Wednesday, 16 June 2010

On the importance of a good diet - by Leila Rasheed

A year or so ago I was in a critique group for published writers. We included authors of non-fiction, literary fiction, memoir, drama and poetry. I was the only children’s writer, yet the others seemed to like my writing, so much so that one day I received the thought-provoking comment:

“This is too good for a children’s book.”

A compliment? Well, I’m sure it was meant as one. But the more I think about it, the less I like it. The assumptions within it remind me of the extraordinary British attitude to school dinners. Healthy, tasty food? Far too good for children! They’ll do just fine on deep-fried e-numbers and cardboard pizza with a side of chips.

I doubt there are many people who would deny that children are a country’s best investment, that they are, literally, our future. Most parents instinctively put their children’s interests before their own. We know that how a person is treated as a child will affect how they behave as an adult; the echoes of affection or violence, of support or scorn, carry far into adulthood. Recently, our society has also woken up to the fact that feeding children on sugary, salty rubbish creates just as many echoes: obesity, heart-disease, eating disorders. And yet when it comes to feeding the mind, it seems that even some writers still consider children scavengers rather than honoured guests at the table of literature. What echoes are created when the mind is fed on second-rate stuff?

Why should people assume the best writing must be for adults, any more than the best food? Isn’t it children who need it most, who need to be fed on fresh, vitamin-rich, mouth-wateringly delicious words and sentences? If they don’t get these things as children, how can we expect the adults they become to read anything but rubbish? How can we expect them to have a healthy, discerning attitude to books? How can we expect them to care about reading at all?

Children’s books should be different, yes. Children are not adults; a children’s novel is not just a shorter version of an adult’s novel. Different but not worse; if anything, better. Because if adults are content to toss the skin and bones of writing to children, keeping the meat for themselves, by the time those children grow to be adults it will be too late: their reading palate will have been destroyed forever.

www.thewritingden.webs.com

13 comments:

Katherine Langrish said...

Very well said, Leila! I so agree. Children deserve the best in fiction, and - sometimes - they get it. But the attitude is all too prevalent that the stuff they read (and watch) and fill their heads with can be rubbish - and it blows my mind that people would be complacent about that.

Savita Kalhan said...

Judging by the works of the writers in the SAS, I think kids are getting the best! I think a lot of teachers know it, librarians know it, some parents know it, particularly the ones who read their kids' books, but maybe it's a secret that most adult readers still don't get...

Gillian Philip said...

Loved this post. I think children get a better diet, book-wise, than many adults. A pity so many adults don't realise it, and yet also have the attitude you describe, Leila.

Just last night a friend told me, in reassuring tones, 'Oh, it's fine to be starting with children's books. You can gradually work your way up to writing adult ones.'

AAAAAAAAAIIIIEEEEEE.

Charlie Butler said...

It's a classic, isn't it? I often see that comment, with small variations, on Amazon reviews too.

I think these people have an idea at some unexamined level that children's books are actually written by children. I remember Anthony Holden, for example, when he was a Whitbread judge in 2000 (the year HP3 just lost out to Heaney's Beowulf) saying that if they awarded the prize to a children's book it would be a sign that Britain had "collectively decided not to grow up."

I wonder how far this crosses professions? Teachers at early primary level seem to get less respect than teachers at 'A' level, for example - a fact not unrelated to the gender balance in those two parts of the sector. Do pediatricians get patronized by other doctors? ("Well done you, that bit of stitching was good enough for a grown-up doctor!") It sounds ridiculous, but actually I wouldn't be entirely surprised.

Leila said...

"I think these people have an idea at some unexamined level that children's books are actually written by children."

That would explain a lot! And isn't it strange, when you consider how fast children develop between 0 - 5, for example - pediatricians and primary teachers should get more respect for keeping up with them!

katswhiskers said...

Keep up the REAL writing, Leila. Beaut post. :)

claires inner world said...

Well said, although it's unfortunate that things are this way.

All you have to do is look at the way school and public libraries are having their budgets cut to see how much our society values childrens' literature....

Bonnie J. Doerr said...

Your last line was a winner. Super post!
"If the book is too difficult for grownups, then you write it for children."
Madeleine L'Engle

Rosalind Adam said...

I love that line about the way children 'need to be fed on fresh, vitamin-rich, mouth-wateringly delicious words and sentences.' Brilliant.

catdownunder said...

I have always assumed it is much harder to write for children than adults!

Jan Markley said...

Totally agree with you! It's the last hierarchy. I think children demand good stories and are harder to write for.

Linda Strachan said...

yes, Yes, YES - to all of it!

Stroppy Author said...

Absolutely agree - splendid post, thank you :-)