Is children's fiction more interesting than that being written for adults? Angela Lambert talks to Philip Pullman and concludes that this is, indeed, a golden ageby Angela Lambert / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Few books read later in life take root in the memory like those we loved when we were very young. They determine our response to words, rhythm and story-telling and expand in the imagination like yeast. Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, begins: “in the time of swords and periwigs, and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets-when gentlemen wore ruffles and gold-lace waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta-there lived a tailor in Gloucester.” My heart lifts to meet the sonorous phrases. They resonate down more than 50 years, from the 1940s when my mother read them to me as a child, the late 1960s when I read them to my own children, and finally the 1990s, when I read them yet again to my grandchildren. This sentence sums up all that is best in children’s fiction. It makes no concessions to young minds with limited vocabularies. (I have looked up the beautiful word paduasoy for the first time. It means “rich strong silk fabric, used for hangings, vestments etc.”) Potter does not assume that complicated details are boring for children. Her writing has the beat and intensity of poetry. The pedestrian and ingratiating picture books too often produced for small children nowadays pale beside the sartorial and literary splendour of The Tailor of Gloucester.
In a 1951 essay, Graham Greene compared Potter to Henry James. Anyone who can recall the tragic sentence “Jemima Puddleduck was escorted home in tears on account of those eggs” knows how potent early books can be. My mother and I wept every time she read the book to me, and even now I… no, surely not. I don’t. But the emotion comes rushing back.
Are today’s children living in a new golden age of young fiction? The Whitbread Book of the Year award to Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass (final volume in the His Dark Materials trilogy) is one sign. The Whitbread has not gone to a children’s book before. What did the prize mean to Pullman? “Thrilling,” he says, “and good for children’s books in general. It’s time other genres got a look-in-not just literary fiction.”
Plenty of parents, or godparents and grandparents (the main buyers of books for the young), have no idea how good today’s children’s books are because they prefer to stick to the ones they read-or had read to them-when they were small. As a result, there are two kinds of books for the young: those read aloud by parents and those loved by the children themselves. Only a few classics, like Potter’s, bestride both. The first category (in which I include AA Milne and those goody-goody Victorian books like The Water Babies) can often be spotted by their knowing tone; as though a conspiratorial wink were being exchanged between author and adult reader above the child’s head. These books present home as a safe haven and parents as wise and all-knowing. But not all parents are good, not all homes are safe. Many children don’t want to be docile and dependent. They want to be powerful, admired, omniscient, magic-even feared. Books in the second category-such as Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger or Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are-present the child as bold and resourceful, in a universe not ruled by adults.
Pullman attracts devoted readers across the whole age spectrum, which is unusual since most books for the young are rigidly aimed at five to sevens; or seven to nines; or nine to 11s or (a tricky age group) 12-14s. But children’s reading ages vary enormously, and 12 year olds often move directly to adult fiction. Pullman says he gets letters from bright seven year olds, and counts at least as many adults as children among his readers. So many people-including my grandchildren-praised him that I recently tackled Northern Lights, the first book in his trilogy.
“Ah yes,” said Pullman, when I complimented him on its racing narrative, classical sources and fine prose-“but would you have read it if it had been labelled fantasy?” No, I confessed. “I’m convinced,” he said, “that fewer adults would have found their way to my books if they had been published as adult books, because they would have been categorised as fantasy. There’s so little crossover between fiction and fantasy. But being children’s books, they had an advocate in the family.” Does he write with a specific age group in mind? “People who take their writing seriously start from the story and it finds its own audience. If you have a situation and characters that are engaging and full of dramatic tension, everyone will read it. You do what your imagination compels you to do; and I found myself with some reluctance being led towards this mechanism [fantasy] that I couldn’t get out of my mind.”
Pullman enjoys reading his fellow authors’ work. “Children’s fiction is to do with hopes and aspirations, the still-existing sense that there is something to be striven for, whereas adult fiction is so often about the destruction of aspirations and adult non-fiction is full of ghastly autobiographies like Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth or Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. I enjoy Anne Fine-she’s good at young girls; gets their voice just right. Michael Morpurgo is another good story-teller. I’m fascinated by picture books-Raymond Briggs, John Burningham and Quentin Blake. When I was a school-teacher in the 11-13 range, I used to read their books.
“Every story does teach, whether you intend it to or not. In the 1,300 pages of a trilogy one can’t help but reveal one’s preoccupations and deepest beliefs-issues of love and loss-so inevitably I was going to teach. I hope what I put across is the sense that this universe is to be treasured as the most precious thing. I’m tilting against the Platonism and even gnosticism of CS Lewis, whose books end by giving children the gift of death-the passage to a world less nasty than this one. We have to grow up and leave childhood; our task is to become wise and to leave our innocence behind. That means engaging with our bodies and a reverence for this life here on this earth; making moral choices that involve compromise, because we’re usually involved with competing goods, not a good and a bad.”
This post-Christian attitude has brought criticism from the church. In parts of the US Pullman’s books-like JK Rowling’s-have been banned because they feature witches and daemons as well as angels. Yet the daemons are the trilogy’s most original and beguiling device, harking back to the Socratic daemon as a kind of conscience. Socrates in his Apology says that when faced with a critical choice, his daemon was an infallible guide to the right thing to do. Pullman says of the daemons, “like Milton’s angels, these are psychological states of mind.” They give children a contemporary take on good and evil and some difficult issues to puzzle over.
His books have huge sales-about 1.6m sold in Britain alone, even before the Whitbread. He is not in the JK Rowling league, her four Harry Potter books have sold about 150m world-wide-but nobody else is. Yet neither author, at the beginning, was pushed or hyped. The first Harry Potter book went for an advance of ?1,500 and 300 hardback copies were printed. (Barnes and Noble are now asking $18,000 for one.) Pullman’s books, like hers, made their way gradually, their reputation growing by word of mouth, as used to be the case with adult fiction.
Vicky Cubitt evaluates children’s fiction for literary agency, AP Watt. What qualities does she look for? “You’ve got to be able to tell a good story and craft it well. Children need the same things you’d expect from an adult novel… three-dimensional characters who develop naturally through the story. They want narrative and dialogue that shows the plot rather than merely telling it. Even in dark tales they need humour. And finally, the language must be clear but not patronising to a young readership.”
There is more gritty social realism around than there was 30 years ago. Writers like Jacqueline Wilson and Melvin Burgess write about drugs, divorce and so on. Kirsten Skidmore is head of children’s fiction at Scholastic. Does social realism sell? “Only if it has a good story. It’s hard to get right, it can become too didactic. Children, like adults, don’t like to be lectured. Robert Swindell’s Stone Cold, about homeless kids, was good but bleak. Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum is very moving. It’s about two daughters with different fathers and a mother with mental health problems: not the average mother-eccentric, covered in tattoos, who has a breakdown. Yet it’s funny and easy to read and at no stage do you feel she’s making a point. Helen Dunmore writes good stories like Zillah and Me, about death and abandonment.”
“But many of the depressing teen novels about suicide and sex and death and pregnancy don’t work; they just leave you feeling bad. That was part of the appeal of Harry Potter-a boarding school story. Coming on the back of those politically correct books it was like a breath of fresh air; it returned to an older escapist tradition.”
What do booksellers make of the rise of children’s publishing? According to Karen Ramus, children’s book buyer at London’s Pan Bookshop for 15 years, books are indeed fighting back against television and computer games. “Nothing else compares with the escape they offer into the imagination.” She says that the renaissance in children’s literature is enjoyed by all social classes and both sexes, although it is true that middle class children are more likely to be given books as presents, and girls are more likely to read than boys-a trend that continues into later life.
Children’s literature can be as much of a mirror to its age as adult literature. Princeton historian Robert Darnton, in an essay on the meaning of Mother Goose, pointed out how closely fairy stories reveal the hopes and fears of illiterate people. He cites the many French fairy tales about a youngest son banished by his father to “seek his fortune,” with only a resourceful cat for company. This must often have happened in an impoverished society threatened by hunger. So Perrault’s Puss in Boots, written in pre-revolutionary times when peasant families had more children than they could feed, embodies the child’s fears of being abandoned. German fairy tales, on the other hand, are more likely to be about cruelty and murder, peopled with witches and ogres in dark forests-reflecting the dangers of living in a country made up of separate, warring states. Fairy tales like these have lasted because, as well as telling thrilling stories, they help children face up to real problems. Even today, this remains true of the best children’s books. Philip Pullman ponders the ethical dilemmas of a world that has learned to live without God, while JK Rowling scorns the bland, chirpy uniformity of cartoon characters, preferring recognisable yet magic children who cope with dead, abusive, or indifferent parents by going to live in a separate community where they learn to cast powerful spells.
The age-group from 12-14 seems to be well served. But the crucial age for instilling the lifelong habit of reading is much earlier. And what do those children want? My daughter (mother of five) thinks she knows: “They don’t want simplified cartoon characters-they want to experience fantasy. They want to fly.” Curious, that in both Pullman and Rowling, that’s exactly what the young hero and heroine do. They fly.