houses), subjectivities of taste, or the scope of human imagination, capable as it is of synthesising lifetimes of collected knowledge, references, experience and ideas into artistic expressions. When it comes to meaning—making, interpreting—literature carries some weighty baggage.

When it comes to children’s books, this is all further complicated by the fact that what kids’ books are for is seen differently to adult books. Although children are the implied readers of children’s texts, their creators—and publishers, sellers, critics, buyers—are usually adults. Before any child gets his or her hands on a text, dozens of adults have made critical decisions about its value to young readers based on a revised set of judgements to those they might apply to adult literature. They are deciding what will appeal to children and what they need. Some of these perceived needs are grounded in research: reading begets literacy, and literacy is a fundamental skill with positive knock-on effects that span a lifetime. Children need other kinds of education, too, and it is an old function of the story to teach us about culture and morality and how the universe works. Our conception of childhood informs what kind of cultural, moral and factual education we think children need, which in turn informs the literature we produce for them. ‘Whether our story affirms or denies the child’s innocence, protects or exposes the child, informs or deceives the reader, depends on how we see children’, writes novelist Anne Provoost in her 2003 essay ‘So here’s the bad news: The child as antagonist’. To create a special category of books for children, then, is to be beholden to a construct of childhood—one that is temporally and geographically situated, one that remains changeable. In turn, according to academic Kimberley Reynolds, children’s texts serve as a record of the ‘symbolic and cultural meanings of childhood at a given time.’

Children’s literature is a category, or series of categories, defined by the (varying) age of its intended readers. To an extent, those age delineations are useful: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is an unlikely go-to for the parent of a two-year-old, just as Usborne’s tactile That’s Not My… books are unlikely to captivate a middle-grader. Age categories recognise developmental milestones as well as indicating the age of a story’s protagonist. But they can be limiting, too: kids read up and down in their age categories all the time, and the reading skills of children vary at any given age, as do their interests—hence the presence in children’s literature of many of the genres you’ll find in literature for adults: fantasy of all stripes, mystery, adventure, historical, romance, humour, sci-fi, dystopian, graphic novels and more. As with all literary delineations, the child/adult divide seems meaningful until we scrutinise it. At what point does all this reading up and down become unacceptable? What is the magical age at which we ought to start sticking to our own categories? There’s a particularly indignant ‘should’ set aside for adults who read books intended for children. Or rather, it’s a ‘shouldn’t’: self-respecting adults shouldn’t read anything they might have read when they were younger versions of themselves. So prevalent is this idea that novelist Katherine Rundell has in August this year waded into the debate with her own, counter-attacking ‘should’: a book for adults entitled Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. Rundell sets out to interrogate ‘a sense among adults that we should only read in one direction, because to do otherwise would be to regress…’ Such readers believe, she argues, that once you move onto adult fiction, ‘you remain, triumphant, never glancing back, because to glance back would be to lose ground.’

The assumption is that children’s texts are too unsophisticated for adult readers. Not only does this discount the vast complexities of literary production and consumption, it underlines a pejorative view of children themselves. The sneer is applied equally to children’s authors, who are often considered to be using fewer, rather than different, skills. Rundell provides evidence that (in the Western, English-speaking tradition) ‘the idea that it was intellectually degrading to write for children was strong by the eighteenth century’, and to a large extent we have not revised this view. The inception of the UK Children’s Laureate ten years ago was, according to Michael Morpurgo, in response to ‘the lack of attention and credit generally given in the adult world to children’s books’. And Martin Amis declared in 2011, charmlessly, that he would have to suffer a brain injury before he lowered himself to produce children’s texts.

Children’s texts are different from adult texts, but not in the way Amis imagines. Simple does not necessarily mean artless. It is a difference, not a less-than. The thrust of Rundell’s essay concerns the book as an object of mystical power to child readers. Stories are very real to children in a way that adult readers have largely forgotten. They still have permission to cross over into the fantasy of it in a very complete way—that is to say, they still have permission to believe in it if they want to, or at least half-believe it, or own the desire to believe in it. They will take a story beyond its pages, adding it to their own imaginative landscapes, incorporating its world and characters into games and stories of their own. If there is anything unworldly about child readers or the texts written for them, it is, as Rundell observes, that child readers allow themselves ‘the unsophisticated stance of awe.’ But this is not a deficiency.

Rundell’s argument inadvertently nods to critic Peter Hollindale’s concept of ‘childness’ or ‘the quality of being a child’, a state to which, he suggests, both adults and children have access. Reynolds reflects on Hollindale’s theory ‘that children’s books create a space where adulthood and childhood can meet and mingle, with adults reactivating aspects of what it was like to be a child…while children gain insights into what it is like to be adult.’ It seems obvious, and yet we frequently forget that adult readers were child readers once. Reader-oriented theory asserts that stories are not literary objects, but rather experiences that take place within the reader, who constructs their meaning as he or she reads according to his or her own frames of reference. Child readers carry that experience inside themselves into their reading adulthood, where it informs the readers (and writers) they become. Phillip Pullman recognises this in the preface to a 2011 edition of the His Dark Materials trilogy, in which he provides a timeline of his life beginning from the age he learnt to read. Alongside significant personal and historical events, he lists the texts that made an impact on him at the time, from Noddy Goes to Toytown and Just So Stories at age six (when Churchill was still prime minister) through to his teenage discovery of the beat poets, and beyond.

We might ask, what makes a book adult? Is it language, themes, subject matter, plotlines? And if progression’s the thing, as Rundell suggests, then what is deemed acceptable progression? At forty, should we spurn books we read when we were twenty? Eighteen? Fifteen? At fifteen, should we turn away from books we read when we were twelve? The pejorative view of children’s literature looks down on the adult enjoying a book that kids can also enjoy. But that logic could produce the opposite conclusion, in which the adult’s enjoyment raises the perceived value of the child’s text, rather than the child’s text diminishing the perceived value of the adult reading it. It could recognise the writer who has strived to produce a book absorbing and clever enough for anyone to appreciate.

Here’s the elephant in the room: many books for children are poorly written, derivative, boring, or built around tired and arguably dodgy tropes. But there are literary oddities and marvels too, and scores of books that are plain good fun. Just as authors of books for adults do, children’s authors must navigate strong literary traditions, respond to a range of influences, and write with deliberation and technical skill. They must also entertain. Meanwhile, age categories alone don’t confer or guarantee literary value, richness or complexity. There are vast numbers of unsophisticated books for adults, and perhaps those books are not aiming to be sophisticated. The argument that adults shouldn’t read children’s books is really about—or at least inextricable from—an argument about literariness, and that conversation is harder to have.

Rundell attempts to make a distinction that is ultimately about the commercial/literary divide—between fart-joke oriented books for kids and ‘texts for children that acknowledge the right of the child to have as rich a story as the adult writing it would demand for themselves.’ This assumes, erroneously, that all adult readers demand richness of storytelling. Meanwhile, Provoost argues for ‘books that demand flexibility’, which ‘train readers rather than educate them.’ But while we are busy categorising children’s books by age alone, and dismissing them as inferior versions of the books their readers should aspire towards reading when older, we deny ourselves an opportunity to raise the bar by conducting a robust and exuberant critical discussion of literature for young readers. As an enterprise, criticism of children’s books is up against it: a risk-averse marketplace, in which children’s books are a relatively strong commodity; adult buyers of children’s books beset by anxieties about literacy and the idea that kids turning the pages of anything is better than them reading nothing at all; and a prevailing idea that there’s not much to writing kids’ books anyway.

Amis said that one of the reasons he will not write for children is that it would mean thinking about who he is ‘directing the story to’, an ‘intolerable’ restraint on his artistic freedom. To Amis, the artist is too lofty to think about his audience—or for the leap of empathy required in writing for a child. ‘We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters,’ writes George Saunders, ‘but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader.’ The fact that a children’s author can respond to a child’s developmental needs—interests, knowledge, experience, developing reading strategies and understanding of narrative—is actually pretty sophisticated. But it involves considering and understanding the reader. It involves an act of generosity. It requires intellectual curiosity, and a dauntless indifference to what others think you should or should not write—or read.