Friday, 13 July 2012

Adults Rule. Children Read.

I've been thinking a lot about curation in children's books this week. By and large, it's adults who write, edit, publish, promote, shortlist and give prizes to children's books. We also buy a lot of them for our children, but most adults don't actually read them. Of course, this is a generalisation, because there are clearly plenty of adults reading Twilight and The Hunger Games and I have met loads of authors and publishing people who love children's books and promote them at every opportunity. But it's no secret that kids' books are often looked down on by the adult literary world.

As an adult children's writer, I'm obviously not going to sit here and say that I think this curation is a bad thing. Life experience is a key part of being a writer and there is an inevitable urge that strikes adults – especially in middle age – to share their knowledge with the world. Despite some attempts by American publishers to drum up some publicity by signing authors in their late teens and early twenties, writing remains a pastime open to all of us – no matter how old or ugly we have become. Meg Rosoff (who is neither particularly old nor particularly ugly) wrote a great post a couple of years ago about achieving fame later in life and the benefits thereof.

The downside of the adult stranglehold on the book process is the difficulty of reaching any actual children with your work. Apart from a few experiments and the odd (rare) focus group, the target audience won't get to see a book until it's actually published. Which means that everyone in the publishing pipeline is mostly working on gut instinct of what books will connect with the reading demographic and how the books should be marketed to reach them. You can tell an agent that your child loved your book until you're blue in the face, but you're unlikely to get anywhere unless the agent loves your book too.

A further problem comes from some of the major book awards - such as the CILIP Carnegie - which are judged by adults. Yes, there are reader initiatives like the Carnegie shadowing and lots of regional awards that are chosen by children. But the big prizes in children's literature are still considered too important to put to the popular vote.

I was having dinner with a very experienced author friend of mine recently, and our conversation came round to A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which had recently won the Carnegie and the Kate Greenaway prizes. She expressed the view that there was something self-congratulatory in this selection, that here was a book that adults had chosen because it was what they thought children should be reading, rather than being a book that children actually liked. This was partly borne out by the fact that the Carnegie shadowing groups actually chose My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece as their winner.

At this point, I should probably admit to having my own reservations about A Monster Calls. It's not a quality issue – I think the artwork is amazing and the story is incredibly well constructed and modulated, with some challenging themes and an unflinching approach to the subject. But I found that the book didn't really connect with me emotionally in the way I wanted (and needed) it to. Having had a similar experience with a loss of a close relative to cancer when I was a child, I hoped for so much more. But maybe that's just me.

There's been a recent article in the Guardian about a study purporting to expose the "harsh reality" of modern children's books, that was picked up by Vanessa Harbour's blog amongst others. But this study only looked at books selected by adult judging panels for the Carnegie Award, Newberry Medal and Australian Book of the Year. This is a tiny sample of all the books published for and enjoyed by children every year. True, the study was intended to be academic and literary, but to my mind the sample chosen was biased and, as usual, the findings have been blown way out of proportion.

Adults rule supreme over so many aspects of children's lives, and children's books are no exception, a culture that comes down from teachers, parents and librarians. It's a culture that I hope – in general – is fairly benign. But we should never forget that we have a real responsibility, not just for the welfare of young readers, but also to guide them towards what they want, rather than what we think they need.



  1. Hi, Nick. Got to wade in on behalf of school libarians here. They are the true gatekeepers, it seems to me...they want to nurture the love of reading in young people and the ones I know only want to match books to the reader's age, abilit and, most imporantly, ability.

    1. I didn't mean to sound down on librarians in this post - they have enough problems without me dissing them!

  2. A really thoughtful post, Nick. Not sure how else the industry could be, but I definitely agree with you, especially when it comes to prize selection. I also found a lot to admire in A Monster Calls (especially the package and the artwork!), but found the story didn't move me as I expected. Perhaps I'm just heartless, though. Or perhaps we both are. ;)

  3. Agree with most of what you say but Cilip makes no bones about the Carnegie prize being a librarian's choice, not a choice for children. Personally I loved A Monster Calls - not just because of the writing but I applaud the vision of the publisher in combining illustration with text and creating a valuable object in a time when fiction is going disposable/digital.

    1. No complaints from me about the object - I'm glad to have a copy even though I didn't like the story (especially as I got mine signed by Patrick Ness)

      I see your point of view on this - perhaps it's enough just to celebrate aspiration in children's literature in a time of recession?

  4. You forgot to say that A Monster Calls won the Red House Award, which is voted on by kids. I think it has also won a number of the regional kids' awards.