Die Guardian -siening oor kinderboeke: neem hulle ernstig op

Good children’s literature is a serious business. Nie ernstig soos vervelig of 'verbeter' nie, maar ernstig in aandag en ambisie, ernstig oor skoonheid en verwondering, oor die betrokkenheid van die brein, maar ook die hart, about sadness and difficulty, but also about silliness and joy. Above all, it is serious about the legitimacy of a child’s world – which is a world away from being child-ish.

Good children’s books, from picture books to 500-page novels, can be seriously hard to write. Mark Haddon published 17 books before The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. His wise and beautiful The Sea of Tranquility took two years and 50 drafts, 50,000 words becoming 500. “Which seems,” he has written, “like a fair trade. If kids like a picture book, they’re going to read it at least 50 keer, and their parents are going to have to read it with them. Read anything that often and even minor imperfections start to feel like gravel in the bed.”

But there are concerns that this is being forgotten. In a recent manifesto for The Foundling Museum, the former children’s laureate Lauren Child spoke of her concern about “a common, and lazy, assumption that creating work with children in mind is easier or less demanding, and that a writer or artist would approach it with a lesser degree of seriousness or sincerity than when creating for an adult audience”.

Perhaps this has always been the case in some quarters, but it is also true that since the ascendance of JK Rowling and Philip Pullman, children’s books have increasingly been seen as a quick route to intellectual and social status, not to mention serious lucre; treated as just one more element in a celebrity brand. This isn’t to say that some aren’t accomplished writers. And it isn’t to argue against popularity, which is important in its own right, not least because it gives children common frames of reference.

But a varied, good-quality diet is important too. Yet marketing budgets so often go to those who have readymade fans, depriving those who don’t. Voor die pandemie, children were already worst hit by library closures; then school libraries shut too. State school libraries sometimes rely on donations, which can be heavily celebrity-oriented; in supermarkets, up to 40% of a small offering can be by a handful of celebrity authors.

Ms Child argues that these trends risk fundamental losses. We are “like trees, and the things that happen to us when we’re first growing will affect the roots”. Dit, as neuroscience has shown, applies to nutrition, and to love and affection, but it also applies to the imagination. Good children’s literature literally impresses upon a growing brain how the world – or word – is and can be. There is much great children’s literature in English, both old and new. But we must ensure not only that it continues to be written but that it is available. We must take care not to devalue the seriousness of writing for children, because by doing so we risk devaluing and narrowing childhood too.




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