Thursday, 31 December 2009

Who Are You Writing For, Again? - Sally Nicholls

It's an commonly-held belief that 'the best children's books work for adults too'. Into this category are dumped either the children's books written with one eye on an adult audience (the picture books with rude jokes or the 9-12 year-old books which mention Plato), or the books aimed very firmly at children which are just SO DAMN GOOD that everyone loves them.

Astrid Lingren (of Pippi Longstocking fame) was very against the first sort of books. Why put in a joke that children won't find funny in a book AIMED AT CHILDREN? Why make a reference that your target audience won't get? She believed that children's writing should be aimed directly at the people it's for - the children - and that anything aimed at anyone else should be deleted.

(This doesn't mean she was against clever references, btw. Terry Pratchett includes just as many references in his children's Discworld books as he does in those aimed at adults. They're just references to the Famous Five and Hans Christian Anderson, rather than They Might Be Giants and Aristotle).

I'm on Astrid's side (I think), although I think kids are cleverer than adults give them credit for, and I'm not afraid of making them work a bit when reading my books. I also don't think its true that a good children's book will be loved by adults. Adults have singularly failed to get Jacqueline Wilson, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. Does this make them bad children's authors? Or are they better authors because they tap into something that cleverer authors have forgot?


Charlie Butler said...

I quite agree that a children's book doesn't have to appeal to adults to be a good children's book, any more than the reverse is true.

Being a bit of a reference merchant myself, though, I don't see any harm in putting in references that (most) children are unlikely to pick up on, *as long as* the enjoyment or understanding of the book isn't undermined by *not* getting them. After all, not every child has read The Famous Five either; and some 12-year-olds actually will have a passing acquaintance with Plato. You can't legislate for these things, but have to cast your bread upon the waters, I think. I'm also reminded of something Diana Wynne Jones said when I once asked her in interview about the likelihood of YA readers picking up on her references to T. S. Eliot in *Fire and Hemlock*:

"When they come to read Four Quartets later, if any of them do, it will chime somewhere. I think it’s quite important to give children as many pegs to hang things on as is possible. This is the way you learn. It takes a tremendous effort to grind one fact into your head, but if you’ve got it there already from something you’ve read, then it happens happily and easily – even if you don’t know what that something is. So I never worry about putting in things that are not within children’s capacities, because I don’t think this matters. I think it’s very good for children to notice that there’s something going on that they don’t quite understand. This is a good feeling because it pulls you on to find out."

This makes sense to me. (I'm also not against giving parents something to amuse them as they read the same picture book to their child for the sixtieth time...)

Stroppy Author said...

What Charlie - and DWJ - said! My daughter has commented on references in books she didn't get when she read them, but got later when she read something else. Same daughter had a decent knowledge of Plato at 9 but never read any Famous Five - it just depends on their interests. I see no point in patronisingly censoring references that you think add to the book.