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The Golden Age of Children’s Literature

April 27, 2010

For this post I am putting on my school librarian cap!

One of the extraordinary developments in fiction today is the evolution of children’s and YA fiction into an sophisticated and rich body of fiction. Many critics and writers would agree that despite the Alan Garners, C.S. Lewises and Roald Dahls of the past, we are now living through the golden age of children’s fiction.

One of the reasons for this flowering of children’s fiction has to do with a shift in attitude amongst writers, publisher and readerships – a shift in attitude that has meant this fiction is taken more seriously in both the writing and the reading. In his introduction to the 2001 Bloomsbury edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Will Self noted that he is suspicious of writers who say that the books that influenced them are books like Ulysses, Madame Bovary et al. These are undoubtedly great books, but Self argues that we are most likely to be fundamentally influenced by our early reading and, for Self himself, Alice is one of those world-shifting books. Self is just one of many writers who acknowledges the importance of children’s fiction to our culture and cultural development.

Amanda Craig, children’s fiction reviewer for The Times, goes even further, by stating that contemporary children’s fiction is often more intellectually adventurous and exciting than contemporary adult fiction. She has argued that children’s fiction takes on difficult and fundamental themes and through its frequent application of the fantastic is often well-equipped to explore the difficult and complex ideas that contemporary adult fiction often won’t tackle.

The Harry Potter phenomenon has undoubtedly been another catalyst for this shift in attitude, though the popular series is more valuable in a wider cultural sense than it is for the intrinsic literary value of the books themselves. The Harry Potter series launched at an international level the notion of the cross-over book – the book that could be marketed to appeal to two readerships simultaneously. What is ironic is that the Harry Potter books are actually much less cross-over in style and spirit than many other children’s books that fared less well – they are sophisticated in terms of world-building but, stylistically, the likes of Philip Pullman and Lian Hearn make Rowling seem from the age of Blyton and Lewis.

The cross-over phenomenon undoubtedly changed readerships, but it also changed attitudes towards the children’s book market. Children’s books had been seen as a small, specific market and then, after Rowling’s incredible success, suddenly became big business. This attracted many writers of quality to it that would possibly not have ended up writing children’s books otherwise. And this is really the key to what distinguishes the children’s fiction of this age. We now have sophisticated writers with developed styles who are fully engaged in the task of producing books for children full of challenging ideas, elaborate conceits, and thrilling plots.*1

Notable children’s authors like Jonathan Stroud, Michelle Paver and Neil Gaiman had all written for adults before they turned to children’s books. What is increasingly evident is that this influx of new talent has made contemporary children’s fiction expand its scope in interesting ways . We now have much tougher and more hard-hitting children’s books than ever before. We have books about serious subjects, both realistic and fantastic or sometimes both. We have books about mortality and science and the environment and politics. We have books with ambition and scope – big ideas, epic execution. Though it should be noted that not all adult writers understand this market, and even highly-esteemed ones can go astray. One of the worst-judged attempts I’ve read is Isabel Allende’s joyless and leaden City of the Beasts.

Some interesting trends in this Golden Age of children’s fiction are already discernable. Firstly, there is an incredible proliferation of trilogies and series. There are fewer and fewer great standalone stories. Sometimes this is a bad thing – after all, not every book deserves a sequel, and sometimes a series, such as Garth Nix’s Keys of the Kingdom, feels very diluted by being extended over several books.

Secondly, there is a new frankness about sex and sexuality in YA fiction. In Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, the two teenage protagonists consummate their relationship and this itself is an important aspect of the structure of ideas within the book. In fact, the loss of innocence on a number of levels is an important aspect of the rite of passage enacted throughout the whole of Pullman’s trilogy. Some sexually frank YA books, however, have been viewed by some critics as exploitational – perhaps the most controversial case is Melvin Burgess’s Doing It.

Thirdly, YA novels, these days, can be both very gritty and violent. YA horror is huge and perhaps the most violent books I have encountered is the Demonata series by Darren Shan. The increasing ultra-violence in YA horror presents us with a difficult debate – these are the sorts of books that will attract the reluctant reader, but are not the sorts of books every parent would approve of – hence their popularity!

Finally, in terms of larger trends it may be said that we have just passed through the age of magicians and witches and have now entered the even more gothic phase of werewolves and vampires (though pirates have made a comeback, and sometimes a combination of the two in vampirates!). We can see from this that children’s fiction at the more fantastic end of the spectrum continues to dominate. Children’s and YA fiction is arguably the richest source of speculative fiction in our time.

Here are my ten top recommendations amongst the current crop of children’s fiction –

1. Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, including: Wolf Brother, Spirit Walker, Soul Eater, Outcast, Oathbreaker, Ghost Hunter. These books are wonderful examples of how children’s books at their best are motored by brilliant, seamless plotting. There is no waste – everything is taut, clean and efficient. They are also carefully researched – Paver has visited indigenous peoples and forests throughout Europe and North America to get her Stone Age world correct. There is a beautifully realised sense of an organic culture depicted in these books, and good and evil is measured in relation to how much characters respect their environment.

2. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy including: The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate. This trilogy, voiced by and named after a Djinn, who has weathered centuries, is dark, witty, and stylish. Stroud’s Nordic Heroes of the Valley is also brilliant.

3. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Gaiman established his talent for children’s book with Coraline, but The Graveyard Book, winner of the Newbery Medal, a gothic tale inspired by The Jungle Book, is his masterpiece (so far).

4. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, including: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. This trilogy needs no introduction as it is probably the most critically feted YA trilogy of recent times. Pullman is the best example of a current writer taking children’s books seriously. His trilogy has big ideas and themes, explored at an epic scale. The Amber Spyglass was the first children’s book to ever win the overall Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 2001, a moment in children’s publishing that was observed by many to mark a shift in attitude within the literary establishment towards seeing children’s fiction as equivalent in quality to adult literature.

5. Carol Ann Duffy is not just the Poet Laureate, but also a brilliant and committed writer of children’s verse. One of her best books for children, however, is in prose – a trio of modern fairytales called The Stolen Childhood.

6. Catherine Fisher – A versatile, often historically or mythically-based writer who has written a number of notable books for children. Her best books are probably the daringly original Incarceron duology and the atmospheric and eerie Nordic trilogy The Snow-Walker’s Son.

7. Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori trilogy is a beautiful, lyrical piece of historical fantasy set in Ancient Japan. Includes – Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass For His Pillow, Brilliance of the Moon.

8. The Witch’s Boy by Michael Gruber. One of many contemporary children’s books that creatively re-work and update classic fairy tales to new purposes. This book stands out for its wit, the quality of the writing, and its unflinching darkness. This is the closest contemporary YA fiction comes to an existentialist novel (but with a happy ending! ).

9. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins is a tough, visceral, futuristic sequence of books. It is part of the current shift into more violent fiction for children, but it is also about that violence, and can be read as much as a dystopian novel of ideas as a thriller.

10. Helen Grant is a rising star in YA fiction. Last year’s The Vanishing of Katharina Linden stood out as an exemplarily original and sophisticated YA novel.

Special Mentions –

I like the idea of the Artemis Fowl series more than the execution, and I don’t think they are a true crossover series. Colfer’s best book is The Supernaturalist.

Darren Shan has a wonderful contemporary style and is amazingly prolific and versatile.

Eva Ibbotson is another writer who writes for both adults and children. Her books are very whimsical and charming and very likely to appeal to girls, although not exclusively.

So, for the record, what were or are your favourite children’s book/s, and can you name any titles that interest you to this day?

*1 I know we might describe both Lewis and Tolkien as cross-over writers, but I have always felt that, despite his unparalleled world-building, Lewis is airily disengaged stylistically, and is perhaps one of the classic writers most guilty of not taking children’s fiction as seriously as it deserves. Tolkien, however, is the great pioneer before Rowling of the cross-over writer.

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