FROM THE PULPIT
YOU ARE A celebrity, bored with AMANDA charity work and in need of some extra limelight. You’ve given up your career to look after your children, and think you can make money by wr iting books at home. You remember having had a warm fuzzy feeling when you read Winnie the Pooh, and think it can’t be too hard to reproduce. You haven’t grown up and think you know just how little ones feel because you’re really just a big kid yourself. Or perhaps you just want to become as rich as Rowling. So you write a children’s book, and think your fortune is made. Reader, if you are one of the above, I hate you. You are what destroys my postman’s back as he labours to my door with 100 books a week. I do not care that our children go to school together, that you are the editor of a national newspaper or a respectable adult novelist. This whole art, craft and culture of reading rests on the growing point of a child’s mind. If you blunt it by producing a bad, dull book for them you risk putting a child off reading. It’s the easiest thing in the world to stop a child reading for pleasure, and if you do it, you deserve to BURN IN HELL. Yes, children’s novels are short. You could even write one like Roddy Doyle’s which has a chapter on each page. You can use a simpler vocabulary. You can show Good vs Evil, and you can put your characters in an adventure in which protagonists do things like fight battles, slay monsters, inherit chocolate factories and enjoy chaste boy–girl friendships. Furthermore, children (or their parents) actually buy books. If their favourites are as good as J K Rowling, C S Lewis, Anthony Horowitz and Philip Pullman, they will get snapped up by big Hollywood studios for lots and lots of money. No wonder adult authors from Jack Higgins, James HamiltonPaterson and Walter Moseley to Joanne Harris, Kate Saunders and Matt Thorne have turned to kidlit with alacrity. No wonder faded pop-stars from Madonna to McCartney queue up to join them. Writing good children’s fiction is very different from writing good adult fiction – so different that hardly anyone succeeds in both genres. Thackeray and Dickens both managed it, and so did or do Roald Dahl, Joan Aiken, Ursula Le Guin, Helen Dunmore and Michelle Paver. It isn’t just about writing in short sentences and using undemanding vocabulary. It’s about writing prose that approaches poetry in its economy and force; about creating characters that stay with you for the rest of your life; about telling stories that you can’t bear not to hear to the end. You can’t just wave a magic wand and think that all you have to do is have a witch, or a talking cat, or a ghost, or an alien from outer space. Children enjoy familiar tropes but they have zero tolerance for both
Turkey Twizzlers for the Mind
boredom and cliché. They will give your book precisely one paragraph, and then they’ll throw it aside. Childhood may seem long, but children themselves know they don’t have the time to waste. Few literary novelists stop to consider that they are competing against Tolstoy, Austen, George Eliot, Dickens and so on for their readership: we are all, alas, what readers read when they’ve found themselves inadequate to the challenge of scaling Mount Olympus on a weekly basis. If you write a children’s novel, however, you’re up against the very best: Where the Wild Things Are, The Gruffalo, The Jungle Book, The Secret Garden, The Hobbit. Those masterpieces of imaginative prose are your immediate rivals and superiors. There are perhaps twelve living authors who produce new picture books or novels that give the greats a run for their money, and otherwise children would be better off devouring pretty much the same books their parents and grandparents loved. Of course, a child doesn’t know it – and often, shamefully, neither do parents. They don’t know, when they’ve bought, say, Rainbow Fairies or G P Taylor’s latest work, that instead of giving something that will nourish and develop their child’s heart, imagination, vocabulary, confidence and courage, they are g iving Turkey Twizzlers for the mind. But I know, and so do all too many of the writers hoping to strike lucky with a kids’ novel. As a parent, and a children’s critic, I sift through every one of those 100 books a week to find the one small nugget of gold that I can honestly recommend. I have seen what it does to a child to discover something as good as How to Train Your Dragon, Wolf Brother or Across the Nightingale Floor: how it transforms the way a child thinks about themselves and their life. It’s just too important not to get it right. I also believe children’s literature is a serious literary form in its own right. Too many people overlook the fact that all great children’s literature is about death (rather than sex, which our society has, unwisely, placed at the centre of adult consciousness). We don’t like anything to do with death, or the big questions of life, and shuffle them off on philosophers and priests – but children do. It’s a small triumph that The Times, The Sunday Times and The Guardian now have weekly review slots for children’s literature, and a bigger one that Philip Pullman won the Whitbread Book of the Year prize for His Dark Materials three years ago. I’d like to see every publication, including the Literary Review, acknowledge its importance and its validity as a form. As long as that doesn’t increase the number of bad books my poor postman has to carry to my door.
1 LITERARY REVIEW November 2006
THIS MONTH’S PULPIT is written by Amanda Craig, children’s critic of The Times, and the author of five adult novels, including Love in Idleness (Abacus). MICHAEL BURLEIGH is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford and author of Sacred Causes: Politics and Religion from the European Dictators to AlQaeda (Harper Press). EDWARD NORMAN is Emeritus Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and Curate of the St James Garlickhythe Church in the City of London. ROBERT FRASER’s The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker appeared in 2001. ADAM SISMAN is writing a life of Hugh Trevor-Roper. RICHARD OVERY’s The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia was awarded the Wolfson Prize for History 2005 and is available in paperback from Penguin. CATHERINE PETERS has written a chapter on Dickens’s biographers for the forthcoming Blackwell’s Companion to Charles Dickens. GRAHAM STEWART ought to be a relationship counsellor to the powerful. His Burying Caesar examined the rivalry between Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain. Out next year, his new book, Friendship and Betrayal: Ambition and the Limits of Loyalty, would make an ideal housewarming gift in the Downing Street area. PHILIP WOMACK had to give up his career as ‘The Scholar Pirate’ this summer (too many hours, too little plunder). Instead he wrote a children’s novel, The Other Book, which will be published by Bloomsbury in early 2008.
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AMANDA CRAIG PAUL JOHNSON Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao Margaret MacMillan DAVID PRYCE-JONES The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine Ilan Pappe DAVID GILMOUR The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition Narendra Singh Sarila Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India Stanley Wolpert GRAHAM STEWART The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone Vs Disraeli Richard Aldous GILES MACDONOGH The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961 – 9 November 1989 Frederick Taylor JOHN DUNN Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670–1752 Jonathan Israel FRANK MCLYNN The Life of Kingsley Amis Zachary Leader GILLIAN TINDALL John Evelyn: Living for Ingenuity Gillian Darley ADAM SISMAN Europe’s Physician: The Various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne Hugh Trevor-Roper ALAN POWERS Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick Jenny Uglow JAMES BURGE Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man Barbara Reynolds CHANDAK SENGOOPTA The Last Man Who Knew Everything Andrew Robinson RAYMOND SEITZ God Won’t Save America: Psychosis of a Nation George Walden JONATHAN MIRSKY Vietnam: The Definitive Oral History Told From All Sides Christian G Appy TOM STACEY Into the Abyss: Explorers on the Edge of Survival Benedict Allen ALEXANDER WAUGH 50 Reasons to Hate the French Jules Eden and Alex Clarke JOHN LAUGHLAND ON THE UNITED NATIONS MICHAEL BURLEIGH The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 Lawrence Wright Celsius 7/7 Michael Gove PATRICK O’CONNOR
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Editor: NANCY SLADEK Deputy Editor: TOM FLEMING Editor-at-Large: JEREMY LEWIS Editorial Assistant: PHILIP WOMACK Contributing Editors: ALAN RAFFERTY, SEBASTIAN SHAKESPEARE Business Manager: ROBERT POSNER Advertising Manager: TERRY FINNEGAN Classified Advertising: DAVID STURGE Founding Editor: DR ANNE SMITH Founding Father: AUBERON WAUGH Cover illustration by Chris Riddell Issue no. 338 2 LITERARY REVIEW November 2006