The best children's books have been written in the last fifty years - Elizabeth Kay
Last year I joined a delightfully old-fashioned debating society. New members are voted in by the black ball/white ball system, where the appropriate ball is put in a box, and the results counted (origin of the term to blackball someone). Speeches are strictly limited in time, and no one is allowed to speak more than once other than the proposer and opposer, and no one is allowed to interrupt. In these days of unbridled rudeness on programmes such as Question Time, when the whole panel may be clamouring to get their point across, this is refreshingly civilised. This term we have a topic that may be of interest to those reading this – This House believes that the best children’s books have been written in the last fifty years. I would be very interested to have some replies here, to see what other people think. Of course, in true debating style, first we have to establish what is meant by best, by child, by written and then, in these electronic times, what is meant by book.
Best is tricky. Most enjoyable to read? Most informative? Most visually appealing, as illustrations play such a big part in children’s books? Most ground-breaking? Best is subjective and a bit woolly, so I’m going to interpret it as overall quality.
Child is equally difficult. At the youngest end of the age-range we have books that are read to children, rather than by them. These categories aren’t set in stone, but effectively they are: newborn – 3 years. Picture books from 3 – 8. Early readers from 5 – 9. Middle grade readers 9 – 12. Young adult, 12 and up. And then we have crossover, 14 and up, when just about anything goes. I think I have to include all these categories.
Book is easier, but not altogether a walk in the park. Fiction? Non-fiction? E-book? Audio book? Graphic novel? Poetry?
But written is the real problem. We all know there are wonderful books lying in a drawer somewhere because it may have been thrown on the slush pile and rejected without ever having been read. Then again, the author may never have had the confidence to submit it in the first place, or self-publish it. Therefore I am going to interpret the word ‘written’ as ‘published’.
The sheer volume of books making their way into print these days makes it hard to be objective, as no one person can possibly read all of them. But what we’re being asked to consider are the best books, not the overall standard, which may well be both higher and lower at the same time. So individual titles and authors are going to have to come into it.
For the motion:
Minorities are now included in many books published today. Racial, sexual, religious, mentally or physically disabled… Janet and John are now parodied, rather than promoted as the ideal family set-up. There are far more people in the world, with better educational standards, so we have more authors capable of contributing. Authors who I think fulfil the overall quality criterion are: Philip Pullman, Susan Price, David Almond, Frances Hardinge, Neil Gaiman, Anne Fine, and Michael Morpurgo. And I’m going to have left out really important people because they never crossed my radar, or I’ve forgotten them because I’m getting on a bit and my recent memory isn’t as good as my historic one.
Against the motion:
So many books these days seem to aim at the lowest common denominator as it’s assumed that children no longer have much of an attention span, or the inclination to look up difficult words. Authors did expect more of their young readers in the past. C.S. Lewis introduced me to subtext – I was maybe eleven, and remember sitting up in bed and suddenly thinking – died for three days, then came back to life. Where have I heard that before? And I was so excited, it was the most wonderful puzzle, working out that The Magician’s Nephew was the creation of the world, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was the Acts of the Apostles, The Last Battle was judgment day, and so on. And some books offered more as you grew older – Alice in Wonderland turned out to be all about maths, as well as being the most realistic depiction of a dream ever written. Colonialism, and therefore India, cropped up a lot and made me long to travel – The Jungle Book, written in such rich language with the musical cadences of the poet that Kipling was.
The period in which these books were written does obviously contribute to the excitement. There were blank spaces on the maps, adventure was a real possibility, the unknown still existed and was there to be imagined. These days it’s extremely difficult for your protagonist to get lost when kids all have mobile phones, and can home in on Google Earth to explore remote places remotely. Human beings are curious creatures, and our children lead such constrained lives these days thanks to health and safety that the opportunities for real life experiences are few and far between. Books are the next best thing, as the action happens inside your head rather than pre-packaged for you on a screen. This is why fantasy has become so popular, as there are more possibilities for tension and drama. Health and Safety does have a lot to answer for. A group of kids heading off in a boat unsupervised and without life jackets is a definite no no. There is so much you just can’t write any more. When I was a kid in the fifties, I had a lovely book about a schoolgirl who finds a gypsy caravan parked in the woods. The owner, one Zachary Boswell, becomes her friend and they go off into the woods every day, as he teaches her all about British wildlife. I was captivated by the book and the illustrations. No chance of that becoming a bestseller today. And finally, in my own children’s book, The Divide, I had Agrimony, a girl elf, going off perfectly legitimately with an adult male pixie. The American publisher wouldn’t countenance it. Deleting the entire event would have meant a lot of plot restructuring, so I had to invent a magical business card which always told Agrimony’s big sister where she was.
One of the major problems today is the actual publishing industry itself. In times gone by it was all about the quality of the end result; these days, one of the first questions asked by literary agents and publishers is how well the author performs on radio and television, and whether they’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Having a website goes without saying, and don’t, whatever you do, get old. They all want young unpublished writers they can discover, who are too inexperienced to recognise a dodgy contract and are young enough to provide sequels, prequels, and neverending series. It’s a real bonus if you’re a celebrity, or photogenic, or notorious.
Self-publishing has both helped and hindered the situation. Once a month I review books for a magazine, and I’m sent a lot of trash that will be out there on Amazon, full of factual inaccuracies and punctuation errors and edging out the genuinely good stuff. On the other hand, some books that would never even get a reading by an agent do get out there and become successful. And the professional marketing side is duplicitous, to say the least. The ‘Manager’s pick’ that you see in some bookshops has been paid for by the publisher – as have the front-of-house displays and the special offers. The author gets very little these days. It’s big business that rakes in the profits, as bulk sales to supermarkets mean the books are being sold for at just a little over the production cost. And supermarkets don’t want to stock Carnegie Medal winners, they want something pink and sparkly for girls, and fast cars and football for boys that can be picked up at the checkout without much thought. The chances of a literary children’s book appealing to a minority audience is less likely to get published than it was fifty years ago.
These are my top picks for Pre-1969:
The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Graham, Winnie the Pooh, A.A.Milne, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher, Beatrix Potter, The Call of the Wild, Jack London, The Coral Island, R.M.Ballantyne, and The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
The trouble is that there are no new plots, only new settings. And as the natural world shrinks and what is left is the same everywhere – pollution, jeans and T-shirts and Macdonalds, writers have a tough task to equal, let alone surpass, what has gone before. What do you think?