Thursday, 26 November 2009

What is a Children's Book? - Linda Strachan

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

16 comments:

John Dougherty said...

And then, some people seem to think that just because a book (a) is about children, or (b) has pictures, that makes it a children's book - hence the rather odd inclusion of the last two, here.

Come to that, I believe Hans Christian Andersen wasn't at first aware that he was writing for children...

Nick Green said...

I've often struggled with the concept that something like 'His Dark Materials' is a work for children, but something like 'The Da Vinci Code' is for adults.

This point is also made in a cartoon that someone has referenced before on this blog, which I won't repeat here. But it was about the depth and power of some children's books as contrasted with the inanity of many books aimed at adults.

So it's certainly not the intellectual content, emotional depth or 'difficulty' level that is behind the distinction. I'm darned if I know what is...

Katherine Langrish said...

Where the Wind Blows and Lord of the Flies? Good grief.
People really amaze me.
Why is it necessary to define what a children's book 'is'? Or an adult book for that matter? There can't be a definition that someone wouldn't break. There aren't any boundaries. Is Sendak's 'Outside Over There' a children's book?
How about: a book is a children's book when a child is enjoying it, and an adult's book when an adult is enjoying it?

Linda Strachan said...

John I am always quite sad that as soon as children get a little older they feel it is childish to have books with pictures, never mind adults. They are missing out on so much.

Yes, Nick, I think that is exactly the problem. HDM v Da Vinci code...hmmm that is SOME comparison!

Katherine,I agree there are no real boundaries for enjoying books, any books at any age. But aren't people constantly defining it for all sorts of reasons -the book awards as I mentioned, and reviewers and also those trying to get published who want to direct their work to the right publisher, perhaps?
I think the problem may be that the people who publicly define it are often not the people who really understand what we do!

John Dougherty said...

Kath: "How about: a book is a children's book when a child is enjoying it, and an adult's book when an adult is enjoying it?"

I like that! I consider myself to be a writer of family books, personally...

Gillian Philip said...

And Kath, you could add 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or 'The Catcher in the Rye' or...

After six and a half books I'm still not sure where the line lies. I'm not constantly thinking of a 'target' while I'm writing; and as Kath said in the last post, I wouldn't tone down my language or vocabulary or themes for a 'younger audience'. Is it just that we're writing about young adult/child characters? Is that all it is, this huge gulf?

I saw a crit on Amazon about a Scattered Author's book which said (I paraphrase, but not much), 'This is wonderful writing; why is this woman stuck in the children's section?' More to the point, why did the reader think the children's section is somewhere you get 'stuck', rather than somewhere you actively choose and are proud to be in?

Hmm, Nick, quite. I see that recent 'adult' books include Martine McCutcheon's opus. Says it all really...

adele said...

The fewer the words, the more white space around them the better they have to be. Mainly because they will generally speaking be READ ALOUD and there are very few paragraphs of adult writing which would bear reading aloud NIGHT AFTER NIGHT and time and again to a young child. Where the wild things are. I rest my case!

Nick Green said...

It's doubly odd because I very consciously and deliberately set out to write books that I think 'children' (by which I mean older children) will enjoy, so as you say, Linda, there must be some criteria that I am trying to follow, however unconsciously.

At the same time, I wouldn't even attempt to write a book 'for adults'. For me it would feel like trying to write a book in French. I don't know what that says about me... Nor even what I mean by 'for adults'.

I just prefer the children's section. It's far more varied.

Gillian Philip said...

Oops, sorry Kath, I see your mention of LOTF and WWWB was related to that link of John's. Which I've now read. Got to say that's a really funny article, though!

Leslie Wilson said...

Well, I am off to talk to pensioners about my book on Saturday, and I don't expect them to buy them just for their grandchildren! But in the YAF section where I operate it's really a question of - not so much whether the novel's about kids, but the way the kids are written about - ie, is there a knowing, adult voice there, or is it written from the point of view of adolescent preoccupations about adolescence? I think books like Carson McCullers's are adult books because the knowing adult voice is there, they are slanted at adults. I also wonder how far the 'Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime' is a kids' book - I remember a class of very intelligent 14 year-olds telling me it wasn't. I guess, though, the reason YAF books are often 'crossovers' is that they are read both by intelligent adults who want to revisit adolescence, and by intelligent kids who may be reading 'adult' books alongside them. I do, incidentally, remember my daughter reading 'Miffy' when she was in the 6th form, and heading for joint honours English/philosophy! Hope all this makes sense. A very interesting and thought-provoking post, thanks, Linda!!

catdownunder said...

My father is almost 87 and he still reads picture books. I still read picture books. We still read so-called children's books. We also read so-called adult books. Does this make us children or adults? The best books for younger readers surely have universal appeal?

Ashley Howland said...

I think it's silly to get too carried away defining what is and what isn't a children's book. If a child can comprhend and enjoy reading it then that should be enough. As an adult I find that reading books written for children is a wonderful escape. A good book is a good book, no matter what age it is written for!

Lee said...

Interesting that you mention reading aloud, Adele. It's in fact one of my main tests of good prose, adult or otherwise

Stroppy Author said...

I always read my books aloud before sending them in - it's vital. I think Marcus Sedgwick's books are often marketed as children's books because the others are. My daughters both like picture books (14 ands 18).

bookwitch said...

Debi Gliori told me how at a signing she almost got into an argument with a woman who told her how much her reading group enjoyed Pure Dead Magic. Debi asked if they often read children's books, and was told that PDM wasn't a children's book! Debi felt like asking what the woman thought all the children in the signing queue were there for...

What I think we are saying here is that the best books are for children, and the 'adults' can keep the rubbish.

Linda Strachan said...

You are so right. So did the woman in question think it was demeaning to be 'caught' reading and- heaven forbid- actually ENJOYING a book that may have been written for MERE children?

So sad really because children are such good critics and are so often underestimated - except by children's authors - of course!!

yup it is official - children's books are great - not that anyone here would dispute that- why would we?