This post was first published in June 2011, but it’s as relevant as the day I wrote it. Just this weekend, in fact, I read a review which described Neil Gaiman‘s Fortunately, The Milk, as being for ‘the younger end of the YA readership’. Um, no. That would be CHILDREN. Remember them? They’re not mini-teenagers. They’re children and so there are children’s books and let us not forget it. Anyway, here’s my rant from 2 years ago. Consider it current.
I first used this phrase (Whither the Children’s Book?) in my blog post about this year’s (2011) Sydney Writers’ Festival in context of the panel I chaired on the young adult/adult cross-over novel that was, rather ironically I thought, called “When is a children’s book not a children’s book” (ironic, because it wasn’t about children’s books at all). This is what I wrote:
given the title, I also brought in the question of Whither the
Children’s Book in a world when YA and the cross-over gets all the attention
but to be honest, we didn’t really answer the question. I think, from memory, we all kind of agreed that children’s books don’t get much attention and then moved on to questions.
Because not a lot seems to be about the children’s book, these days. The children’s novel, to be precise. YA gets vastly more of the blog space, media attention and arguably, reviews—although the picture book probably gets a fair bit of review space as well (and Shaun Tan’s done a hell of a lot to make the picture book an acceptable topic of conversation in adult society). And increasingly, I’ve noticed that when a children’s novel does get critical attention, it’s suddenly claimed as being young adult.
It happened to The Graveyard Book. It happened to When You Reach Me. And these are both classics examples of children’s literature, as far as I am concerned. I’ve argued the toss on this online and elsewhere, especially about The Graveyard Book, which people seem to want to claim as YA primarily, I think, because it deals with death and because of the extremely scary opening scene where the family is murdered (oh shut up, that’s not a spoiler). My argument about The Graveyard Book is this: it ends at the point where most YA takes up: Bod has to leave the graveyard to find his agency, and we don’t get to see that process. The rest of the novel—Bod finding who he is in the context of the only family he knows, through adventures that are often perilous, coupled with the exploration of friendship—is the classic stuff of the children’s novel.
The claim for When You Reach Me as YA puzzles me even more. Thematically, it shares nothing in common with the typical YA novel, but is firmly in the tradition of the great children’s novels—Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time. Andre Norton‘s Octagon Magic springs to mind for some reason. I’m also thinking of The Game of the Goose and the lesser known The Games Board Map—children’s novels with a puzzle to be solved at the heart. There’s no subtext of the achieving of subjectivity, such a classic feature of the YA novel. These are all novels about children, with the concerns of children at their heart—friendship and family and belonging and home.
(For the record, I had a conversation about this with Rebecca Stead at Reading Matters last month, and she is firmly of the opinion that she writes children’s novels—and she says the letters she gets from her readers bears this out. So there.)
The only thing I can put the claim for such books to be YA down to is this—that they are books that are literary, meta-textual, substantial books full of ideas and complex plotting. They’re books that need time to read and consider and digest—books that take, as a frustrated parent of a frustrated 12 year old reader once said to me, longer than an afternoon to read. But complex doesn’t ergo mean older.
It’s as if we’ve all forgotten what kind of books we read as children. It’s as if the whole rich heritage of 20th century children’s literature has become some kind of quaint historical anomaly. It seems to me that the huge emphasis on writing and publishing books for “reluctant readers” (often code for “boys”) over the past 20 years has pushed the classic children’s novel so far out of our collective consciousness that we don’t even recognise it when we see it any more. If it’s longer than 200 pages, if it has serious ideas and challenging language, it has to be for young adults—almost seemingly regardless of the age of the protagonists and the thematic interests of the story. And it bothers me enormously that the gifted, devoted, passionate child reader doesn’t seem worthy of our attention any more.
Why am I banging on about this all of a sudden? There are two reasons: first, a long-standing concern and second, something I read today that really got up my nose. Here’s the first: the second will come right at the end of this post.
Reason for Banging On the First.
Well, first of all, the near-demise of the children’s novel, in this country at least, has been a concern of mine for more than a decade. It’s not just that YA is sexy and dark and dangerous and so excites the blood of the “won’t someone think of teh children” brigade (and yes, I get the irony that here they’re actually NOT talking about children at all, but treating young adults as if they WERE children) and so gets all the media attention. (No, I will NOT link to the notorious Wall Street Journal article; that damn woman has had far more than her 15 minutes of attention and I won’t be party to giving her a second more. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, google WSJ and dark and young adult and you’ll find it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) It’s more that the categories—children’s and young adult—seem to have been pushed so far apart from one another, in awards in particular, that there seems to be this huge gaping space into which the children’s novel, as we have known and loved it for about 150 years, has fallen.
If you’re not sure what I’m taking about, go to the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s website and compare the shortlists for the Book of the Year Award either before there was a split between Older and Younger Readers categories, or even in the early years of separation of the age categories. Look at the books shortlisted in the 60s, 70s and even 80s for the 8-12 year old reader (what the Americans usefully call “middle school”) compared to the Younger Readers shortlists of the past 10-15 years. Note how these days, there’s only one or two really substantial novels for this age (what I’ve always thought of the “golden years” of reading), with the rest of the shortlist made up of short, illustrated chapter books, typically for the under 8 years olds, and even picture books.
I’m not saying that those other books, the chapter books and more sophisticated picture books, are bad books or should not have been selected as books of merit—I just look at those lists and wonder where are all the great novels for children? Isn’t anyone writing them any more? Or is no-one publishing them any more?
Over the years, I’ve heard different views on this from Australian publishers. A decade ago, they were telling me they weren’t publishing them because they couldn’t sell them—apparently schools and libraries wanted the inheritors of the Paul Jennings phenomena; Aussie Bitesand books with a wider market appeal—and it wasn’t economical to publish literary fiction for that age. So the readers, like the child of that parent I mentioned earlier, who I spoke to when I was working in a children’s book shop who said he his daughter needed books that lasted longer than an afternoon—those readers either had to buckle down and read more mature fare that they weren’t really ready for, or stick with the classics, or read books from the US or UK, where they still seemed to be publishing real novels for the devoted child reader.
More recently, they tell me that the problem is that writing a really great children’s novel is incredibly difficult, and they just don’t see the quality manuscripts. Australian publishers tell me this; and Amanda Punter, the Penguin UK publisher on that Sydney Writers’ Festival panel, said it too. I just remembered! Yes! That was pretty much the answer to my question—Whither the Children’s Book? It’s hard to do well, and we’d publish more if we saw more of them.
Maybe that’s true—I suspect there is some truth to it. I can’t imagine the level of gift it would take to write a Hazel Green novel or a Tom’s Midnight Garden. But it’s an odd argument at the point that once upon a time there weren’t really any YA novels and plenty of wonderful children’s novels—has it somehow become harder to write a great children’s novel, or have writers turned their attention to other audiences?
What I am sure is true is that there are vastly more books published for young readers now, a greater variety and indeed, I’ve argued that there are more books for different kinds (and abilities) of young readers than ever before, and that’s a great thing. (I made that point in answer to a question at the Sydney Story Factory panel on children and writing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and I think it’s true.) So maybe it’s just that there are more books vying for incrementally less and less attention (see another recent post where I mentioned the shrinking of book review pages across the board in mainstream newspapers and the like).
But I can’t help but think that there are fewer contemporary children’s novels of the type you and I grew up devouring, and that’s emphatically not a good thing. And to circle back to my previous point, for some reason when we do see those books, they somehow get shanghaied as young adult. Which they’re just not. Which brings me to:
Reason for Banging On the Second.
Yup, you read it right. “Young-young adult.”
Is that really what we’re calling it now?
Heaven help me.
I don’t mean to have a go at you, goodly Alpha Reader blogger, but for god’s sake. It’s not “young-young adult”. There’s no such THING as “young-young adult.” It’s a children’s novel. A novel for children. There are still children in the world and they still need novels.
So maybe, after all, I am saying, will no-one think of teh children? But more than that—will no-one think of teh children’s book?