It’s been a while since someone asked me, ‘Why children’s books?’ in a tone that implied, ‘Why not proper grown-up books?’
When we discussed what I edited at work, what I read in my free time, or what I’d started writing, there was a time - not so long ago - when children’s books were seen as inferior by people who should have known better.
Then came JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Melvin Burgess, Mark Haddon and more. Then came Twilight and The Hunger Games, and adults weren’t ashamed to be caught reading young adult fiction on the tube. Then came books by David Almond and Meg Rosoff and Patrick Ness, books that were so brilliantly original and powerful and well written that they demanded to be read by people of any age who appreciated excellent fiction.
So perhaps nobody else has asked me ‘Why children’s books?’ lately but the question hasn’t entirely gone away.
Every time I’ve begun sketching out a new project, I’ve wondered if it’d be for kids. I’ve tried to keep an open mind, toying with a blank page. But sure enough, the idea that took shape turned out to be for younger readers.
Why am I writing for children?
I’ve thought about it a lot. Partly the answer came about because I worked in children’s book publishing and became an editor who was also expected to write.
Partly it’s because you can blur boundaries and mix genres and find more spaces for magic in children’s books.
But maybe the answer grows from remembering how much children’s books meant to my past self.
That’s the past self who trotted along to Hebden Bridge library clutching a well-worn cardboard library ticket with her name in biro on the front and borrowed as many books as she could carry home each fortnight. That’s the teenage reader who had her mind blown in a way I can still precisely recall on first reading books by authors like Margaret Mahy or Susan Cooper or John Christopher or Robert Westall. Those books changed the way I thought and felt and saw the world. They re-wired my thinking, in less than 300 pages.
I admit I am a total beginner here, but there is something about my desire to write for children that is rooted back into that transformative power and the excitement of reading something for the first time.
If a book can open a window in a mind, then books for children can be the first time a child has opened that window in their mind and looked through it into a bright sunlit place where other things are possible. Or looked through a window into deep darkness and realised they’re not the only person who sees it.
The window can be about connection, or escapism, or laughter, or information, or just delighting in the view, but opening it and looking through is hugely important and I believe that children need as many windows as they can get.
I’m not saying kids have to read great fiction every day. That would be like having to eat your greens, and it’s not what I do – I like fruit sure, but I also love chocolate. I read literary fiction and romance and historical fiction and sci-fi and crime and YA and children’s books, sometimes all at once, stuck in the middle of three different books at the same time. That’s the way I like it, and I don’t expect to be lectured on it.
In his wonderful, passionate Reading Agency lecture last week, Neil Gaiman talked a huge amount of sense about reading and its uses to communicate, innovate and connect people through empathy. He also said, ‘We have an obligation to daydream’.
So maybe writing for children is honouring that obligation and daydreaming… If we have enough different writers all daydreaming and writing the stuff they know best, then maybe they are all opening up new windows – each with its own partial, particular view – for kids to look through and see the world.