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.