The apparent simplicity of language: the text and its shadow


I am a reader.

An avid reader of children’s books and an avid reader of books about children’s books. This means I often get myself bogged down with particular details about writing that is aimed at children and what exactly makes it “literature for children” and not “literature for adults” or just “literature”.

One of the things I like to do in order to find some answers, is explore the boundary around what we call “children’s literature”. At first this seems obvious (and a waste of time), but once one begins looking more carefully, varied and less-firm territory appears.(For example, if “children’s literature” is a body of literature read by children, then what about Harry Potter, who has a large adult fan base too? Or Winnie The Pooh with its sophisticated double address that amuses children and elicits knowing smiles from adults?)

Perry Nodelman is a widely respected critic and academic in the field of children’s literature and in his book The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature he traces these boundaries. One of the points he discusses is children’s books and their apparent simplicity of language. On the whole it is accepted that children’s books should be written with a slightly less sophisticated reader in mind, a reader who does not yet possess the skills and the vocabulary to fight their way through long, complex, Proustian sentences. Let alone have the attention span. (This may be true, but it doesn’t have to mean “talking down” to the reader.) Anyway, this rule is not set in stone (no one told Charles Dickens this when he was writing Oliver Twist) and sometimes is deliberately broken (think of Lemony Snicket’s informative, context-specific asides to the reader about what difficult words mean in A Series of Unfortunate Events).

However, I would have to agree with Nodelman, that children’s books imbue words with a kind of magic that makes them communicate far beyond their immediate meaning. This is what Nodelman refers to as the “shadow text”. The writing is simple, yet the shadow text is not. Nodelman states, “The simple text implies an unspoken and much more complex repertoire that amounts to a second, hidden text.” Here lies the magic of children’s literature.

Of course one can argue that adult texts also have this shadow text, but the disjunction is clearer in children’s books because we accept and expect their simplicity of language. The existence of this shadow therefore means that the simplicity of the story actually requires the reader to have more knowledge than the story actually contains. We, the reader (adult and child), must tap into our repertoire of past experiences, knowledge and understandings of the world in order to read the shadow text.


As a result, when we read David Walliams’ first line from The Boy in the Dress: “Dennis was different”, our repertoire of playground and classroom memories allows us to fully comprehend the story behind that experience. The prose is simple and straight-forward, but the story is not.


Similarly, Eva Ibbotson’s first line from Journey to the River Sea, “It was a good school, one of the best in London” doesn’t bog the reader down with long-winded and elaborate descriptions of the school and its standing. That introductory line tells us everything we need to know not because of the  text, but the shadow behind it: Maia’s privilege and also her limitations.

Good children’s books maintain the simplicity of language, but have carefully selected words that have the ability to throw magical shadows.



(originally posted on my blog 3 September 2019)

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