Wednesday 7 August 2019

On NOT writing a "Grown-up" book, by Dawn Finch

As I child I grew up in an area where money was generally in short supply and books were luxuries that most could not afford. Thankfully, I was one of the lucky ones; my parents considered books to be essentials, and as a result, I grew up in a house that was full of reading material. On top of this, the local library was one of our most frequent destinations on trips out, and the school library became my playground – I much preferred being there to being outside.
My school library was a gateway to a world beyond the grey walls of my cold and shabby school. It allowed me to step into the worlds of fantasy and wonder. I was never drawn to books based in the real world and had no desire to sink into stories of high-school drama or teen romance. Instead, I craved a world of mystery and the macabre, of science-fiction and imagined wonder. I worked my way through everything that my poorly funded school library offered in the way of children’s books, and then started on works of classic gothic fiction. The librarian would not let me borrow these (she considered me too young) and so I had to return to the library day after day to read through them.
Jumping forward a few years (OK, decades), I finally had a library of my own to run and, needless to say, I ran it a little differently from the freezing mausoleum that I used to frequent. My school library was warm and welcoming, with comfy corners in which to settle with a story. However, that is not the biggest change. I am lucky to be both a writer and a children’s librarian in a new Golden Age of fiction for our younger readers. In the twenty-five years I have worked with children’s books I have watched with glee the rise in the quality of books for younger readers.
The shelves are no longer are full of stories adults consider ’worthy‘. We no longer have to stock library shelves with books that are designed only to teach. Now more than ever, children’s and young adult books are written for enjoyment and pleasure. These books allow younger readers to indulge their own tastes for fiction without the sole purpose being the vehicle of a concealed moral message. There is, however, still a lot of work to be done to make the bookshelves perfect. We are a long way from this new Golden Age shining its apparent glow on children from all backgrounds and walks of life. I still see the lack of BAME writers and illustrators on the shelves of mainstream bookshops and supermarkets, and I still see the domination of so-called “celebrity authors” taking up all the space on the shelves.
I read mainly children’s books, and often feel a bit disappointed by books for adults. Adults will perhaps tolerate a book heavy on unnecessary description and slower-moving dialogue, they might even put up with a few plot holes, but something my long career has taught me is that children will not. If a book is too long-winded on description, or too dialogue-heavy, a child will often skip large chunks to get to the action. Children have the most incredible eye for detail and pick up loose threads in a flash. I’ve heard endless discussions from children about tiny details that had passed me by. They are deeply critical readers who are not afraid to express their opinions. Children’s books need to be able to cut to the quick in a way that brings each scene to life with tight yet detailed descriptions – a hugely challenging task.
Sadly children are also easily influenced by aggressive marketing, which is precisely why publishers do it. To claw back that super-massive advance they have to convince children (and adults) that the books that swamp our shelves are the BEST they have to offer, but that’s all too often far from the truth. We must empower young readers to be critical, and selective, and to put pressure on publishers to not only put out what makes money. To do that we need choice, and we need publishers to acknowledge their duty of responsibility in this. We need more diverse and inclusive publishing practices, and we need a solid investment in both school and public libraries.
Thankfully we are lucky enough to have writers of outstanding calibre seizing that challenge and publishing superb books that create addicted readers. These books will set in place a pattern of reading that will last readers their whole lives, and give them endless pleasure. We have children’s writers and illustrators who deliver work that is scalpel-sharp and diamond bright, and which leaves the reader breathless and hungry for more.
For a librarian this is a joy and for a writer, it is an inspiration. To be a children’s writer these days has never been harder. Money is tight and opportunities few and far between, but still we do it. On top of all of the challenges we face every day we are still asked the inevitable question, “will you write a real book one day?”
But what is more “real” than the books that sculpt and mould the imagination of future generations? What is more “real” than writing books that lay the creative foundation for the people who will eventually be in charge of our whole world?

Dawn Finch is a children's writer, librarian and library activist.


Ann Turnbull said...

Yes! Nothing more to be said, is there? except Yes, again. Thanks for this post, Dawn. I hope it will be widely shared.

Susan Price said...

Dawn, your background sounds like mine, right down to the cash-strapped parents who thought books were a necessity.
And why did people ever think that you could only learn from 'worthy' books and not ones read for entertainment? I learned enormous amounts from the Kipling books I read as a child but I didn't know I was learning. Later, I learned a huge amount of social history from reading my mother's collection of Georgette Heyer and Norah Lofts, but I only read them because I enjoyed them. Almost any book you read will teach you something, even if it's only how not to write a book!

Anne Booth said...

I totally agree. Thank you for all you do.