Reading Like a Kid by Tania Unsworth
A few years ago I decided to stop writing for adults and try writing books for children instead. There were several reasons for this but the most important was a realization that felt both simple and very important:
I don’t read the way I used to read when I was a kid.
On one level this fact seems almost too obvious to point out. Of course I read differently now! I’m an adult. I’ve studied books and I’ve written them and I’ve read far, far too many to count since I was a girl of eleven, with a flashlight under the covers, devouring The Chronicles of Narnia. As an adult, it’s hardly breaking news that I read with a depth and critical awareness that I simply didn’t possess as a child.
But that isn’t the real point.
What I realized was that although I love books almost more than anything else in the world, there are probably only a handful I have read as an adult that I would say changed my life. And even then – speaking honestly – the changes to my life have been fairly modest. Reading A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf at the age of twenty-two, for example, certainly challenged my way of thinking, but did it do more than that? If I had missed out on Ishiguru’s Never Let Me Go, to take another example, my life would definitely have been the poorer. But would it have really mattered that much?
I know there are plenty of people who will disagree with this, pointing to books that profoundly and demonstrably altered the course of their adult lives, but speaking personally, the books that had the greatest and most lasting impact on me were all read before the age of fifteen.
Am I the only one who feels this?
And am I the only one who thinks that as reading experiences go, very little can beat being eleven years old and reading The Chronicles of Narnia under the covers by flashlight?
Or being half way through Night Birds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken with enough pear drops (if sucked very slowly) to last you through to the end?
Or realizing that The Finn Family Moomintroll is actually just one book in a whole series?
There was an intensity to reading then, a kind of total involvement in story that is hard to reproduce as an adult. I know too much now about tired plots and clichés. I am always comparing one thing to another, recognizing devices, identifying styles. No matter how good or bad I find something, I’m always aware of my response, slightly detached, consciously enjoying or not enjoying.
That’s how it should be. I’m an adult after all. But I do sometimes long to read the way I used to.
Sometimes I think that it was as close to words as I have ever been. And sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly melancholy, I wonder whether the books I admire as an adult are simply the ones that manage to capture – however fleetingly – some sense of that old intensity, that first love.
So I decided to stop writing for adults and try writing for children instead.
My first book for children THE ONE SAFE PLACE (Algonquin) comes out on April 29th.
I wonder what took me so long.
Tania Unsworth grew up thinking that being a writer was the best thing in the world to be. Her dad was a writer, and her family traveled around Greece and Turkey until she was seven. Those years were wonderful, full of color and adventure. But because her family moved around a lot, she was never really sure where her home was. Ever since then, she’s been caught between wanting to roam the world and wanting to stay safe. Her writing often reflects this.
She spent the rest of her childhood in England. She didn’t like school but she read a lot. Every year for Christmas, she wrote a story for her dad. They were just short little things, but because she wrote them in an exercise book and numbered the pages, she could pretend they were real novels. Sometimes she had to write using VERY LARGE letters to fill up the space.
Later she worked in a bookshop and then on the features desk of a women’s magazine. In the UK, she’s published two novels for adults. The One Safe Place is her first book for children.
Tania lives in Boston with her husband, two sons, a dog called Plum, and a pair of cats.