Of the twenty-seven books I’ve read so far this year, fifteen were children’s books. I read a lot of children’s books, mostly because I find them satisfying, but partly, of course, because I’m interested in how and what other children’s writers write. Do all children’s writers feel this way? I would be surprised to learn of any writer who didn’t read a good deal in their own area of work, suspicious too of their reasons for writing for a particular market if books of that ilk didn’t interest them. I suppose some maverick genius might manage to write a perfect book for children or a perfect romance or a perfect thriller without ever looking at an example of the type of book they were writing. It just doesn’t seem very likely.
Three of those twenty-seven were books about children’s books – there’s a whole world of writing around children’s books once you start looking: writing craft, criticism, history, memoir – plus articles and reviews. And when you can’t summon up the energy for an actual book there’s kidlit Twitter. I follow a lot of people who are engaged with children’s books and to be honest I would have given up on the shouting match and sales pitch that makes up most of Twitter long ago if it weren’t for this entirely wholesome and knowledgeable community.
I fell upon another rather fascinating thread on Twitter when Sophie Anderson (@sophieinspace) mentioned that she would not recommend the majority of the books she read when she was a child to children of today because there are so many brilliant more relevant texts available and many of the ‘classics’ pushed on children are racist and sexist. I understand where she’s coming from, but as ever it’s a matter of who is introducing reading matter to children. Most adults are not particularly interested in children’s books. They can’t be expected to know what is current and relevant. What they know about children’s books is based on books they knew and loved as a child and what the supermarket and the display tables in bookshops are shoving at them. Most primary school teachers can scarcely keep up with all the demands of their jobs, let alone manage to become well-read in the latest children’s books. For all these reasons, of course people keep sharing ‘classic’ children’s books with children. I think there’s probably also a tendency to think that these books have stood the test of time so they must be good and that, since they are classics, they must be ‘safe’. None of which is necessarily true. Reading possibly problematic old books with a child and sharing problems in them is one way forward, but I think really the best thing is to give children lots of opportunities to choose for themselves. Learning to look at book covers and blurbs to help you decide if a book will suit you is a skill. So is choosing to read something new and then deciding that it doesn’t suit you. This is, of course, where a well-stocked library comes in. *sigh*
All this led me to think about my own reading choices as a child and who and what influenced them.
What there was in the library mostly dictated what I read. I didn’t own a lot of books but my mother took us to the library every week. Occasionally she’d point out something there she’s enjoyed as a child (that’s how I came to Elizabeth Gouge) but mostly it was just me and the shelves.
I read all the classics, What Katy Did, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, every Nesbit I could get my hands on, influenced largely by BBC serialisations, I think. There was modern stuff too, Helen Cresswell’s Lizzie Dripping, I think Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Borrowers. From the cinema, I came to all the Mary Poppins books, so much stranger and more mysterious on the page.
One very strong memory is of a serialisation of Elidor on the children’s radio programme which was all we had by way of English language media when my father was based in Germany. It was mind-blowing and led me to the rest of Alan Garner.
When I was about eight, a friend of my mother’s who reviewed children’s books came to stay, bringing me a stack of new paperbacks, eight or ten new books all at once. It was glorious. The only one I have left is the rather wonderful The Saucepan Journey by Edith Unnerstad. I think this is the moment I started wanting to own books. After birthdays and Christmas I would head straight for a bookshop. And oh, the joy when I discovered a local second hand bookshop – a big pile of books for scarcely any outlay, lots more classics because they’d be in hardback which, to my mind, meant they must be superior.
The only influences I remember from teachers was when we listened to a recording of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which led me to the rest of Narnia and another teacher lent me a book called Well Met By Witchlight by Nina Beachcroft when I missed her reading the end (I tracked this book down a year or so ago and it wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered, but it was a huge influence on the direction of my childhood writing).
Then there was my friend Miranda. Her mother knew a lot about children’s books somehow. Through her I found K M Peyton and Barbara Willard at just the moment that I was tiptoeing around the edge of adult novels, because British publishing was still only toying with YA back then.
So back to the question of whether I would share classic children’s books with children. Personally, no. I take great pleasure in buying books for all the children in my present-buying sphere. I like to share new and interesting books they may not have come across. I wouldn’t stop a child from reading classics, but I’d let them arrive at them for themselves. Direction is great and if there are knowledgeable teachers, librarians and family who can direct a child to their next favourite book, fantastic. But failing that guiding hand, what they need is plenty of choice.
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