Posted by Ian
There is much I love about adult fiction. But children’s literature, when done well, has a special quality. Perhaps it’s because the way they are written is different. Writers of adult literature are necessarily trying to impress their peers, outsmart their readers, persuade, convince, question, bombast or express what another adult might understand. In contrast, when writing for children, I think that good authors understand that showing off is unnecessary but that engagement is crucial. Cleverness of the literary or historical kind goes over the heads of the intended audience and is wasted. Storylines are expected to make sense. Having read so little, children are perfectly satisfied – at least initially – with hackneyed tropes and creaky plot mechanisms; so originality is not of the greatest importance. Sympathetic characterisation, to some degree, is essential – imagine if Mary in The Secret Garden had stayed as disagreeable as when she is first encountered, or conversely, the difficulty of trying to recast Süsskind’s Perfume as a children’s novel.
This leads to a puzzle. Given this apparently low literary bar to leap, how do children’s books differ, then, from the simplest kind of adult literary entertainment, which draws from the same bag of tricks? Why are they better – in general – than airport novels or cheap romance?
Presumably this is because there are other, more stringent criteria that must also be satisfied, which lead to a more demanding task for the competent author. When I grew up, I bought books occasionally, but having little money I drew most heavily on school and council libraries, and the choices of my parents. Books in libraries are purchased by adults – so getting a book through the gatekeepers was – and is – of great importance. As for parents, they may buy any old book for themselves because it’s fashionable, but books for their children are subject to greater scrutiny because it’s not just that a book can be a waste of money; a book – in their eyes – can either edify or do damage. Consequently, they rely on badges of quality, on professional assessment, on prizes and good reviews, and on other gatekeepers such as school librarians. Anyone in the industry knows that this is so, though we live in interesting times. Things may change as some gatekeepers disappear, and others arise. The loss of dedicated school and council librarians and paid professional reviewers is surely a concern. Perhaps AI will take over…
So children’s books must be thoroughly assessed by adults before they can land in the hands of their intended audience. Adults use very different criteria for assessment to children, even when they know that children are the ultimate audience. Adults want children’s books to be edifying, educational and – only then – entertaining. Furthermore, for school and council libraries, public money is being spent, so quality is assessed with a different kind of objectivity – usually by librarians or reviewers, who are themselves in the writing or educational trade, with an eye to their professional peers. Also, the political correctness de jour invariably leaves its mark on choices at every stage, from the writing and acceptance of a manuscript to the shelf position in the bookstore. Finally, while they might disavow it, I suspect that adult gatekeepers are also much more likely to approve a book which both appeals aesthetically and entertains them – surely the secret to the success of Harry Potter. Perhaps there is one more secret. People who write for children know – Harry Potter aside – that there is very little chance that they will become wealthy as a result. Children’s books do not yield the steady income of a Mills and Boon series, nor the stellar exposure of a Stephen King. Publishers may but very few children’s authors actually do become wealthy. At least partly then, they write for love and acclaim and not money. While love of the genre cannot replace talent and training, it provides, at least, a motivation for quality. And at best, it results in books which are truly classic in the sense that despite the inevitable clues to their age, they stand the test of time.
I believe that this layer of adult scrutiny can be both stultifying and distorting. The stiff competition for prizes, the occurrence of small and incestuous circles of judges and reviewers, and the apparently irresistable tendencies to tout the moralism of the day have always dogged children’s literature and continue to do so. Nonetheless, this critical scrutiny does result in books which we can read with pleasure many years after we first encounter them.
Classic books emerge from every decade, in every class of writing, though every decade has its dross. But I must admit that given a random selection of books from the 1970s, I would rather take my chances rereading one of the children’s books than one of the corresponding adult novels.
Care to offer some examples?