Sunday, 8 December 2013

Is it because I'm a children's writer? by Keren David

It's been a trying time for children's writers in the UK.
Multiple Mary Poppins at the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony
First, the Times sacked its children's books reviewer Amanda Craig, sparking a huge protest from the many writers and librarians who value her deep knowledge of children's literature.
Then the University of Kent promoted its MA in creative writing with a blurb that seemed to diss children's writing, and Jonathan Myerson who runs the MA in creative writing at City University, weighed in with his views in The Guardian. 
The BBC's Front Row discussed the Costa Book Awards with - as every year -  an embarrassed lack of information about the children's shortlist.  And on Women's Hour, Jenni Murray, interviewing Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney said: 'JK Rowling is now trying to write proper books for grown-ups. Are you tempted that way?"
There are crumbs of comfort. The Times has promised to continue reviewing children's books every week, Amanda Craig will surely find other places to review and discuss children's books. The University of Kent made themselves look stupid, and Jonathan Myerson's article could not have been more troll-like if he'd hidden under a bridge looking out for passing goats.   Most prospective MA students would have been put off studying at Kent or City, and those that aren't are unlikely to prove to be competition with agents, publishers or readers. If Jenni Murray had not used the words 'trying' or 'proper', her question would not have felt quite so offensive, and Women's Hour has a good record for featuring children's literature generally, recently interviewing Sally Nicholls about her new book.
But Front Row's continuing ignorance depresses me most, partly because I am such a big fan (and indeed one of my ambitions is to be invited onto the programme to discuss my work....sigh...) Year after year its erudite, cultured guests fail to have read the shortlisted children's books. They don't even pretend to know anything about them. They probably don't even know the winner of the Carnegie Medal, or even what the Carnegie Medal signifies.
I saw a Facebook thread this week in which an adult asked for suggestions for books to buy for Christmas presents for children aged 14 and 10. The recommendations were like a reading list from 1975 - The Silver Sword, A Wrinkle in Time, Alan Garner, Philippa Pearce. Wonderful books by talented authors, but it was very clear that most of those responding had not read a book for older children since they left their teens themselves.
So why is it that otherwise cultured and well read people do not read contemporary children's literature in the UK? Why is it acceptable to be ignorant about children's literature?
I think it has a lot to do with the way we think about childhood itself, and how we educate our children into adulthood. I remember secondary school education  as a grim, dull process almost completely lacking in the creativity, humour and quirkiness which abounded at my primary school. I also remember realising with dismay that a love for children's books was a childish pleasure that I would have to put aside in public. It was good to read classics, it was acceptable to read Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer, it was not right for a girl of 13 or 14 to climb up the steps to the children's section of the library. The feeling of embarrassment associated with liking children's books lingered for years - how happy was I to have my own children and  -  at last -  an 'excuse' to interest myself in children's books again.
Twice in the last few years I have felt that children's literature is valued and respected in our society. Once at the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. The other was the children's literature section of the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. On both occasions I felt proud, moved, excited to be a little part of children's literature in the UK.
So, why doesn't that happen more often? Why do some people seem to take pride in feeling exactly the opposite? Why do some people feel the need to proclaim their distance from children's books - like a homophobe who protests just a little too much? And what can we do to change things?

24 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

It isn't only in the UK. People do tend to ask you if you're planning to write a proper adult book. And here in Australia, since principals were given control over their budgets, schools are gradually getting rid of their teacher librarians and sometimes even their libraries! It's cheaper. When you have to make a decision about where to make cuts, library is always first.

But at least you still have your Children's Laureate, which suggests a respect for children's books. We have only just started to have them here, thank heaven!

catdownunder said...

And I have to agree with Sue. We are losing more school library facilities at the end of the year and I was publicly criticised in the media this week for suggesting that children should be reading fiction at all. Apparently I am thinking "last century" and that present day children do not need to read to books.
I have deliberately collected earlier children's books so that children can read them if they want to - but when I look for birthday presents I look for what has been recently published!

Dave Cousins said...

I suspect that the majority of people who dismiss children's books haven't read any since they were children themselves. If they had, they would realise that some of the best, most relevant and thought provoking writing can be found on the children's, teen and young adult shelves in bookshops and libraries.

Stroppy Author said...

A great post, Keren. But it's not really surprising that people (as in adult people) don't read children's books. They would mostly be doing so to keep themselves informed - and how many people bother to keep themselves informed about anything other than their direct interests? It would be great if those with children, at least, read what their children read so that they could talk to them about it, but they don't. Up to a point, it's fair. Why would the average non-parent want to read all the volumes of Diary of Wimpy Kid or Horrid Henry? Though I agree absolutely that those working in the book and reviewing industries should read them.

What everyone should not do is assume that because they read children's books as a child they are therefor sufficiently well-informed to comment on them now, or to recommend them.

The perversity of revelling in ignorance as though it's a badge of superior intellectual capacity also applies to all those people who seem to be proud that they don't understand (or can't be bothered to learn) maths or science. It doesn't make you more cultured not to know how the world works, or not to know what children read. It just makes you narrow-minded and ignorant.

Charlotte said...

I have found as I have got older I read more books aimed at children than I do those aimed at adults. I know I could argue that I read them as I need to for my job (primary teacher). But that is not the reason I do. I find the craft and ability needed to write a good children's book is equal to that needed to craft a good short story. Both are harder than people think and both are awful if the writer loses their grip on the form. Ironic that the 90-s growth in children's books (the JK Rowling effect if you will) was one of the saviours of the publishing industry. The executives of the big houses should be ashamed as for some these books bankrolled vanity publishing.
How else do these people expect us to inculcate a love of reading (that will ensure a future generation of adult readers) if not with well crafted and interesting children's books.

Jackie Marchant said...

Er no, I think I'll carry on writing proper children's books, until I feel I no longer have the skill. Then I may switch to writing for adults for a bit of respite.

Jane McLoughlin said...

Excellent post. I think we should cut the general public some slack, though. Most people would also know little about books written for adults, other than those that make huge waves and sell gazillions. There's no excuse for critics, journalists or self-appointed "experts" whose job it is to celebrate books and good writing for all ages.

Jane McLoughlin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel Ward said...

Although I didn't like the snobbery of the Uni of Kent piece,(well, actually I sort of enjoyed it because it was so wonderfully horrid), I'm not up in arms about adults generally not knowing much about contemporary children's books. I don't know much about kid's films or TV programmes now that my kids have grown up. It's only because I'm a YA author that I've come to read other YA books. I'm glad that I do, because I enjoy them as much, sometimes more, than books aimed at adults, so maybe alot of people are missing out on books that they would enjoy. But that's a marketing issue or, rather, lost opportunity, isn't it?
I do agree, however, that professional book reviewers/commentators should know about children's literature. The annual Front Row Costa coverage is a bit frustrating.

Catherine Butler said...

I heard that Front Row too, Keren - it left me fuming. If you're hosting (or guesting on) a programme where you're reviewing the Costa shortlist, you've no business not to have read the books concerned. If you're incompetent to talk about them, don't make a virtue of your ignorance; just stand aside and let someone who knows what they're talking about do the job instead. It's not as if there aren't plenty of articulate people able to talk about children's books. (I hear Amanda Craig is free, for one - but there are many more besides.)

Lucy Coats said...

Thank you, Keren. All that needs saying is said here. I just wish the likes of Myerson, the Uni of Kent and the people at Front Row would read it. But of course, they won't. It's on a children's literature blog.

Charlotte Guillain said...

Have just tweeted Front Row with the link to this blog. Maybe they'll read it?

Pippa Goodhart said...

Isn't it true that 25% of book sales in this country are now of children's books, so, on that commercial count alone, they SHOULD be taken seriously.

C.J.Busby said...

Absolutely agree with everything that's been said and it's a great post, Keren. It is true that children's books are a backbone of publishing commercially and the only area with growth at the moment so it is incredibly frustrating that so many professionals seem to feel they can get by not really engaging with them seriously. I also think critics often seem to judge children's books on whether they, as adult readers with tastes informed by adult literary fiction, like them or not, rather than how they work for children. And so inevitably, the upper end YA books dominate the discussions and reviews and prizes.

sensibilia said...

You mentioned NT production of "Curious Incident". Surely "Warhorse" has had an even greater impact, bringing the wonderful Michael Morpurgo to the public notice.
And what about "Hunger Games"?

Enid Richemont said...

I really fell in love with good children's literature when I was reading aloud to my children, and I've never since fallen out of love with it. The sheer poetry and disclipline involved in writing a perfect picture book is impressive.

I've been a children's author since 1990, and have requently been the target of the 'when do start writing proper books?' variety. I booked a much-needed massage for myself recently, and when the masseuse saw my profession as 'children's author', she exclaimed: 'Oh that must be such fun!' I had to correct her - 'fun' it isn't - it's bloody hard, challenging WORK! - but she didn't really get it. 'Well, lighthearted,' she said, of books that have often reduced me to tears. I gave up.

Emma Barnes said...

Some great points here. I'd echo those who point to the lack of librarians in schools (virtually none at all in UK primary schools), and of course we all know the current threat to the public libraries, so now there are very few specialist children's librarian's. Add to that the fact that teachers in UK primaries have no real incentive to be up-to-date in current children's books - it is not part of their training - and you end up with a situation where there is simply no longer a strong, expert community of people in the UK who have a real shared interest and role in looking at, discussing and assessing chldren's books. The necessary infrastructure is no longer there.

Without such a community, I think it is really hard for information about new books to filter though to other potentially interested adults - such as parents and the media. Of course, there are individual teachers, parents, bloggers, journalists, who are deeply interested, but they start to feel very lonely I suspect...

Sean Cummings said...

Here, here!

Miriam Halahmy said...

What I simply don't understand is this - do they want our children to read sub-standard books, written by people who have not taken a pride to hone their craft to the nth degree, before these same children move along the spectrum ( which is all it is) to reading so-called adult books?? Great post Keren and great comments. Important thread and I'm sure they'll have you on all thoes programmed one day soon!

Keren David said...

So many interesting comments, thanks everyone. Science is an interesting comparison, Stroppy. Yes, some people flaunt their ignorance, but in broadsheet newspapers and on Radio Four (if not television so much) there is coverage, sections, articles, programmes. You would not find a broadsheet sacking its science correspondent as The Times has dispensed with its children's book critic (at least I hope you would not). Children's Lit is disappearing from mainstream media, at best treated as a minority interest. In sporting terms we're like netball - played by many, ignored by most.

Keren David said...

There ARE not is. Sorry!

julia jones said...

Fortunately there are still many adult READERS who do buy children's books for their own pleasure (cf Charlotte above) - it's just the literati who present the problem, gate-keeping their private patches as usual. And the strict categorising in the book data systems doesn't help either. I'm about to re-publish Jan Needle's great Wild Wood (totally grown up Wind in the Willows) ... but where should it GO?

Hedgehog Bookshop, Penrith said...

My experience here in the bookshop is that people take quite a bit of care choosing the right book for the right child, they do value them and are very conscious of quality of illustration etc. The proliferation of high quality children's literature blogs must surely indicate to these media people that this is an Such a shame that they fail to recognize this.

Maria Gill said...

We have the same problem in New Zealand. When international best selling author Margaret Mahy died last year the media (and the literary) said she had been 'up there' with adult author Katherine Mansfield. Actually Katherine Mansfield's books were never sold into many countries and she never won any international awards. Margaret had won all the big ones: Carnegie Medal twice, Hans Christian Andersen Award, etc. We were quite furious with that. When NZ was guest of honour at Frankfurt 80 authors were invited - only four of those were children's authors/illustrators - and Frankfurt was having an emphasis on children's books. There's another focus on NZ and Australian books at a festival in London next year - and two NZ children's authors happen to be in the vicinity so they're going (one had to ask) - the rest will be adult authors.
We don't have a children's laureate but we've started the process of getting it happening. It seems to be a slow process of conscious raising that we're not a genre of 'adult' books - and the readers of children's books are the book buyers of the future - so don't diss their books!