Conventional wisdom in publishing today suggests that the protagonist of a children’s book should be roughly around the same age as the intended reader. Protagonists of middle-grade books, meant for ages 8-12, will likely be 8-12 themselves, while protagonists of YA books are almost invariably teenagers. So it is that making a character thirteen can be enough to move a book from the middle-grade shelf to the YA shelf, even if nothing else about the book changes. Considering that a difference in only one year can be enough for booksellers to promote a book to a different audience, it is incredibly strange that J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, arguably one of the most popular children’s books, centers on the adventures of, not a child, but a 50-year-old Hobbit.
Or perhaps this is not so strange, after all. The history of popular children’s books includes Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Robinson Crusoe–all stories about grown-ups. In addition, children have also enjoyed books like Little Women or L. M. Montgomery’s Anne series, where the protagonists age from children to adults. When we consider the types of books children actually read, it becomes clear that they do not need to be the same age as the protagonist in order to enjoy the story. Other factors, such as romance, adventure, or sympathetic characters also come into play.
In writing The Hobbit for children, J. R. R. Tolkien did not need to make Bilbo eleven or twelve both because Bilbo’s adventures are grand enough to inspire imaginations of all ages and because Bilbo’s feelings about those adventures are so relatable. In other words, Tolkien relies upon his story and his characterization to create appeal and sympathy, rather than relying upon superficial similarities of age. When Bilbo is whisked from his comfortable home out into the wide world, he becomes, in a sense, Everyman. He dreams of doing grand deeds and seeing marvelous sights, but his more-or-less ordinary background has seemingly not prepared him to do so. He does not know how to wield a sword, he is not accustomed to living on the road, and he has really no idea what to do with a dragon should he ever meet one. Most readers can probably relate to Bilbo’s feelings of inadequacy and his confusion at some point during the story, along with his longing for something more than day-to-day life.
Today, Tolkien’s choice of protagonist would be considered a bold move, perhaps even an insurmountable obstacle to publication–and yet, the history of children’s books seems to support Tolkien’s feeling that a hero’s adventures can be accessible to everyone, regardless of age. (Tolkien was, in fact, drawing upon the myths and legends that inspired him in his own youth–stories of the Norse gods, of Anglo-Saxon warriors, of medieval knights. Of grown-ups.) However, his example is worth considering. How might the face of children’s publishing change if it were opened up to heroes of all ages?