Friday, 6 June 2014

How do we judge quality in children's books?

By Cecilia Busby

There are a couple of things recently that have made me think about how we judge quality in children's books. One was the rather interesting discussion about kids reading 'trash', started by Clementine Beauvais on ABBA and continued in other places for a few weeks afterwards. The other is my decision this year to try to read all the Carnegie shortlisted books. Both have made me think about how we judge what is good in children's literature.

The Carnegie Book Prize is probably the best known and most prestigious prize awarded to children’s books in the UK – it’s effectively the Booker for children. It generates a great deal of interest, a lot of attention for the shortlist of nominated books, and it’s a brilliant show-piece for the best in children’s writing.
A couple of years ago, my son’s school, like many across the country, took part in a Carnegie shadowing event – children at the school read the shortlisted books and then met to discuss and vote for their own favourites. It was the occasion of his most epic reading challenge ever: with only a week to go before the vote, he read the entire Chaos Walking trilogy, as he didn’t want to just read Monsters of Men on its own.

This year, I thought I’d do a little Carnegie shadowing of my own, wondering if it would be worth doing something similar with the primary school where I am Patron of Reading.  Normally, Carnegie shadowing is done by secondary schools, and when I looked at the shortlist, I realised why. I was struck by just how dark the themes were, and how many of the books were for older readers. Of the eight books, three are designated 14+, four 11+ and only one 9+. Only one of these books, then, sits firmly in the classic 9–12 age range. The others are aimed at secondary school readers: either 11–14, or 14–17. In the descriptions, the words that caught my eye were ‘trauma victim’, ‘difficult’ or ‘bleak’ circumstances, ‘a brave book that pulls no punches’, ‘unimaginable terror’, ‘shocking brutality of war’, ‘abusive, alcoholic partner’, ‘dysfunctional family dynamics’, ‘brutal act of cruelty’, ‘political tension’, and ‘family conflicts’. Only two of the books, Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers and Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy (the 9–12 book), appear to have a more light-hearted element.

Maybe this is just about the periodic shifts in what is ‘of the moment’ in children’s literature, or maybe just coincidentally the best of the books published this year have tended towards an older age range and a dark strand of realism. But the shortlist chimed for me with a growing sense that children’s book prizes, like children’s book reviews, tend to favour the more ‘literary’ end of writing, and particularly the older, more adult books. Is this because their quality, as children's literature, is better? Curious, I went to find the criteria for the Carnegie nominations, to see what these judgements were based on.

The criteria are here, and they make interesting reading. There is no mention of the world ‘children’ anywhere, except in terms of eligibility: nominations must be for children’s books. In the main criteria, it is emphasised that the book should be ‘of outstanding literary quality’, and the specifications for this relate to plot, character, and literary style. The list could just as easily be applied to an adult novel.

Children’s writers, even those for young children, use and display fantastic skills in plot, character and style – but it’s important, I think, to specify that these are being assessed in relation to child readers. Because the skill to engage a child reader may involve certain linguistic tricks, certain exaggerations of character, certain simplifications of plot, that would not necessarily work in a novel for older readers or adults, and that can, at first glance, seem less, well, less ‘literary’. Not always, of course, and indeed, one of the younger age-range books on the Carnegie shortlist, Rooftoppers, is full of astonishingly inventive imagery. But is this what makes it a great children's book?

If we make 'literary' writing the main criteria for judging quality then in effect we are judging children's books in the same way we judge adult books. This seems reasonable for the older teenage books: a literate fourteen year old is, in essence, an adult reader. Their interests, in terms of subject matter, may be different, but their ‘reading’ skills are sufficient for the deployment of the full range of adult literary styles and tricks of plotting and language.

The Carnegie judges are skilled and established children’s librarians, so it’s likely that the panel do consider these elements in relation to the age of the reader. But I wonder if the often dazzling language effects and narrative innovations that writers for older teens can utilise inevitably appear to fulfil Carnegie criteria to a higher degree than the simpler (though no less well-judged) effects used by writers for the younger age range. I wonder if the more hard-hitting and controversial subject matter that can be delved into in a teen book inevitably makes the lighter touch needed for young readers appear to be lacking in intensity by comparison. Looking at the last ten to fifteen years of the Carnegie would seem to confirm that it’s the teen books and ‘difficult’ subjects that predominate, with only a couple of winners that would not be considered YA.

I have no objection to the Carnegie celebrating the best that older teen fiction has to offer, and such books can be reasonably judged on adult literary criteria. But what if we want to celebrate the best in classic childrens books, the 9–12 (middle-grade) books? This, after all, is the age when children most fully engage with books, the age when they love them with an intensity I don’t think you ever truly find again. Books that spark that kind of love deserve to be lauded. Maybe it's time for two Carnegie Prizes - for young adult and for children's books.

If we want to celebrate these books for younger readers, though, do we need different criteria? Should we acknowledge that they simply can’t be judged by (or only by) standard ‘literary’ criteria, that these don’t fit with the way children (as opposed to teenagers) read books? Perhaps so, but then  how do we judge them? That's a trickier matter. Drawing on my own experience of the books I fell in love with as a child, I would like to suggest some criteria for judging quality in children's fiction.

1. Is a child who reads this book likely to put it down with a sigh at the end and say, “That’s the best book I ever read’?

2. Would a child who read this book want to immediately read the next book in the series, or make a note of the author and find everything they’ve ever written?

3. Is the book likely to make its child readers laugh out loud, and/or cry, without it necessarily being a wholly ‘funny’ or wholly ‘sad’ book? (Both require skill and judgement, although personally I think making them laugh is harder. But both show that the reader’s emotions are fully engaged.)

4. Is a child reader likely to be so absorbed by the story in this book so that by the end they don’t want to eat, sleep or engage with the outside world until they’ve finished it and found out what happens?

5. Are there characters in the book that will be so fiercely loved by many of the children that read it that they would give anything to walk around the corner and find them walking the other way?

6. Are these characters and the world they live in so loved by the child reader that they are likely to feel bereft when the book is over, and more than half inclined to read the whole book again from the beginning, just to keep those characters alive a little longer in their heads?

Of course, these criteria are subjective. They also rely on an adult making judgements based on their own memory of being a child reader, based on talking to children, based on their experience of children's likes and dislikes. But all judgments (including literary ones) are subjective - and these are at least very different questions to ask of a book than ones about the deployment of style, narrative, characterisation and language (although all these things contribute to the end effects I’m talking about). They are first and foremost questions about the heart and soul of the book, and its effect on child (not adult) readers.

Perhaps, if these had been the criteria over the last decade, the Carnegie winners would still have been the same books. Perhaps it doesn’t make a difference. What do you think? I am certain that the Carnegie winners over the last years have been great books. I am less certain about whether they have been great children’s books.

Cecilia Busby writes fantasy adventures for 7+ as C.J. Busby. Her new book, DEEP AMBER, is aimed at age 8-10, published with Templar.
Twitter @ceciliabusby


Penny Dolan said...

I have heard that one of the reasons why many regional Children & Young People's library groups set up their often less-publicised Awards was in response to the points you make about 9-12 year old readers. Good post.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog post quite refreshing to read. As if you've dared to say what we've all been privately thinking. I'm a Children's and Youth Librarian and I run four book groups in local secondary schools where, each year, we've shadowed the Carnegie and each year it's the same. The kids come in to the first meeting enthusistic and excited. I show them the books and their faces often fall. I explain that these books may not be what they normally read but, if they just try them it will really be worth the effort. The books will be moving and inspiring. I genuinely want the to try. However this is rarely the case. In most groups the numbers drop off, the kids hand the books back with an apology that 'it wasn't my kind of book'. there will often be one or two books that catch their imagination and when they do I'm so thrilled. But after years of this I've decided to scale down the Carnegie Shadowing. I still offer them the books for a couple of weeks but then we move on to things they actualkly want to read. And the books? They go back into library stock and often, sadly, they don't issue very well. One library assistant even joked about the Carnegie Curse. "If you put that sticker on that book it'll never go out again". She wasn't wrong.

Stroppy Author said...

Intersting questions. Personally, I think that as the Carnegie sets out its stall clearly and sticks to its plan, that's fine. It would be nice to have other prizes with other criteria - but there are other prizes, some judged by children. I feel asking the Carnegie to be something else is rather like entering a tennis competition and being cross that you can't play badminton.

I had children who loved literary fiction Carnegie-style. There is nothing wrong with having a prize for that style of book, any more than there is anything wrong with having the Greenaway for picture books or the Roald Dahl Funny Prize for funny books. Is there?

Elen C said...

I'm inclined to agree with Stroppy. I've been reading with a shadowing group this year. We made the decision to only read the 9+ and 11+ books. This reduced the pile to a more manageable 5 books. They will stretch the readers, but they are meant to. Not all children will love them, but they might try something they wouldn't have tried otherwise.
If you do want to shadow a prize with a primary school, the Red House is a nice one to choose. If you register then the children's votes will count towards the winner too.

Pippa Goodhart said...

A really interesting post. I agree that the Carnegie, maybe due to the way it was worded back in the day when there simply wasn't YA fiction as we know it today so it probably assumed it was referring to books for that more childish age, now misses important books for children.

C.J.Busby said...

I'm not saying that I want the Carnegie to be populist, and complaining that it's literary - nor do I want it to be about books that don't stretch and challenge children necessarily. It's a different question. I don't want it reduced to 'Carnegie books are too difficult/bleak for most kids'... It's a genuine question about what makes for quality in children's fiction? Is it at the sentence/narrative structure level? And if it's there, then can its success/quality be measured on the same yardstick as adult literature? Or do we have to think of different ways to measure it? For example, Diana Wynne Jones stretches children, and inspires them, and she's fantastically inventive and funny - she has that quality I'd say my criteria are aimed at - that you want to read the book all over again as soon as you've finished. But is it literary quality judged exactly as you would an adult book that makes her books so compelling for children?

Amanda Lillywhite said...

A thought provoking post and very interesting to read the comments it inspired. Whatever your viewpoint it is important, I think, to consider what these awards represent and why they are given to particular books - to see them in context. I must admit that I have not done that in the past.

Andrew Preston said...

I believe that Carnegie-shadowing is not a particularly healthy activity for schoolkids. As awards are basically just commercial activities, shadowing seems to be a bowing and scraping in front of publishers.

Lucy Coats said...

Very thought-provoking, Cecilia, and I find the comment from the anon librarian above most interesting. I do think these things go in cycles. As far as 'dark subject matter' is concerned, well, life is quite dark for many teenagers. But that's not your main point. As an adult, and especially since I have been teaching a 'how to write for children' class, I find it much harder to read children's books (in fact all books) without a critical eye - ie to read them purely for pleasure, as a child would, and as I used to. Does that get in the way of my ability to judge whether a child would get into a particular book? Perhaps it does. However, if I find myself so drawn in that the critical eye fades into the background - that's when I know I've found a winner. I'm usually right - but not always. There are many brilliant books for kids which never get a look in on the prize lists, for many reasons - but the cream does usually rise to the top somewhere, even if not on the Carnegie.

C.J.Busby said...

That's a great way of nailing what I'm trying to say, Lucy - being so drawn in that your critical eye fades into the background!

Lesley said...

Carnegie is ONE award amongst many for children's books. As you say has strict criteria - which are regularly re-examined - and those criteria are for literary quaility, which is surely the same whether the book is aimed at children or not. Carnegie judges judge according to the criteria and read each nominated book (nominated by other librarians by the way, not publishers) at least 3 times. It is amazing how that book which drew you in so your "critical eye fades into the background" does not stand up to repeated re-reading according to the criteria. As an award primarily for literary quality, it may not necessarily reflect what most children would pick up, in the same way that the ManBooker does not reflect what is on the best sellers list.. There are also many fewer books for younger children nominated,. A glance at the Shadowing website shows that thousands of children engage with the shortlisted books. If Anonymous librarian doesn't find Carnegie Shadowing works with her groups, then fine - follow one of the many other awards instead, which use criteria more like those Cecilia suggests.

Nick Green said...

Excellent points, CJ. It's very easy to seem 'literary' when you can use lots of long words and complicated sentences and explore dark and traumatic themes. It's orders of magnitude harder to write something of crystalline perfection for younger readers such as 'Charlotte's Web'.

It's also much harder to be funny than it is to be serious. Humour is one of the latest developing facilities of the brain (kids don't really understand jokes till they are 8 or so, and only simple ones at that), which suggests that humour is the most sophisticated form of writing, to some extent.

I would much rather reward books that made children cry with laughter, than those that give them grey hairs at the age of 12. (My own books are sadly in the latter category, but there you go.)

Emma Barnes said...

I wonder if part of the problem is that there are far more librarians working in secondary schools than in primary schools - in fact, sadly there are hardly any librarians in primary schools - so inevitably librarians tend to be more aware of what older children might read?

Another reason for having more librarians for younger children! - the most important being that they would actually help primary age children to find the books they love!

I'm also dubious of this idea that "literary merit" requires dark themes. I think prize-givers for both adults and children make this assumption, that grim subject matter implies an "important" book. It's a shame if that means teenagers are being turned off the prize lists, as anonymous librarian implies, by so many sombre titles. And that the merits of other kinds of fiction are overlooked.

(By the way, CJ, Diana Wynne Jones has a big following amongst adult readers - far more so than many children's authors. I don't think that's why she missed out on the prizes. More likely because she wrote "funny fantasy".)

mcgon2611 said...

Brilliant, thought provoking post. Especially interesting to me as an aspiring writer of children's fiction. Your possible criteria actually brought a lump to my throat and a yearning for that magical feeling of being a child so absorbed in a book that you almost live it as you read. I'm hugely enjoying seeing my daughter similarly absorbed. That's the kind of fiction I want to write!

C.J.Busby said...

Carnegie is one among many, but it's the one that claims to celebrate 'quality' in children's writing. As Lesley says, it's the Man Booker of kids lit. My point is not that we replace the Man Booker with the bestseller list, but that, like Nick, I don't actually think quality in children's writing IS the same thing as literary quality in adult books. Or at least, I'm posing the question, is it?

David Thorpe said...

A related question is: does the existence of awards with certain criteria like the Carnegie provide a motive for authors to write books which fit these criteria? In which case, they may be losing sight of their main audience - the children, rather than the judges. As much as I'd like to think of myself as a 'literary' writer, I'd actually rather that my readers were inspired and absorbed - this is not a mutually exclusive pair of sets of course. However, the comment by the Children's and Youth Librarian reveals that unless you can successfully engage many eager readers from the start, any literary merits your work has will pass them by. Hitting the magic double targets of 'popular' and 'quality' is a challenge (compare the prose style of Malorie Blackman and Phillip Pullman), but I'm glad the Carnegie is there to raise the bar.

C.J.Busby said...

Not quite sure what you mean about Blackman and Pullman - would you say Pullman's style is more 'literary'? I think both are terrific children's writers, myself, but for reasons that aren't to do with style particularly.

Chris Routh said...

Timely blog from my point of view as we are just planning sessions for our A2 Creative Writers which might include a session on reviewing, judging, book awards etc. Our school book clubs always start judging or shadowing any award with a discussion about the criteria that matter to them. The Red House Children's Book Award is entirely the result of children's recommendations, reviewing and voting - and provides an insight into what they most enjoy reading. Local awards are similar, generally revealing the most popular titles at the time. Carnegie lists have been criticised for being 'too old' or 'worthy' - which is often true. But each year is different and there is always something I haven't come across or considered before. We don't always shadow - depends on the list. This year we've split the list to suit different ages - ranging from Y7 - Y12! Everyone involved has something they've enjoyed. Reading for pleasure is the main thing. But Carnegie does not serve
less experienced readers very well, which is a pity. Don't understand why they can't introduce a 'middle' category.

Stroppy Author said...

I don't think it is fair to equate literary with difficult style and dark themes - in adults' or children's books. Some literary texts have spare, clear prose that is not at all hard to read. Kurt Vonnegut is literary, but not hard to read (in terms of style), for example. There are plenty of literary writers for whom the mark of success was to produce 'writing like water' - something so translucent you don't notice the words. To use long words, complex syntax and arcane imagery just to be 'literary' is really just to be ostentatious or pretentious - it gives 'literary' a bad name.

Siwan Rosser said...

A fascinating discussion, and I thought it would be of interest to know that the prize for Welsh-language books for children, the Tir na Nog prize, is split in two. One prize for books aimed at primary school aged children, and the other for secondary. It's still difficult for books for very young readers to compete on a literary basis, but this separation does acknowledge the different levels of sophistication in children's and young adult literature.