It is widely believed that children like to read stories about children rather than about adult characters. While true at a fundamental level, it does not mean that children’s stories cannot have adult central characters. Some of the best loved characters in children’s literature, especially in the field of comics, cartoons and humorous stories, are nominally adults. From Desperate Dan of the British comic, The Dandy, to Mr Magee in American comic books, one finds adult characters that are loved by children because they are presented as children in the way they think and behave. Authors of children’s books can adapt these juvenile characters in adult clothing to the age of their target readers.
A major genre of children’s literature has grown up around animal characters and many of these are presented as adults. Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse are not portrayed as children and neither are Toad of Toad Hall and his friends Rat, Mole and Badger. The secret of both Walt Disney and A A Milne lies in portraying adult animal characters thinking, feeling and behaving as children. The authors imagine them as children, and children recognise them as children. It is remarkable that young readers immediately appreciate the child wrapped in the adult portrayed as an animal.
After a diet of books about children and adults behaving like children, the young reader moves on to more adult books with some juvenile characters. In these books the adults are real, and often frightening, but the reader can identify with one or more boys or girls. Charles Dickens is a supreme exponent of this genre with books like A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop. In R L Stevenson’s Treasure Island, just one boy, Jim Hawkins, makes this book a children’s favourite. But both Dickens and Stevenson fill their books with some adult characters like The Artful Dodger and Scrooge in Oliver Twist and Long John Silver in Treasure Island, who retain some of the characteristics of the adults behaving like children in younger children’s books. This is done mainly by presenting characters as ‘larger than life,’ using exaggerated characteristics to simplify the personality and facilitate a biased emotional response, usually of aversion.
Full blown adult books attempt to present a ‘warts and all’ account of well-rounded complex personalities with both attractive and unattractive characteristics. But this is not how people are portrayed in stories written for children. Children want characters to love or to hate. That is why the Tom and Jerry cartoon is so popular. At first they love Jerry and hate his oppressor, Tom, but as the years pass, a little sympathy for Tom and his incessant suffering develops. When something approaching a balanced response is realised the young mind is ready for characterisation that is more mature. The journey from Mickey Mouse to Charles Darnay is the path to maturity in reading. The challenge to the children’s author is to judge where along the road his target readership is located.