Frances Hardinge is an exceptional writer. From the outset her work has been stylish, strongly ideas led and wholly immersive. The Lie Tree deservedly won the overall Costa Book of the Year and in so doing has leveraged much needed focus onto the arena of books published for children and young people helping to galvanise questions around why a literature that is so prominent in terms of overall sales (children’s sales constitute roughly 30% of the market share) are continually overlooked in media review space (research suggests only around 3% is devoted to children’s books).
As with many questions, the answer is perhaps diffuse, but as an art form literature published for children is one of few that proactively asserts its intended audience. Movements across social media have habitually extended those assertions, further stratifying through Middle Grade and Young Adult and further delineating ideas of intended audience and readership.
Childhood is not static or fixed
Outcomes from this have been varying and various. These gradations have seen a critical mass grow around particular titles, authors and issues affecting the field. It has encouraged wider discussions and debate via digital means and the dissemination of this has allowed people of wide and varied backgrounds to contribute ideas and participate in the consideration of literature and reading. Philip Pullman has described reading as a ‘democratic activity‘ and there is undoubted democratisation around comment and access to on the field which is hugely empowering and allows reading to be an equaliser.
Less so, however, is the idea that audience is segregated and that a notional idea of a reader as ‘child’ is placed before the work itself. That is necessarily going to be limiting and damaging. Childhood is not static or fixed, it is culturally determined. On a macroscopic level this is impacted upon by legalities, by societal concepts, and by thoughts and policies around education, this is further influenced on a microscopic level through family values and ideals and through individual viewpoints and ideas as to our own identity. What does this mean for literature for children?
It opens something of a Pandora’s Box… What exactly is literature for children?
(1) It has a strong association with ideas of moral association, worth and the ideas of what it is to live by ‘noble’ means – though arguably modern trends have probed at such assumptions and have sometimes garnered criticism for so doing (the furore over Kevin Brooks winning the Carnegie Medal for The Bunker Diary is one recent example)
(2) It is usually, although not exclusively, written by and published by adults.
(3) Its critique has long modelled itself more around education and notions of child development than around more traditional literary criticism.
The resultant outcome of the above has too often been that some of the specialist critical tools and the language that is equal to discussion of the complexities in form have been underdeveloped. Consequently the type of insight into this rich, sophisticated and hugely exciting artform has been subject to limitation. Like a tapestry, our literary landscape for children needs a variety of voices commenting and critiquing upon it, when interwoven, those can shine a bright light onto many aspects of our society, its make-up and on our own personal growth and development.
Jake Hope is Chair of YLG North West and is a Reading Development and Children’s Book Consultant. He reviews for numerous publications, has judged the Carnegie, Greenaway, Blue Peter and Diverse Voices awards and is a passionate advocate and commentator on children’s literature and reading.