Why children’s stories have to be dual audience now

Modern children’s books — picture books in particular — are required to appeal to adults as well as to children. This is known as a ‘dual audience’ story.

Some commentators have no problem with dual audience children’s stories.

One of the best kept secrets for adults is if you want to learn something new, read a kid’s book on the subject.

Vicki Cobb, on reading  non-fiction
[When today’s parents were kids] […] we’d watch old cartoons like Looney Tunes or Mighty Mouse that our parents had enjoyed as children; we’d read books before bed like The Famous Five or adaptations of books like Great Expectations that they’d read; and on Sunday afternoons, we’d all gather round the telly to watch old Elvis movies and Abbott and Costello movies that our parents loved at our age.

And the rest of the time, we’d have to watch whatever they wanted to watch.

But today, the tables have turned, and it feels as if we spend most of our time having to watch what our kids watch.

Why Do Parents Have To Forgo Adult TV And Watch Children’s Shows? Sunil Badami

Others don’t like it at all.

What narks me tremendously is people who pretend they’re writing for young children and they’re really writing to get laughs from adults. There are too many of those about. I refuse to believe that Carroll wrote Alice for that little girl. It’s much too complex for that.

Roald Dahl, writer

I think there’s a horrendous movement of people who think there’s a formula: “let’s draw everybody in party hats”, but really they’re appealing to adults while the children are actually bored.

John Burningham, illustrator

Why the change? I believe the demand for children’s stories that appeal equally to adult co-readers comes from the cultural expectation that good parents read to their kids. Parents are told time and again that children who are read to have a vocabulary thousands of words larger than deprived children, who have no books in the house. And so parents are reading three picture books before bedtime each night — which is a joy, and sometimes an obligation.

screen shot from Room (2015)

The story Room by Emma Donaghue, adapted for film in 2015, features a mother and son locked in an underground room — a metaphor for the imprisonment of early parenthood in general.

Books feature heavily in this story — the mother has access to the same few picture books and is faced with the mind-numbing task of reading them over and over to her son, who was born in this tiny world.

When I think of modern picture books, with their dual audiences, I think of this mother and I’m actually kinda grateful for the trend.

Other trends annoy me more:

It is not seldom that writers misjudge their audience. Writers may declare that they write for boys and girls between ten and twelve, while the implied readers of the novels may have to be slightly older and more mature to understand the character, or the character’s experiences will only appeal to girls, or the particular settings and events of the novel presuppose a certain knowledge of the British public school system in the nineteenth century, or the intertextual links address reader with substantial reading habits. All this does not necessarily prevent real readers from enjoying a text that postulates a different implied reader.

Maria Nikolajeva in The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

However we feel about stories with a dual audience, when adult and child read the ‘same’ story, it can never be the same story.

To watch again children’s films in adulthood lets us travel self-consciously to somewhere now closed off from us, because the audience is changed, because we have changed

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge, 2012, quoting a film critic

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