A Week in Books: Writers for children no longer lack public platforms

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The Independent Culture

How richly should we reward high achievement in children's writing? Even Philip Pullman, that matchless inventor of parallel worlds, might think twice about devising an imaginary kingdom that endowed an annual prize for young people's literature worth a cool £385,000 - from the public coffers - to the winner. The lucky author collects this fairy-tale crock of gold from a genuine princess and caps a week of official festivities with a lecture in the nation's parliament.

As it happens, Pullman has merely shared this year's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, founded and funded by the Swedish state in tribute to the creator of Pippi Longstocking and the values that her books uphold. The enormous cheque, and the dazzling limelight of this week's jamboree in Stockholm, has been split between the fabricator of His Dark Materials and the Japanese illustrator Ryôji Arai. All the same, Sweden's generosity has a truly folkloric aspect, down to Wednesday's meeting with the Crown Princess - who arrived, one trusts, in a glass coach drawn by white mice - and the mythically round sum (five million crowns) of the award itself.

Back in Britain, we do things a bit differently. This week, Jacqueline Wilson became the fourth Children's Laureate - a formal recognition of her de facto role as a tireless friend and advocate for young readers. The Children's Laureateship does have some backing from the state (directly, and unusually, from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport). In the British fashion, it also has to depend on commercial sponsorship.

So writers for children no longer lack public platforms and plaudits. Even in the marketplace, their voices carry long and loud - as we will hear when J K Rowling presents Harry the Sixth in July. But what should they do with this new-found gravitas and glamour? At a Swedish Embassy event in London to celebrate his prize, Pullman spoke forcefully about the duty to sustain a real debate about the literary quality of children's literature, not merely to hail its huge sales. We need to re-direct attention, he suggested, from bestsellers back to best writers. So we should.

But restore serious criticism to the discussion of children's books, and something else happens. Indeed, with Pullman it already has. No longer will the promotion of young people's writing look like some safe, uncontested corner of social policy, like low-fat school dinners. It becomes, as it should, an arena of bitter cultural struggle, of quarrels over means and ends, forms and values.

That angry believers should curse Pullman for his hostility to organised religion may annoy his fans, but their rage counts as a sincere homage. Far better, for the health of children's literature, that it should breed Antichrists rather than analgesics. Readers fascinated by Pullman's subtle anti-theology and strenuous critique of the "Authority" can now consult Lance Parkin and Mark Jones's thoughtful A-Z guide to the trilogy, Dark Matters (Virgin, £6.99) - if they ignore the claim that John Milton, once Cromwell's Latin secretary, worked for the restored monarchy in the same post. Only in a parallel universe, guys.

Astrid Lindgren herself began as more of an imp than an idol. Her wild and cheeky Pippi hit the cosy Swedish book scene of the 1940s like some carrot-topped bombshell, inciting fears of a collapse in children's behaviour. Gerard Bonnier, the country's leading publisher, turned her down - and lived to regret it. The message, perhaps, is that respect, and love, and influence, arrive as the outcome of bold visions and brave missions, not from timidly seeking the approval of the moral or material powers-that-be. If that lesson lurks within the pages of great children's books, it applies just as well to the genre as a whole. It's never too early to challenge the Authority.