Sunday, 6 December 2015

When is a child a child? By Cecilia Busby

There's been some interesting discussions recently about what makes a young person a child, and at what age they cease to be a child (not least here on ABBA, in a previous post by David Thorpe, here). It was sparked off by Lynne Reid Bank's complaint that the Guardian Children's Book Prize had gone to a book aimed at 17 year olds - David Almond's book A Song for Ella Grey. (I have to confess that I have not yet got round to reading this, but it's on the shelf by my bed and I'm thoroughly looking forward to diving into it, as it sounds to be a wonderful, moving and beautifully written book.)

The original letter written by Lynne Reid banks is here, and a selection of letters in response is here. The two authors were subsequently interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme, where they amicably expressed their different points of view on what age A Song for Ella Grey is suitable for.

Responses to Banks's intervention tended to focus on her perhaps unfortunate use of the phrase 'lesbian love, swearing and drinking' as evidence that the book was not suitable for 12 yr olds - for many, it appeared that it was 'lesbian' love she objected to, and there was some concern at the notion that it should be considered any different to any other kind of 'love'. As one of the letters to the Guardian pointed out:

some people not yet 12 experience lesbian desire, and/or swear or drink; and others live with older people who drink, swear, and feel no need to hide their lesbianism

More widely, the argument was made that complex, difficult emotions, relationships, and the darker aspects of life are all inevitably part of children's lives (and arguably always have been), so that to place a 'cordon sanitaire' around books dealing with such issues as 'not for children' would be an absurdity. Thus, Piers Torday, defending the Guardian panel's choice, argued:

There is indeed “lesbian love, swearing and drinking” in the first few pages, and that’s no bad thing. Young people today have to make sense of a complex, diverse world of intersecting, layered narratives, available to them on a permanent loop in just a few clicks. Good writing for children will help them navigate adult experience with awareness and understanding.

Twelve is an age that's on the borderlines. It's the age most children go to secondary school, and start to spend significant parts of their day with older teenagers. They often travel to school on their own, and their parents are a less significant part of their lives. They are experiencing independence and worrying about adulthood and the future. As Torday says, they do have to make sense of a complex, diverse world - and one of the ways some children choose to start exploring it is via fiction. So we need those books - they are important to children of that age; they can be, as both Banks and Almond agreed on R4, life-changing; they help young people to experience other possible lives and important ideas and decide how they feel about them.

But responses also acknowledged that Banks had a point - many children's books prizes are being dominated by books for young adults. Almond's book is aimed mostly at teenagers, it is shelved in the YA section of most bookshops, and the kind of 12 year olds that choose to read it will do so because they know that their reading tastes tend towards enjoying those kind of more complex narratives about identity, relationships, the joy and the pain of love. Shelved and aimed at YA as it is, it is unlikely to be bought by any parent or chosen by any child who is 8 or 9. While Banks was universally seen as a little old-fashioned in seeing the content as unsuitable for 12 yr olds, few people would suggest it was a good or appropriate read for 8 or 9 year olds, whose concerns are still strongly focused around school, family and friendships. Which is not to say this age range doesn't need books about big issues - for many children, their fears and hopes about life, death, love are just as strong as for teenagers - but they generally see them in a different context, one dominated by family/friends/small communities rather than independence, the wider world and sexual love. Death for children is worked through in terms of death of parents, beloved pets, or even the loss of cherished toys, rather than through the death of a lover or friend.

At the other end of the age range, it's also the case that many 16, 17 or 18 year olds find themselves beyond reading children's books at all, and turn to adult reads - whether that's complex literary fiction, classics, sci fi, fantasy, historical or romance. They are past the stage of wondering how to negotiate the teenage years, and more concerned to explore what it means to be a proper adult. Or they just want a good, gritty, page-turning crime story, or a book that opens their eyes to alternative universes, and they are happy (as I was, at 16 or 17) to temporarily identify with a drink-raddled male protagonist in their forties.

So, while it can be argued that 'child' is a category that covers all children up to the age of 18, in terms of reading interests there are, it seems to me, quite distinct differences between what we could call the '8-12' bracket (which will include some 6-7 yr olds, some 15 yr olds, some adults, even!) and the 12-18 bracket, which will attract some 11 yr olds, some 25 year olds, some 50 year olds, but not by any means all readers of 16 or 17.

Because of what seem to me these quite distinct differences, I'd actually like to see a separation of these two age brackets in prizes. And it's not only because the younger age range has been recently more overlooked in the prize department - it's also because I think it would free up prize committees from the endless debate about whether or not their choice is 'suitable' for children. How lovely to have a proper, big, no-holds-barred, full-blooded YA prize with no carping whatsoever. And how great to have a focus on the no less skilled but nevertheless very different kind of writing that goes into crafting a great children's story.

Cecilia Busby writes fantasy adventures for children aged 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)


Pippa Goodhart said...

Odd to think of a sixteen year old soldier or mother going to select a book because it is the winner of a prize for 'children's fiction'. Adulthood starting and childhood ending is a long and complex and personal process, and there's never going to be a generalised definition that fits all. Interesting, and important to think about, though.

Sue Bursztynski said...

You can never tell what will win a prize for children's literature. Sonya Hartnett's Sleeping Dogs which was, IMO, anything but a children's book, and had incest in it - not child abuse, as I recall, and it has been a long time since I read it, but brother and sister - was an honour book in the Children's Book Council of Australia award. Melina Marchetta has written some wonderful books which could be shelved with the adult fiction and no one would notice. And so on. It depends on who is doing the judging, I guess.

Dawn Finch said...

I've said elsewhere that prizes only matter to authors, publishers and booksellers - I rarely meet a child who selects a book based on the fact that it won a prize. I remember being on the shortlisting panel for the Carnegie the year that Banks' Broken Bridge was up for it, and there was a lot of heated discussion about the fact that it was "too adult in subject matter" to be selected for a children's book prize! In fact Broken Bridge was a sequel and the partner book has a love affair between two very young children and that too caused a lot of discussion.
That said, book awards for children and young people get attention from the press and get books and reading into mainstream media - and that is a good thing. I'd quite like to see all sorts of prizes, including a specific YA one and maybe a Sci-Fi one and a Horror one too. Both of these genres are largely left out of major book award shortlists due to fierce competition and I'd like to see more lists of all types of books.

Heather Dyer said...

Good points - and I can't help feeling that the younger/middle-grade books get overlooked if lumped in with YA books, because the prizes all seem to go to gritty books about serious issues, and books for younger children can't seem to compete given the 'smaller' scope of a younger child's world (even though a reader's sensibilities and the emotions explored can be just as powerful).

It's like Kate Winslet said in Extras 'I'll never win an Oscar until I do a Holocaust film'. Turned out she was right.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for a thoughtful look at the issues - it seems to me that you make an excellent case for separating awards out into one for YA and one for middle grade.

Emma Barnes said...

Hear, hear! Excellent post.

It's really sad and unnecessary that this whole issue so often turns into a YA vs middle grade fight. It seems to be to the detriment of both kinds of books to insist on judging them against each other.

I don't think the kinds of issues dealt with in middle grade/younger fiction are necessarily simpler by the way - they are just different. There's a temptation to say that issues are more "serious" because they are closer to adult concerns - but the role of a children's book, surely, is to give weight to what a child finds important?

C.J.Busby said...

Thanks. I think that's really what I wanted to say above all - is that both YA and middle-grade are great, important, and aimed at people under 18, so technically children, but do seem to me apples and pears. And that's not entirely to do with subject-matter (although of course explicit sex or drugs are generally off the agenda with middle-grade) and more to do with the focus on family or family substitutes rather than wider world/peers. It's one reason I think all the Harry Potters count as children's rather than YA despite their huge YA/adult readership - Harry's relationship with Ginny is cardboard, the outside world barely exists, and his real orientation is to school, his parents/ parent-substitute teachers and his best friends. Even at the end, it's not really about growing up, despite the rather cack-handed attempt to give Dumbeldore feet of clay - he's still essentially the child, doing what he can to make his parents proud, passing the tests put in front of him, winning the day. It's a classic children's book - and I'm not denigrating it for that, it's a great children's book, and I loved it, as have many other adults! But it's not a book of which you'd ever have to say 'is this really for children?' in a horrified voice... (I mean, yeah, people die, but so they do in Michael Morpurgo - it's the way it's done that's key...)

Nick Green said...

Harder to get noticed for a great children's book, because the greatness is hidden under layers of subtlety. Think of Winnie the Pooh.

Stroppy Author said...

How about - give up on the whole prize thing anyway? It's only a marketing tool. And as Dawn says, the kids don't give a damn. So much energy and time goes into all this prize palaver and the prizes are for such a tiny fraction of the books children actually read. Perhaps the energy would be better spent encouraging children to read a wide and varied selection of books rather than stroking the egos of authors and publishers. Prizes make a bit more sense in adult publishing, but only a tiny bit. Most people still read things for which there is no prize.