I’ve been feeling for some time now that children’s books have become the poor relation of the category that bears their name—children’s literature. Across the world, children’s books, as an academic discipline, as a department in a publishing house, as a section in the bookshop or library, has traditionally always covered everything from picture books for the pre-literate child or baby through to novels and other books for teenagers. I well remember discussion in the early ’90s about the name of the Children’s Book Council of Australia, and whether or not it ought to be changed to reflect the rising significance and popularity of young adult fiction—a sub-category that didn’t even exist when the CBCA was established in the 1940s.
Since those days, YA has become the dominant and, dare I say it, sexy older sister in the family of books for younger readers. YA books get more coverage in the media (not always for the good, of course), YA authors seem to me to get more press and have more presence in social media and the like, and although I haven’t done the stats on it, I’d not be at all surprised to find out that, outside of specialist review journals such as Magpies, YA have the (probably substantial) edge in terms of review in newspapers and blogs.
This might not matter all that much as long as the books are still being written and put into the hands of children, of course, but I’ve felt for a long time now that the rise of YA has been somewhat to the detriment of children’s books. It’s not just that kids see the excitement engendered by phenomena such as the Hunger Games and Twilight books and want to be part of that, but I’ve long felt that, in this country at least, we don’t publish nearly as many really substantial, what I would call literary novels for children—older children, 8-12 year olds, that once Golden Age of reading—than we once did, when it was the staple of Australian publishing and the CBCA Awards. And when we do, they invariably get glommed over into the YA category anyway, by commentators (many of whom should know better) who seem to think that anything of substance and that is challenging must therefore be for young adults (forgetting that they themselves were probably reading Jane Eyre at the age of 8). Why shouldn’t today’s children be as smart and worthy of age-appropriate, challenging fiction as we were? As I’ve said before, we still have children, and they still need their own books.
On the other hand, children’s books by women tend to fare better in awards than YA books by women. It’s been well documented that the CBCA awards in particular have long favoured young adult novels by men, or about boys and young men. No such trend has been discernible in awards for children’s books, and in fact, the children’s book prize in the new Prime Minister’s Literary Award has every year so far gone to a woman creator (as well as Monty Pryor, who wrote Shake a Leg, illustrated by Jan Ormerod). I’ve always put the trend to reward male writers of YA as a sign of our anxiety around boys and reading, but if it were solely that, then one might imagine that the concern would kick in earlier in the formative reading years of primary school. Perhaps it’s the greater cultural value that now seems to be placed on YA that accounts for the difference, and for the tendency for books by men, or about the male experience, being in some quarters apparently valued more highly than those by/about women.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a huge fan of YA fiction, of course, and am regularly called upon to speak or write about YA, or to judge YA awards (I’m currently in my fourth, and third consecutive term as a judge of the Ethel Turner Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards), but the truth is, the books that have meant the most to me over the years, as a child reader and as an adult aficionado and advocate of books for young people, have been novels for children. I can’t but agree with Sonya Hartnett, arguably Australia’s most internationally recognised writer for young people, who wrote:
More than this, I believe that the only lastingly important form of writing is writing for children. It is writing that is carried in the reader’s heart for a lifetime; it is writing that speaks to the future.
Sonya Hartnett, The Bulletin March 28 2004
And so I was really pleased when the Australian Women Writers Challenge folk invited me to be their contributing editor for children’s books. I’m really looking forward to keeping a closer eye on what’s being written about Australian children’s books, and to marry this interest with my passion for feminism and recognising the work and value of Australian women writers for children.
I’ll mostly be focusing on longer fiction for children—the children’s novel—but in the absence of a dedicated picture book category, I’ll also throw in the odd survey of picture book reviews as well.
So to a roundup of 2012. The main thing I think needs to be noted is that the trend in children’s publishing in this country has been for some time, and continues to be, in series fiction, rather than the stand alone novel. This has been going on since at least the 1980s and the rise of series for reluctant readers—a great thing in itself. I’ve often noted that there have never been more books for all kinds of readers than we have now, that once upon a time there simply weren’t books like the Aussie Bites series for what we now call ‘reluctant readers’. However, with the steady rise of series fiction, there has been a concomitant decline in the publication of the substantial, stand-along novel for children—in this country, at least. The US and UK still publish a lot of this kind of book. Perhaps it’s something to do with economy of scale.
And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the quality of these series either. Aussie Bites and their ilk from other publishers, the Our Australian Girl and My Australian Story books, Jacqueline Harvey’s Alice-Miranda and Clementine Rose series, Sally Rippin’s hugely popular Billie B. Brown books, Anna and Barbara Fienberg’s phenomenally successful Tashi (consistent bestsellers over 15 plus years) are all top quality books for younger children, and older children who lack confidence or in some instances, ability.
As if to confirm the trend towards series, award-winning author Pamela Freeman’s first children’s novel, The Willow Tree’s Daughter, has been broken down into expanded individual short stories (the novel was originally written more or less as connected short stories), each to be published in a gorgeous palm-sized hardback with dust-jacket and satin place-holder ribbon—canny marketing to mums, aunties and grandmas who love gorgeous books, with the added bonus of high quality storytelling and prose. (Disclaimer: I’m a close friend of the author and have been an informal early editor/reader on some of Pamela’s Princess Betony and other children’s books.)
Susan Stephenson of The Book Chook blog—one of the few Australian book bloggers to focus exclusively on children’s books—said in her review of Billie B Brown: The Copycat Kid,
The Billie B. Brown books… (are) fun and engaging for kids. Take a look at the number of comments from grateful parents on Rippin’s blog if you need proof. The books are set in a world, and with a feisty heroine, that children can relate to. Kids will like that Billie B. isn’t perfect and gets into realistic scrapes. Parents will like that Billie B. is honest and she means well.
The Our Australian Girl series are all written by experienced women writers for children, including Gabrielle Wang and Sherryl Clark. Part of a welcome trend back to historical fiction for children and young adults, the series has been well-received as a way of introducing aspects of Australian social history to young readers through affectionate and engaging portraits of young girls. The Kids Books Review blog (another kids’ book only review site, run by Tania McCartney, Kelly Morton and Susan Whelan) uses words like ‘gutsy’ and ‘exciting’ to describe the series.
Most dedicated children’s book review blogs are designed as guides for parents and professionals working with children, and so the focus in the reviews tend to be on content (plot) and characterisation, with a heavy emphasis on perceived child-appeal, and not much detail on the quality of the writing (beyond phrases like ‘beautifully written’). With heavily girl-reader-focused series, there’s usually coded (and sometimes not-so-coded) language about the female protagonists and their suitability as role models for their young readers. I don’t think you get much of this in reviews of books for boys of a similar age—I must look into that! Either way, it does emphasise that there’s still a very strong impulse in all of us to view children’s books as roadmaps of sorts, not just to the mores of acceptable behaviour (“Parents will like that Billie B. is honest and she means well”) but also to social values including child-friendly versions of feminism, tolerance in a diverse cultural society, and so on.
A series of an altogether different complexion can be found in performance artist Asphyxia’s “The Grimstones” books. The books are based on Asphyxia’s gothic, but nevertheless child-focused puppet plays about a family called, you guessed it, The Grimstones. Working in fairy tale mode, in territory not too far from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book, the 3 (to date) Grimstones books successfully capture the flavour of the performances through deliberately atmospherically archaic language and the inclusion of photographic illustrations, using the actual puppets (sans strings!).
The first Grimstones book, Hatched, was reviewed on the My Book Corner blog:
The appeal of The Grimstones does not lie solely in its visual appeal. This is an expertly crafted novel, with an original and intriguing plot focusing on Martha’s creation in Grandpa Grimstone’s apothecary. The language is delicate and descriptive, accurately capturing the character of Martha and her observations of those around her. With her thoughts and feeling laid open, Martha quickly becomes a character to adore.
Other children’s series by women writers new in 2012 include Arkie Sparkle by Petra James, The Ghost Club by Deborah Abela, Sword Girl by Frances Watts, and a new iteration of the internationally best-selling Conspiracy 365 books by Gabrielle Lord (arguably YA but popular with middle school aged children). If I’ve missed any, please be sure to let me know via the comments.
But we’re not entirely without the stand alone novel for children, even with the dominance of series fiction. Some notable contributions from 2012 include the under-rated Catherine Bateson’s Star; Chook Chook: Mei’s Secret Pets by Wai Chim (a welcome new voice from a non-Anglo writer); a new historical adventure from Belinda Murrell, The Forgotten Pearl; a new illustrated chapter book by Anna Fienberg, Figaro and Rumba and the Crocodile Café AND a new children’s novel, Louis Beside Himself. Sonya Hartnett went back to the great British children’s novels of the middle of the last century for inspiration for The Children of the King (and that’s by no means a bad thing!). Randa Abdel-Fattah published the sequel to The Friendship Matchmaker, The Friendship Matchmaker Goes Undercover, demonstrating yet again that despite having made her name in YA, she is a natural for children’s fiction. I for one hope she writes many more books for the upper-primary readership.
Star is an endearing first person narrator who will have the reader cheering for good things to happen to her. At times she is, as her mother accuses, self centred, but this adds to the sense of realism. She is, after all, a little girl with a lot going on and must look out for herself when it seems no one else is. She also cares about those around her. Ultimately, Star is a feel good novel about being given a chance to shine. Lovely.
Chook Chook: Mei’s Secret Pets by Wai Chim at The Book Chook:
Chim’s writing not only conveys the different culture and customs of China, but also helps young readers enter into a young girl’s fears and love for her pets. Although Mei’s life is hard, the story’s message is ultimately an uplifting one as Mei extends and gains kindness from strangers. We also see the rift in her family heal.
This novel brings together many fascinating aspects of Australian history, including the participation of native Aboriginal people in the war, and the internment of the Australian born Japanese population, who were deported from Darwin to become prisoners of war in the south. I learnt much about Australia in the war from this novel, and in particular, the sections on Darwin were fascinating.
It is a sweet story and the interplay between adventurous Figaro and hesitant Rumba is really lovely.
There is lots of action in the book but it happens at a more leisurely pace, which is perfect for younger readers (by that I mean four, five and six year olds) and there are lots of great pictures to break up the text.
Louis Beside Himself by Anna Fienberg, reviewed by Kathleen Dixon on Goodreads:
This book really is delightful, and it brings in subjects which are very real: parenting skills (or the lack of them), puberty, multicultural issues (to a minor degree, but still there), what friendship means. All of this within a humorous telling by a boy whose tone is just exactly right – I’m reminded of my brother at that age… Long may the richness of this language be celebrated. And thanks to this book for a great example!
Storytelling is often like Matryoshka dolls, layers of story, tales within tales and Hartnett uses, seamlessly, this device in her latest novel for middle readers. Beautifully written and hauntingly evocative, the story is set on the eve of the bombing of London in World War Two. For safekeeping, children were evacuated to the country, to family or in the case of many, to be billeted out, living with strangers, away from all they know… This eerie and cruel time in history interweaves with the present in surprising ways and what the reader and the children learn is everything is connected, the past has links to the present and has many a lesson to teach us if only those in power would care to learn.
Full of wit, and told with a light touch, this story is funny and serious, alighting on the problems of classroom control, schoolyard friendships, bullying and how home life impacts upon the classroom. I loved the library described as a refugee camp, waiting for those needing protection from the likes of Chris, and was dismayed at the bullying he receives from his father, pointing to the fact that bullies are often bullied at home. Again the writing flows smoothly, each incident adding another layer to the well drawn characters.
In other good news for women writers for children, Kate Constable took out both the CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Readers and the Patricia Wrightson Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for her very fine novel, Crow Country, a book and a writer that well deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Patricia Wrightson herself. And Alison Lester became one of our first Children’s Laureates, spreading the word about the importance of children’s books and reading across the country.
In sad news, we lost honorary Australian Margaret Mahy. A proud New Zealander, Margaret was nevertheless a frequent, affectionate visitor to Australia, and her loss has been felt by readers all over the world. So many women writers have been inspired by Margaret’s extraordinary talents over the years, and it’s fitting to end this roundup by acknowledging that the world of children’s books will be the poorer for her loss.
A friend once called me the Swiss Army Knife of children’s books. I’ve been a teacher, editor, critic, writer, and arts program manager, all focusing on literature for children and young adults. I am a Churchill Fellow and I wrote my MA thesis on feminist criticism, narrative theory and fairytale retellings for teenagers. I am currently working on a novel for children, but don’t tell anyone or I may have to actually finish it. My current day job is here. You can read more about me here.