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There are lots of books that make you go “how is this a children’s book?” But usually the reason for that is the heavy subject matter, or the level of scariness. It’s not embedded in the fabric of the book itself.
“The Grey King” should not be able to get away with the level of language it uses. Take this passage:
“The other arm he raised before him, with fingers stiff outstretched in a gesture of command, and he called out three words in the Old Speech. And before him, the rock parted like a great gate, to a faint, very faint sound of delicate music that was achingly familiar and yet strange, gone as soon as it was heard.”
Yes, it is absolutely gorgeous–but the theory goes that children’s books should have much simpler language than adult books. Yet, the language in all of Susan Cooper’s books is often poetic and mysterious.
So why are these so successful? They broke the rule of “how to talk to children” into little tiny pieces, and yet they are some of the most influential and long-lasting books yet written for children.
Part of it is probably that the entire book is not written like that. There are passages when the language changes, to show that Will is acting not in his capacity as a child, but as an old one. Thus that narrator mirrors the story, and the reader is in a way drawn deeper into the world.
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Part of it is that children are simply capable of understanding far more than they are sometimes given credit for. I have a friend who likes to refer to kids as “lesser sentient creatures,” but it’s not really true, is it? Children are capable of a surprising level of understanding and analysis–or else the books that survive would not be the Susan Cooper novels; they would be pieces of total crap.