The Best Children's Books for Adults

The Best Children's Books for Adults

C.S. Lewis once said “a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story,” and as usual, Mr. Lewis was being brilliant. While there are certainly stories designed solely for young minds that most adults will find a bit tedious, such as The Kissing Hand (most adults presumably already knowing that everybody poops or that very hungry caterpillars become very beautiful butterflies), many of the books that are designated “for children” are actually just fine stories that are appropriate for kids. But like all fine stories, that means adults can enjoy them just as much.

There's an argument to be made that in the modern age increasing genre stratification has resulted in a firm belief that certain books are for certain age groups, full stop. This is a product of marketing as much as anything else, and while it's most clearly seen in the “Young Adult” category (itself a genre that often produces work that can be enjoyed by both younger and older readers) it's also affecting supposed “children's” literature. The fact is, plenty of books ostensibly considered for children are sophisticated enough for adults, and the best “children's” books are written with a Pixar-like dual focus on both entertaining kids and keeping the adults who might be reading the book to them interested. To prove the point, here are ten classic books supposedly for children that adults can - and do - enjoy just as much, if not more.

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Charlotte's Web

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.

One of the most popular children's books of all time, E.B. White's story of a piglet named Wilbur befriended and saved from slaughter by a creative and warm-hearted spider who spins messages into her webs to ensure Wilbur's fame is as melancholy as you can get in a story intended for children. Death haunts the entire story, in fact, as Wilbur is initially spared being made into pork chops by his status as the runt of the litter only to later find himself alone and intended for death anyway. Charlotte, the wise spider who befriends him, later dies after laying her eggs. Although the story has a happy-ish ending, as a few of the baby spiders remain with Wilbur to keep him company, this cycle of death and rebirth is about as adult as you can get. Few people can read this one without tearing up.

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Swiss Family Robinson

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss.

Perhaps the most classic of all children's books, John David Wyss structured the book as both an adventure tale of a family surviving a shipwreck on an isolated island and a series of lessons in survival, science, and living. While dated (it was published in 1812, after all) adults often see the lessons more clearly than the children they're reading to, who mostly see the excitement of having to make your own society on a deserted island, scavenging for supplies and building cool shelters. It's a classic, wholesome story that engages the young imagination (the kids will be building bed forts in no time after reading it), but adults will see the collected wisdom of a time long gone - much of it still valuable in our modern world despite the invention of the smartphone.

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The Gashlycrumb Tinies

Edward Gorey's classic illustrated book is a macabre and fanciful take on the “ABC”-style children's book where each letter of the alphabet is illustrated and exemplified by a bit of verse. Gorey being Gorey, he tells the story of 26 children who meet untimely deaths in the most unusual ways (our favorite: “X is for Xerxes who was devoured by mice”). The illustrations are wonderfully detailed and ominous, the subject matter slightly horrifying, and yet children don't get scared because Gorey makes it all very playful. As an adult, you'll appreciate the gloomy view of mortality and the dangers of mere existence, but you'll also have the bouncy rhyme scheme stuck in your head for ages.

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A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.

Madeleine L'Engle's 1963 classic is about to be a major (major, as in Oprah's-in-it major) movie event, and about time. This story appeals to any young mind that yearns for more than just adventure, but a sense of wonder at the universe and our place in it. It also appeals to any adult mind that has managed to hold onto a childlike sense of wonder at the universe. In other words, this is one of those perfect stories that has absolutely no age limit whatsoever.

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Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Book 1) - Courtesy Scholastic.

Much has been made of Harry Potter's straddling of generations, and it's not uncommon to find adults of all ages reading J.K. Rowling's books without an ounce of self-consciousness. As a grown-up, you might find the first book in the series a bit simplistic, but this is by design. The true genius of Rowling's revolutionary approach to children's literature is that her characters, story, and themes all become more complex as the books progress, mimicking the aging of her characters. They start off as small children and evolve into young adults over the course of the story - and the story, appropriately, gets darker and more twisty as that process goes on. The end result is an epic story that can be enjoyed when you're 10, when you're 15, when you're 20, and when you're 50.

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The Chronicles of Narnia

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis.

This classic fantasy series about English children who find portals into the magical land of Narnia, where Santa is real and the animals can talk, is one of the best examples of dual-track children's literature ever written. For kids, it's an adventure that will light up their imaginations with images of sword fights, talking lions, and fantastic creatures. For adults, it's all that plus a dose of religious allegory - but you can put the Christian themes aside and still take a deep dive into Lewis' philosophical views, as the Narnia books are more or less a primer on how Lewis saw existence in general. The end result is a story that can be enjoyed on a purely superficial level, on a spiritual level, and on an even deeper level as a rumination on existence, creativity, and goodness.

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

Roald Dahl's story of an eccentric candy maker, his magical factory, and the children he invites inside for a tour that is secretly a test to find an heir to inherit his candy empire has a touch of darkness to it that is largely hidden from children (who see the implied violence inherent in the elimination of children from the tour as wacky fun). That darkness is what Gene Wilder tapped into in his iconic performance in the 1970s film version of the story, and that darkness is what makes the story so engaging for adults. Dahl expertly wove the deeper themes of colonialism, madness, and isolation underneath the hilarious adventures of Charlie Bucket in Willie Wonka's world, and one of the chief pleasures book lovers have is to re-read this one decades after their first encounter, and discovering it's like those lenticular photos that change as you shift position.

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Peter and Wendy

Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie.

Peter Pan is an icon of children's literature, and is another example of a light, bouncy children's story layered on top of a lot of complex, dark concepts. Kids will romp about the house pretending to fly or to have lost their shadows after reading it, but adults will be forced to think about the horror of the Lost Boys, who are implied to have been kidnapped by Peter and forced to live by his cruel rules, or the fact that Peter - envisioned as truly childlike - has no sense of morality, and can be incredibly cruel, as all children can be. Reading about Peter Pan as an adult is a wholly different experience, and one that's well worth your time.

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Watership Down

Watership Down by Richard Adams.

There's an argument to be made that "Watership Down" isn't a children's book at all, but the fact that it's about rabbits means it will almost always be first encountered when you're quite young. But Richard Adams' 1972 novel is a rich, detailed dive into a fantasy universe where rabbits not only speak and have agency, but possess a complex and thoughtful culture and mythology. Young readers love the idea that adorable rabbits might band together to have adventures, and might not recognize the awful angers these heroes encounter for what they are. Adults will see the terrifying threat of death that hangs over every page of the story as the rabbits flee their doomed warren in search of a safe place - and they'll be able to appreciate the first-class world-building Adams engages in, as good if not better than any supposedly “adult” fantasy novel out there.

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The Beach at Night

The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante.

The mysterious author of the Neopolitan Quartet ("My Brilliant Friend," "The Story of a New Name," "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay," and "The Story of the Lost Child") published this children's book to a bit of controversy in 2016. The story of a doll named Celina who is accidentally left on the beach when her “mother,” a young girl, forgets about her, has been considered too dark for kids (although if you review some of the other titles on this list, it's hard to see why). The doll is at first devastated by her abandonment, then terrified when she is picked up by a caretaker cleaning up the beach and put through a horrifying ordeal. Adults will appreciate the surprising levels of horror and tension in the story - and kids will see in it their own fantasies and imagined private worlds, which are usually much darker and violent than adults remember.

Worth Reading and Re-Reading

In the end, good writing is good writing, no matter its intended audience. Children's books like the ten on this list are worth reading and re-reading-so dust one off and relive a childhood memory. You'll be surprised.