Friday, 8 May 2009

Big Books - Sally Nicholls

Last month, 'Ways to Live Forever' was involved in School Library Journal's Battle of the Books (hurrah!).

Sadly, it got knocked out in the first round by Octavian Nothing (alas).

The competition was a tournament, with judges deciding which of a pair of books would make it through into the next round. Cue lots of moaning about comparing apples and pears (trying to compare The Hunger Games and Octavian Nothing - the final two books - is a bit like trying to decide whether Jane Eyre or Winnie the Pooh is a better book). And, of course, cue lots of replies that actually this is what judging any literary award is like and that's why it's such a bloody difficult thing to do.

It also raised the question of what makes a good children's book. Should you pick the one you think is the better book (and let's not get into a discussion about whether that is even possible)? Or should you pick the one you think children would rather read?

Judges varied (giving a nicely random air to the competition). But what interested me was why this was seen as particularly important in a children's prize.

Surely it's just the old 'should The Da Vinci Code win the Booker' debate?

And yes, for reference I think a children's book which too advanced for most children isn't a children's book. And being a book which people want to read is most definitely a good thing, and should be considered when judging any competition - including the Booker.

But ... that's only one point out of many - plot, characters, style, beauty, emotional or intellectual truth, originality. And yes, there is space in children's bookshelves for the equivalent of The Da Vinci Code. But children are not a separate species - they are little human beings. And they deserve books as rich and complicated as Octavian Nothing (which won to a crowd-pleaser).

There are many, many children's prizes which are voted for by children and go to the books they want to read.

And there is room in children's literature for dark, powerful, complicated, intellectually challenging books.

And there are children who read them, too.

1 comment:

Nick Green said...

No, The Da Vinci Code should not win the Booker! It's not a popularity contest. And there is such a thing as undeserved popularity. The Da Vinci Code could possibly win the Paris Hilton Prize for that, though.

Regarding children's books; the big sticking point is that children's books are treated as a genre, and they're not a genre. They are (coinage alert!) a metagenre. So you get picture books for 3-year-olds included alongside His Dark Materials, which is ludicrous.

Perhaps instead of prizes we should be encouraging 'festivals' of some sort. I was shortlisted for the Bolton Book Award, and all the authors deserved to be there; it was just a shame that one had to be chosen above the others, because the children had clearly enjoyed them all. To have one winner is artificial and meaningless, really. And yes, I would say that even if I had won (it was going to be in my acceptance speech... sigh.)