The Reckoning: Taking Children's Books Seriously
Frances Plumpton, Eileen Merriman and Harriet Allan
Most bookstores I’ve visited arrange books by genre, and they are marketed similarly. This is often very useful, if you are looking for a crime novel or a great picture book for your child. The downside of this is that there tends to be an element of snobbery (in some circles) about novels that do not fit into the genre of literary fiction.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many authors, publishers and members of the public who do not harbour these opinions. But I don’t think I’m imagining it. When I say I’m about to have an adult book published, people often seem more impressed than if I tell them that I’ve had three young adult (YA) books published (with the same publisher, no less). Does that mean the adult book contains writing that is more sophisticated, more polished, more worthy of a major prize? I’d like to think not. Yet there is a large difference in the value of the top fiction prizes for children/YA and adults in New Zealand – namely, almost 46K. Is this difference merely due to different sponsors? I’m not sure.
Does that mean the adult book contains writing that is more sophisticated, more polished, more worthy of a major prize? I’d like to think not.
Perhaps some of this problem lies with marketing. For instance, I’ve just finished reading J. P. Pomare’s gripping debut novel, Call Me Evie. Even though the protagonist is 17 years old, the book is marketed as adult fiction. Will this affect sales figures? Undoubtedly, and to its benefit. It’s currently number one on the NZ Fiction For Adults Nielsen Weekly Bestseller list, and has been for many weeks. I’m sure many of the adults reaching for this book wouldn’t even consider reading it if it were shelved in the YA section. So, is this book superior to several of the YA novels I’ve read? Definitely not.
That’s not a criticism of Call Me Evie. It’s a testament to the quality of many of the novels shelved in the YA section of our bookshops and libraries, which can, if given a chance, have a wider appeal. There are many adults who enjoy reading YA, and yet, unfortunately, there are some who ridicule those who choose to do so.
Let me give you some examples of writers whom I consider to be ‘genreless’: David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro. Their works could equally be classified as literary fiction, fantasy, or in some instances, YA fiction.
Eileen Merriman's Books
David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green is narrated from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old, and won the American Library Association’s Best Book for Young Adults in 2007. It also won the New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and was listed as an American Library Association Notable Books for adults, among others. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go has been termed a dystopian science fiction novel, but has also been called a bildungsroman, or ‘coming of age’, novel (as has Black Swan Green). And do I need to mention J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye?
So what is it that slots a novel with a fifteen-year old protagonist into the YA genre, versus the adult genre? Is it pacing? Complexity (or not) of language? Length? The cover? Is it that some YA novels can be enjoyed both by teenagers and adults, whereas some appeal more clearly to adults? Are adults who like to read YA fiction being juvenile in their outlook? I don’t think so. I’d like to credit our young people with being more sophisticated and intelligent than that, although there are individuals of all ages who prefer to read rather formulaic books, which is fine, if that’s what one is after.
So what is it that slots a novel with a fifteen-year old protagonist into the YA genre, versus the adult genre? Is it pacing? Complexity (or not) of language? Length? The cover?
Here are some YA books that kept me glued to the page, and made me cry: Patrick Ness’s Knife of Letting Go series, Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, and of course, S.E. Hinton’s unforgettable The Outsiders. The writing was far more sophisticated than in some of the adult books I’ve mistakenly picked up within the past year. I threw one of these down in disgust after reading ‘he pulls her into his arms and they kiss passionately’. You may or may not be surprised to know that this particular book has been on the adult bestseller charts for months. All I can say is, you wouldn’t get away with that in a YA book.
Are adult writers, or those who write for both children’s/YA and adult genres (e.g. Mandy Hager, Maurice Gee), more worthy? Certainly not.
I don’t think I could write a picture book, and to me those who can do so deserve equal respect to their adult-focused peers – writers such as Joy Cowley and Lynley Dodd, Heather Haylock and Margaret Mahy. Reading The Man Whose Mother Was A Pirate to my children is always a joy, mainly because of the magical, dreamy prose: ‘he hadn’t dreamed of the BIGNESS of the sea… the drift and dream of it, the weave and the wave of it, the fume and foam of it.’ Young people are often our harshest critics. They are certainly more inclined to put a book down if they’re not enjoying it.
Young people are often our harshest critics. They are certainly more inclined to put a book down if they’re not enjoying it.
Have I got any magic solutions to help with this literary divide? We could start by having combined book awards to recognise New Zealand’s most talented writers. Currently the book awards for children’s and young adults are celebrated separately from those for adults. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if these authors were recognised at a combined award ceremony, such as occurs at the Australian Book Industry Awards? Wouldn’t the intermingling of authors for the established set of Book Awards enable better recognition and respect for our children’s and YA writers? If nothing else, it would make for a great party.
Greater space could, and should, be given in the print and mainstream digital media for reviews of children’s and young adults books. There could be less separation in bookshop and library displays for the different genres. I’d like to see more YA books go the way of Call Me Evie, with greater recognition and readership.
Greater space could, and should, be given in the print and mainstream digital media for reviews of children’s and young adults books.
So, next time you walk into a bookshop, don’t go straight for the adult fiction section. Have a stroll through the children’s and YA sections. Pick up a book. Buy and read one, or two, or three... You might be pleasantly surprised. I'll end here with a quote from Roald Dahl: 'never grow up… always down'. Amen.
Eileen Merriman is a doctor (haematologist) by day, and a writer by night. She lives on the North Shore in Auckland, New Zealand. Her work has previously been published or is forthcoming in the Sunday Star Times, Smokelong Quarterly, Literary Orphans, the 2015 Bath Short Story Anthology, The Island Review, Blue Fifth Review, Takahe, Headland, Flash Frontiers and F(r)iction. She has published three YA novels, Catch Me When You Fall, Pieces of You, and Invisibly Breathing, and her adult fiction debut, Moonlight Sonata, comes out in July. All of her novels are published with Penguin NZ.