Children's Books: A Week in Books - Open the book to meet the child within

Harry Potter proves that "children's" books can inspire adults too

Philip Pullman
Friday 23 October 1998 23:02

THE PROBLEM with the general discussion of children's books is that there is no general discussion. Every so often, there is a particular discussion, usually not about the books but their subject matter. It resolves almost at once into two positions: "Children's books ought to be about nice things", and "Children's books ought to be about reality, which is nasty". But why doesn't the general conversation about contemporary literature include the names of writers such as Jan Mark, Janni Howker or Peter Dickinson?

Perhaps the problem is with the very term. As with any qualifier (black, women's, gay), the word "children's" seems to limit and exclude rather than welcome and broaden. I am happy to take up a good book by a woman; but a book labelled "women's writing" says "I have nothing to say to you, because you're a man." Maybe "children's book" says the same sort of thing to those adults who are not professionally or personally involved with children.

Which is a great pity. But there are one or two signs that the barriers are beginning to shake a little, if not actually crumble. One is the increasing use of the term "young adult" instead of "teenage" for books at the upper end of the age range. Another is the appearance on some lists this autumn of books such as Peter Dickinson's The Kin (see the review by Nicholas Tucker above), Michelle Magorian's A Spoonful of Jam and Susan Price's The Sterkarm Handshake. These are long books, which look and behave and speak to readers for all the world as if those readers were intelligent and curious and capable of following a complex narrative. And from my point of view, there is the cheering fact that when I speak at a festival or some other event - as I did last week at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature - half of my audience seems to consist of unaccompanied adults.

They listen closely and ask questions and make observations, with no noticeable loss of dignity. And how encouraging to see J K Rowlings's Harry Potter topping the adult bestseller lists a month or two ago.

So there are some reasons to be cheerful. There's a vitality among the producers and signs that the recent past is not forgotten, either. Oxford's beautifully produced Modern Classics series is giving Rosemary Sutcliff, Philippa Pearce, and other fine writers a handsome showcase.

Then there's the intriguing proposal, put forward by Michael Morpurgo, for a Children's Laureateship. This new honour will be formally announced next month, and presented to its first recipient in the new year. It is too soon to know how this will turn out, and the idea as currently described seems an awkward mixture of two things: an honour to recognise a lifetime's achievement, and a stipend for two years' worth of PR on behalf of the literature.

I hope the second part of it will quietly fade away; I can think of plenty of people I would like to honour, but not all of them have the time, inclination or energy to go around banging on about the value of reading when they ought to be writing.

Finally, the National Year of Reading: as Anne Fine has pointed out, there's no point in grown-ups haranguing children to read if they don't read themselves. Perhaps we ought to do what some schools did when they were allowed to decide things for themselves, and introduce a quarter of an hour every day during which everyone, from the Queen on up, downs tools and reads a book. There would be no TV, no radio, no planes landing, no traffic, no politics, just a blessed silence broken only by the sound of pages turning. If the National Year of Reading could bring that about, it would be worth having.

Philip Pullman's latest novel, `The Subtle Knife' is pulished by Scholastic Press

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