Readers – and sometimes even writers – seem to think that writing for children and young adults is the literary equivalent of dunking soldiers in your boiled egg. Fun, possibly, but not what a proper grown-up writer should be playing at.
Penelope Lively is just one successful children’s writer who was taken seriously only when she published her first adult novel, while you have to wonder whether Jane Gardam’s work for children would have been quite so well-received had she not been savvy enough to aim her first book at an adult audience. Closer to home, Tessa Duder has long championed children’s and young adult (YA) literature, but nonetheless has recently taken up the “real thing” – not, we hope, in a spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Then there’s acclaimed children’s writer Maurice Gee, keen to remind his reading public that his true métier is writing for adults. What’s more, as Barbara Mabbett pointed out in her Comment piece in our October 2002 issue, children’s and YA lit nearly always gets short shrift in review pages, compared to books for big people.
And yet. Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy are arguably our two best-known writers on the international scene. They’re also probably better rewarded financially than just about any other New Zealand writer you can name. Not that they are remotely in the J K Rowling league – she is reported to be 11 places higher on the UK rich list than the Queen.
But even ordinary mortals among children’s and YA writers can anticipate a better return on their efforts than the run-of-the-mill novelist, let alone short story writer or poet. Barbara Larsen of Longacre Press expects to print 5,000 to 6,000 copies of an “averagely good” children’s or YA book. “They stay alive,” she says. “We sell class sets, then the kids damage or steal them and the schools buy more.” She has just reprinted for the third time Fleur Beale’s I Am Not Esther, a YA novel which has already sold more than 10,000 copies in this country. “Averagely good” writers for adults must be content with a fifth of this turnover.
So it’s not lack of sales that puts children’s and YA literature at the bottom of the pecking order. Is it mere snobbery then? Or some reflection of the low regard in which we generally hold children and teenagers? Or is it more to do with the refreshingly straightforward way in which children’s and YA books are marketed – directly into schools and bookshops, largely unmediated by media hype and the celebrity culture? Children’s and YA literature stands on its own merits, irrespective of whether the authors are craggy superannuitants or glam young things. And a classic is a classic; Alice in Wonderland and Just So Stories are up there with Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations, while The Fat Man and The Changeover will, we reckon, eventually hold their own with Man Alone, Plumb and the bone people.
Or is writing for children and teenagers looked down on because we all know it’s easy – any fool can do it, can’t they? Well, no, actually, as Anna Jackson argues in her review on p14 of this issue. Ask any publisher or professional manuscript assessor. They are constantly deluged with the dismal outpourings of misguided souls who have fallen for that particular myth.
Maybe a combination of these reasons explains why children’s and YA literature doesn’t rate up there with the “right stuff”. But it’s time it did. As Philip Pullman said, on accepting the extremely grown-up Whitbread Prize – and £30,000 – for his “children’s” book, The Amber Spyglass: “I’m absolutely thrilled to win this award because it shows what I have always believed – that children’s books belong with the rest in the general field, in the general market place for books and in the general conversation about books.”
Harry Ricketts and Jane Westaway