Children’s books and books for children | Series 1, Episode 16

Children's books vs books for children - a growing disconnect.

Episode 16

Episode 16 show notes

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Episode 16 transcript

The growing disconnect between children’s books and books for children

In children’s literature, the distinction between “children’s books” and “books for children” might seem subtle but carries profound implications. The former refers to those chosen independently by children, while the latter often comprises titles recommended or authored by adults for a younger audience. This distinction prompts critical questions: What drives children’s preferences, and why do certain books resonate more than others?

I posed this question on Twitter earlier this month.

Children’s books and books for children. What do these terms mean? What is the difference? Why does it matter?

For me, a children’s book is one that children (independently) choose to read, whereas a book for children is one that either an adult has written for children or an adult recommends to a child. I find that most books advertised today as children’s books are really books for children. But the books children enjoy the most are invariably children’s books. And the ones that take off sales-wise are those books for children which are really children’s books hiding in plain sight.

Perhaps I just didn’t like being told what to read as a child. Perhaps I just enjoyed buying books as a child, browsing second-hand bookshops (there were four in Uppingham in 1985) and choosing books from the library. It’s depressing that far fewer children today are able to buy books themselves than in the 1980s and 1990s. The reasons for this are wide and varied, including a decline in libraries and bricks-and-mortar bookshops, and fewer opportunities for children to choose how they spend their own money.

The result is that nearly all books are bought by adults, and nearly all book purchases are – in the end choices made by adults. It’s also worth noting that children can claim ownership of any book, and often do, whether or not children were the intended primary audience. And a good book can be read by anyone – regardless of whether or not it has been marketed towards children. What do you think?

Author Richard O’Neill commented: “I think that’s an excellent take on it. I was just about to post something about prescriptive reading for children, which would have totally put me off as a child. The music industry has never had the same problem.

I replied: “That’s an interesting comparison. Music is often claimed, reclaimed and owned by so many different demographics across different generations. I wonder why that doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in literature. Or maybe it is but it’s not as visible? I see 60s and 70s music finding new life on TikTok, but the same doesn’t seem be to the case with books.

Author Louie Stowell said: “Pondering this…one bit I’m wondering is are there books that are more focussed on the adults in the equation that DO sell lots? Because they’re mostly bought as gifts? I’m not (sure) what the answer is just thinking.

Author Fleur Hitchcock said: “I think the divergence between these two things has grown over the years. Admittedly, even in the late 60s, my mother’s insistence that The Water Babies was a wonderful book fell on deaf ears, but no doubt many copies of books are bought by adults and never read by the intended child.

Other contributors to the Twitter discussion shared diverse perspectives on the disconnect between books crafted for children and those organically chosen by young readers.

Discussions touch upon the challenge of ensuring that popular educational reads genuinely resonate with children and the enduring allure of content that bridges the generational gap, as exemplified by the TV show Bluey. Emphasising a shift in purchasing behaviour, one contributor acknowledges initial reliance on promoted titles but underscores the pivotal role of letting children gravitate toward stories that genuinely captivate their interests. The overarching theme underscores the need for a more child-centric approach, allowing for a dynamic exploration of literature that aligns with individual preferences and fosters a genuine love for reading.

This trend prompts consideration of the divergent paths taken by books for children and authentic children’s books. The former, often bought by adults as gifts, may prioritize adult-focused themes and appeal. The comments from various authors echo the sentiment that this divergence has intensified over the years, with adults shaping literary choices for children more than ever.

The critical question lingers: How does this impact the reading landscape for children? A peek into the discussions among authors reveals concerns about books losing relevance to
modern children, with references to classics becoming unmoored from their contemporary experiences. As adults increasingly steer literary choices, the risk arises that children may miss out on books that truly captivate them.

To dive deeper into this issue, The School Reading List conducted a survey during the summer term periods in 2022 and 2023. Educators, teachers, librarians, and teaching assistants across 50 primary and secondary schools anonymously polled students
to identify their favourite books from the school year. The results, though not a scientific study, offer valuable insights into children’s actual reading references, separate from adult-driven choices.

This survey presents a nuanced picture of children’s literary tastes, free from adult influence. As you sift through the booklist chosen by pupils, these insights serve as a
resource for parents, teachers, and anyone involved in developing a more authentic, if less literary, reading-for-pleasure ethos among children. The findings not only present a different lens to see reading recommendations but will also spark contemplation about the evolving dynamics between children’s books and books for children in today’s literary landscape.

Have a look at our most recent children’s favourites lists, where we’ve presented the result of our surveys for favourite books for 11-year-olds, books for 12-year-olds and books for 13-year-olds. The results are surprising and interesting!

  • See the Twitter discussion: Here: and here.

Episode 16 credits

To see full details of licensing information, Creative Commons, GNU license credits and other attributions that apply to every episode of this podcast, see our School Reading List podcast credits information page.

Credits specific to this episode

  • Kevin MacLeod – Bummin on Tremelo – (purchased lifetime extended license registered to Tom Tolkien license ID FML-170359-11969).
  • Listener submitted monologues from debut and self-published authors including: Phone me when you’re home! By Wendy Garvey, On My Back Paws by Anna Skoyles, Luna and Helio The Eclipse by Gina Keulemans & Why, Oh Why, Am I a Crocodile? by Alex Brooks, illustrated by Hannah Worsley.

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About Tom Tolkien

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Tom Tolkien is a highly qualified (BA Hons, PGCE, QTS) children's literature expert and teacher with over 25 years of experience. He has led inset courses, developed curriculum materials, spoken at conferences, advised on longlisting for several international children's literature literature awards and written for educational publishers including contributing to a BETT award-nominated app. Social profiles: Twitter | Linkedin