Monday, 15 June 2009

Adults in the Playground - Katherine Langrish




Some quotes from Amazon reviews:

1) “Skulduggery Pleasant is a rarity among children’s books. For one it doesn’t talk down to its audience, two it has some very original characters…”

2) “Tunnels is one of those few books that can be enjoyed by kids, teens and adults…”

3) “Don’t be fooled into thinking this [Sabriel] is a children’s book… Nix doesn’t pull any punches… there’s no patronising and talking down to children in his prose…”

4) “Overall [Northern Lights] is a children’s adventure story with grown up overriding themes concerning the questioning of authority…”


I hope your blood is boiling? I got these from a quick trawl of Amazon, and I’m certain it would be easy to come up with many similar examples. Now, whatever the varying merits of the above four children’s books (they do vary wildly, Reader; but I’m not going down that path) they have one thing in common: they have all been bestsellers. And bestsellers attract some readers who never normally pick up a children’s book. Their attitude seems to be:

1) I never read children’s books because…
2) …I believe books for children are puerile, patronising and fluffy…
3) …and that is why I never read them. However…
4) …here is a high-profile children’s book which, unexpectedly, has merits. I have actually enjoyed it.
5) Therefore it cannot be a representative children’s book.

Breath-taking in their ignorant condescension, such readers appear to imagine they are paying a children’s author a compliment by – effectively – telling him or her that they have failed in their first endeavour. Garth Nix thought he was writing a book for children? No he wasn’t! Adults can enjoy it!

Dear God. Let’s say it once again, loud and clear. Children’s literature is exactly that – a branch of literature. There’s a massive spectrum available, from simple adventure stories all the way through to complex, subtle, life-enriching explorations of characters and worlds which will stay with a reader forever. There’s a cartoon someone once showed me of a literary cocktail party with two authors chatting. One says something like, ‘I write for adults. I write stories about bored wives in the Home Counties, and middle-aged men having affairs with younger women.’ The other says, ‘I write about life and death, and grief and hope and terror, and rising above every difficulty to change the course of your life. I write for children.’

14 comments:

Keren David said...

It's all about the reader's ego isn't it? They assume that children's books 'talk down' to their audience because they are ashamed to be reading children's books. Grrr.

Ms. Yingling said...

I read "children's books", and I'm an adult, so in my mind, they are "adult" books as well.

If there are ADULTS out there who want copies of Harry Potter 5, 6, and 7, you can visit my blog and enter to win them.

Katherine Langrish said...

Exactly, Ms Yingling! Readers may vary, but books is books. I can happily read Sendak's brilliant 'Outside Over There' one day, and George Eliot the next.

Gilla said...

Don't get me started. But since you have, Katherine, I have that cartoon pinned above my desk too (at least I did till the dog ate it last week). Who's more 'grown up' anyway? Jeffrey Archer or Philip Pullman? (And just for the record, 'Where The Wild Things Are' is one of the top books ever.)

Gillian Philip said...

Whoops, my finger slipped on the keyboard. 'Gilla' is me.

Katherine Langrish said...

Yes indeed. Of course there's nothing wrong with reading entertaining airport thrillers or chick lit: It would be stupid to do so, however, and write off all 'adult' fiction as equivalent. Nobody does so. So from whence comes this widespread assumption that an intelligent, well written children's book is some kind of wonderful rarity, a sort of black swan?

Anne Rooney said...

So true - and it's not just novels for children, either: there are picture books that deal with these immense themes and do so better than many adult novels.

Linda Strachan said...

Perhaps one unfortunate (?) thing is that those who have the above mentioned characteristics will probably never read this blog anyway as they presumably wouldn't think we would have anything to say that would interest them!
Another similar issue is when 'adult' authors write a children's book and the publishers act as if they are OBVIOUSLY going to be good at it, after all it's just for children, isn't it! But for some reason if it is an 'adult' novel by a children's writer it doesn't seem to work that way. Why is this, any ideas?

catherine johnson said...

Fantastic Blog Katherine, well said.

John Dougherty said...

Absolutely spot on, Katherine.

Linda, I agree; I think expecting "adult" writers to write well for children is like expecting novelists to necessarily be good at writing short stories, and vice versa. Some writers can do both; many can't.

Anne Fine once spoke of how critics gushed about her first novel for adults, praising the astonishing maturity of her writing and generally ignoring the fact that she was already a much-lauded and well-respected author.

I think the reasoning is exactly the same as in Katherine's examples: the belief is that writing for children isn't 'proper' writing, and that anyone can do it. Well, I'd like to see them try...

Jan Lindqvist said...

Hi! I fully agree with you!
In my opinion some of the best and most interesting writers nowadays write for young people.
I quote Tim Bowler from his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech:
"Those who take the patronising view that writing for young people is easier than writing for adults are talking hogwash. ... Writing for them does not mean writing down; it means writing up - to the level at which they deserve to be allowed to operate."

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Great post, Katherine. Loved all the comments too.

bookwitch said...

Just this weekend my (older) cousin seemed to feel sorry for me for reading children's books. Guess who's feeling sorry for whom?

Nick Green said...

There was a joke in an episode of the old comedy 'Men Behaving Badly' where one of the female characters mocked her boyfriend, 'And what was the last book you read? Watership Down, probably!' Now, if she'd said 'Peter Rabbit', the point might have been well-made (i.e. he's never read a book since early childhood). But 'Watership Down' remains one of my favourite books of all time. It's epic; it's on a level with 'The Lord of the Rings'. The choice of that book as a put-down made me grit my teeth. (But then, I shouldn't have been watching 'Men Behaving Badly' in the first place, should I?)