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The Globe and Mail

We are living in Henry James's nightmare. He hated children's literature and would have been appalled at the news that J.K. Rowling not only has adult readers for her Harry Potter books but is actually trying her hand at a novel for grown-ups

In 1899, James, already celebrated for such psychological novels as The Portrait of a Lady, wrote an influential essay decrying the fact that the literature was being dominated by the tastes of children and childlike adults. "The larger part of the multitude that sustains the teller and the publisher of tales is constituted by boys and girls; by girls in especial, if we apply the term to the later stages of the life of the innumerable women who, under modern arrangements, increasingly fail to marry," James complained, with a more than a dash of sexism.

By this account, kids and girlish women led to "the vulgarization of literature" because they much preferred to read about Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn or Johanna Spyri's Heidi rather than genuinely challenging fiction – for example, the minute and circumlocutory examination of upper-class manners found in James's own novels.

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James wanted to build a giant and impermeable wall to separate real literature from kiddy fare. For much of the 20th century, his way of thinking won out, as children's literature was relegated to a cultural ghetto, read by the young, by teachers and by librarians, but generally ignored by anyone with pretenses to cultivation.

But recently, the wall James helped to construct has crumbled almost as quickly as the famous barrier in Berlin. It is no longer so easy to figure out if a book is meant for children or adults. The Harry Potter series is so popular with grown-ups that the publishers issued "adult editions" for sale (identical in every way to the kid's versions but with sombre, dark-hued covers rather than the gaudy circus colours of the original books).

Other crossover hits that have large audiences on both sides of the age divide include Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games series, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. Conversely, books originally intended for an adult audience, notably Yann Martel's Life of Pi, also find a multigenerational readership. Two years ago, President Barack Obama and his daughter Malia (then about 11 years old) read Martel's tiger tale together.

All of these are developments that would earn a ghostly grimace from Henry James. Why are kids and adults now so often burrowing through the same books after a century's effort to demarcate a boundary between mature fiction and puerile dross?

Some observers, borrowing from the arguments made by the late Neil Postman in his 1994 classic The Disappearance of Childhood, argue that there is a larger cultural tendency fuelled by the electronic media to both infantilize adults and turn kids into premature smart alecks and sexpots. We're living, after all, in the age of R-rated superhero movies, X-rated video games, sexting teens and TV shows such as Toddlers and Tiaras (which shows preteens wearing outfits that might cause a pimp to blush).

Whatever truth there might be to Postman's argument, it can't quite explain the simple fact that the current blurring of the lines between kids culture and adult culture is in fact a return to the norms that existed in the Victorian era. As literary scholar Beverly Lyon Clark demonstrated in her superb 2003 book Kiddie Lit, in the 19th century there was no clear-cut and obvious division between kids books and adult books. Herman Melville was praised for writing novels that "a child can always understand."

In 1895, one Victorian reader recalled that when Louisa May Alcott's Little Women was being serialized in 1869, "grave merchants and lawyers meeting on their way downtown in the morning said to each other, 'Have you read Little Women?' and laughed as they said it. The clerks in my office read it, so also did the civil engineer, and the boy in the elevator."

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What accounts for the curious populist reading culture of the Victorians, which assumed that kids could read Moby-Dick and adults could enjoy Little Women? Partly, there was the enduring power of the family. This was an era when many people read together under the roof of domesticity, complete with recitals and theatrical performances based on books. Given that families shared novels, books were assumed to have a multigenerational audience.

But beyond the role of family life, which we see echoed in President Obama reading with his daughters, there was the unstated but widely held idea that reading is a democratic act, open to anyone who applies effort. Every child aspires to learn more, so she can push herself through difficult texts. Conversely, every adult was once a child and can, through reading, recapture some of the wonder and purity of earlier life.

Some kids are amazingly precocious, some adults are jaw-droppingly immature. John Stuart Mill learned to read ancient Greek when he was 3 and by 8 was consuming Herodotus and Plato in their original language. By contrast, some adults never outgrow the simple-minded pop-cultural confections of their youth. There is no bright, clear line separating childhood reading from adult reading.

Fitfully and haphazardly, we seem to be returning to the wisdom of Victorian reading culture. In part, this is happening, ironically enough, because reading itself is in crisis in our new digital age. Many adults worry that their kids aren't going to develop a love of reading. So when authors such as Rowling, Collins and Meyer become popular, adults jump on the bandwagon as a way of cheerleading a positive development. Charles Hatfield, who teaches children's literature at California State University, Northridge, notes, "The entire publishing industry has been running scared in the face of dire predictions about the end of book culture, and this makes the extraordinary popularity of writers like Rowling and Meyer a highly charged issue: charged with excessive hopes, with excessive claims, and with hype."

The blurring of generational boundaries in publishing is part and parcel of a more general blurring of genre boundaries in literature. Interestingly, Henry James hated genre fiction as much as he disliked kids lit. James had a famous falling-out with H.G. Wells over whether novels should be action-packed or deal with psychological issues.

But with publishing in crisis, even writers who might aspire to inherit the mantle of James try to gain readers by writing genre fiction. Thus we see ambitious novelists moonlighting in science fiction (Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon), noir (Martin Amis, John Banville) and historical fiction (Atwood again, Hilary Mantel). Many of these writers also have a toe in children's literature.

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While it's easy to make fun of the snobbery of a Henry James, there is much to admire in his efforts to write dense and difficult novels that make the utmost cognitive demands on adult readers. But James's desire to segregate serious fiction from the supposed corruption of kids' lit and genre fiction was based on faulty reasoning and snootiness. Rather than trying to build barriers between books, we need to embrace the rich diversity of literature including the type of books that create future readers, the books that moms and dads can read with their kids.

Jeet Heer is co-editor of Too Asian? Racism, Privilege, and Post-Secondary Education, forthcoming in May. He was an editorial consultant on The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly.

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