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