The Guardian‘s fantastic article Children’s Books Are Never Just For Children makes some great points about children’s literature and the value society places on it. As a creator and advocate of children’s literature, I devoured the article and followed it with some serious soul-searching.
Aside from the fact that kidlit is HOT right now–accounting for one in four books sold in the UK in 2014–this zone of the literary landscape is exhilarating. Welcome to the quest to create outstanding children’s literature, where mere word-smithery won’t do. Art is the aim.
Kidlit is High Quality
Phillip Pullman, author of The Amber Spyglass, turns the perfect phrase to describe the language of enduring children’s literature: “Perfect lightness and grace.” Kids’ books are designed to be reread, which means that every word is refined, polished, and arranged to perfection. Not a comma is wasted. Neil Gaiman told The Guardian he might not be able to justify every word in (his book for grown-ups) American Gods, but he sure could in (his children’s classic) Coraline.
Picture books require a mind-bending economy of words. Anyone who thinks they can whip off a good 500-word book has clearly never tried. Sure, with practice, a writer can push out a story, but to create one that is multi-layered and timeless is a feat few achieve.
Kidlit Stands the Test of Time
Consider the wonder of the enduring favourites of children’s literature: The Chronicles of Narnia, Pippi Longstocking, the works of E Nesbit or Enid Blyton, and more. Where the Wild Things Are is the epitome of timelessness.
My mother read the Madeline books to me in the sixties, and I read them to my children in the nineties, and they were just as charming the second time around. I am looking forward to introducing them to my grandchildren one day–maybe in the twenties?
It’s striking how long children’s books can last. One explanation may be the way in which they’re read. They become part of our emotional autobiographies, acquiring associations and memories, more like music than prose. –SF Said
I love the concept of “emotional autobiographies.” These associations with literature are powerful and positive. Just writing the word Madeline above conjured up for me a banquet of memories and images–first trips to the library with the peculiar smells and sounds of that place, the security and comfort of sitting on my mother’s lap, discovering the gentle pleasure of reading for myself.
One of my most poignant childhood memories was the rush of elation at the age of 11 as I turned the last page of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I fell in love with books then and there. As a writer of children’s literature, I long to reproduce that specific experience for a new generation of readers with evocative, inviting stories of my own.
The Guardian‘s article mentions AA Milne, who’s remembered not for his wonderful West End plays, but rather for his endearing Winnie the Pooh books. Even Salman Rushdie believes it is his children’s literature that will continue to be read into the future. A noble brand of immortality is rewarded to the writer who succeeds in creating enduring children’s literature.
Longevity and fame are not the prizes I yearn for from my writing. I want to spread a little love, hope, and joy to the kids who read my stories. If my books endure–all the better. I will be content to contribute to the happy “emotional autobiography” of my readers–and their parents. Because, after all, children’s books are never just for children.
Pull Quote: Author of the article, SF Said, The Guardian