Following on from Katherine Langrish's excellent blog a couple of days ago Writing for children - is it difficult? I thought it might be worth exploring what exactly is meant by a children's book.
As children’s writers we know what it means, almost instinctively, but to the wider world out there I think there is a lot of space for misconceptions. This can be confusing for aspiring writers who want clear definitions, and who can blame them. It reminds me of a comment made to me recently by a chap who can't cook. He said the problem with most cook books is that they are written by people who know how to cook and forget that people like him don't even have the most basic skills.
Many adults see children's books as a single category, books for people who are not adults! This reaction is one which almost all writers for children have encountered at some time, and shows the level of ignorance that does exist in the general population in this regard. (Oh, you write for children, how nice! But when are you going to write a proper book - one for adults?) They never seem to stop and ask what kind of children's books - picture books, novels, mid range?
Some dedicated children’s book awards have different age groups -such as the Royal Mail Awards for Scottish Children’s Books, where the categories are Picture books/ younger readers 8-11 and older readers 12-16. But where children’s books are represented along with awards for adult books the short list is almost invariably novels, and often novels that are generally on that fine line that they could be what some publishers call ‘crossover’ books.
So does that mean that picture books or books for younger readers are not worth considering along side these 'almost adult' novels - it might seem from these awards that in some adult readers' view they are not really important enough? Perhaps 'important' is not the best choice of word, but I am sure you know what I mean!
I realise it is almost impossible to compare a picture book with a 50,000+ word novel, any more than it is possible to compare apples and bananas. But where they are looking at the skill involved in use of words, and the creativity... I know many writers of novels who retreat in haste at the thought of writing a picture book. They understand that 'short' is not just another word for easy!
I know no one reading this blog is likely to think that this is the case but it was interesting that in the comments on Katherine's blog was this one 'Any writing has a target audience.' This is even more so for children's books where, for the younger children especially, levels of reading ability and understanding of the world are among the first criteria to be considered - which is not to say the story idea does not come first, but somewhere in the back of your mind there is the knowledge that this particular idea would find it's best home in a particular age range or length.
I firmly believe any good and well-written children's book should be just as entertaining for adults who read them and this goes for picture books and younger books just as much as novels.
But when we talk about novels for children, what makes them for children not for adults? Some writers of novels are adamant that they do not write particularly for children - but if so why do they consider themselves a children's writer and not a writer for adults? Why are their books published primarily for children by a publisher who (although happy to market them to adults as well) is a children's publisher? It is a very difficult question to answer and I would love to hear what you think. I think this is a question that many aspiring writers ask because they are not quite sure where the line is or if there is a line at all.
I would suggest that it might be that we have an inner almost instinctive feeling for what works or doesn't work for children (even older children) which becomes more imbedded in our minds as we gain experience, but perhaps it is that almost always a young person is at the heart of the story.
Linda Strachan is the author of Writing for Children a writing handbook for aspiring and newly published authors. See more information on her website www.lindastrachan.com