Welcome to the ‘beautiful jungle’ of kids’ fiction


Image: Pixabay

You wait for one blog post about the merits of children’s fiction, and then two come along at once ...

The other day, I was whining on about how underrated kid’s literature was. How the adult reading public tend to see the classification YA or childrens’ and flee like kittens on a hot griddle.

I was pontificating about how serious the themes in YA often are, how high the quality of writing is in books such as Booker Longlister Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. How not all fiction for young people drips with vampires and werewolves and soppy, sparkly love triangles.

People just don’t read the stuff, I whined. Why won’t anyone listen to me? I prattled. Seriously, if you want to read a writer in full whinge mode, then here is a good place to start.

And then do you know what happened?

The next day – the very next day – after that blog was blogged, the Costa Book of the Year was announced. Formerly the Whitbread Book Awards, they’re a pretty deal. Previous winners include Ian McEwan, Seamus Heaney, Salman Rushdie, Ted Hughes, Hilary Mantell – some of the biggest of the big hitters in literary terms.

There are categories for first novel, novel, biography, poetry and children’s books and then an overall winner is chosen.

And that winner this year was …

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge – a novel written for children featuring a 14-year-old heroine.

Now, I’m not saying tha Costa judges allowed the contents of this blog to sway their final decision. I would never suggest I have the ear of such a prestigious group of people, though it seems a hell of a coincidence, doesn’t it?

And, though I haven’t yet read The Lie Tree I will definitely search it out in the future – it’s a Victorian murder mystery which involves science, gender politics and a tree that grows when you whisper lies to it. What’s not to love about that presmise?

It’s only the second time the Costa Book of the Year has been won by a children’s book, the first one being … The Amber Spyglass

Now, I’m sure the total of £35,000 in prize money Hardinge won will be very much appreciated.

But even better in my view, will be the increase in attention and sales, which will perhaps spill over to other kid’s writers.

As Hardinge said when accepting the award,

For those people who might be hearing this who think that children’s and YA fiction is not their thing please do come and explore – there’s a beautiful jungle out there.


There were some other, very fine nominees for the award, my particualr favourite being Kate Atkinson –  if you haven’t read any of her books, you could do worse than start with her debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum.


How fundamentalism has helped a children’s classic to the screen



Why is children’s and YA fiction so underrated?

It still seems to me that the general populace are under the delusion that writing for young people is somehow easier than writing for adults.

I guess I can see why to some extent.

Often in the past, the word counts have been shorter than adult books, which translates to many as less effort from the author (though this has changed over time – Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books are chunky enough to hammer plasterboard into place). And some of the subject matter hasn’t helped as much is genre – fantasy, sci-fi, horror etc. And as we all know, ‘genre’ – whether in books or on the screen – often translates with reviewers as populist-not-really-serious-just-aiming-for-the-big-bucks rather than writing something-worthy-where-nothing-happens-apart-from-the-protagonists-growing-slightly-older-literary-fiction.

This preconception is not altogether true, of course.

Yes, there’s a fair bit of sparkly vampire nonsense out there and who could fail to notice the number of black-covered, fang-themed knock-offs cramming the bookshop shelves after the huge success of Twilight? As you also must have seen the grey simulacrums that stuffed the same shelves when E. L James was at her mucky masochistic height.

(On a side note, how quickly must publishers churn this stuff out when they spot a mega hit? It takes big publishers up to two years to get a book out in normal circumstances, yet Ninety Shades of Grey, Seventy Shades of Off-White and 101 Unhygienic Things To Do With a Handwhisk were chugging through the tills before most of us had agreed on a ‘safe word’.)*

Anyway, I digress.

A lot of serious subjects are tackled in the world of kids’ fiction. Apart from approaching heavyweight subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, suicide, the individual’s fight against totalitarianism, many are at least as well written as most ‘adult’ fiction.

Take the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Yep, they’re classed as kids books, but if you haven’t read them, please don’t let this put you off. They are well written, layered, dealing with more complex issues than 90% of the ‘2 for 1’ paperbacks in your local Tesco.

The Amber Spyglass was the first children’s book nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize – that’s how well written this stuff is.

Problem is, movie makers in their wisdom, thought it would be a good idea to take this knotty, beautiful trilogy and turn it into popcorn-multiplex fodder, as you may have witnessed in 2007’s The Golden Compass, reducing the subtle etchings of the first book into a one-note plot-driven piece (complete with new-Bond Daniel Craig) and skewing the public’s perception of the works in the process.

After lobbying from Christian fundamentalists in the States, the film had a disappointing box office and the sequels went unmade.

However, thanks to our beloved BBC, all is not lost – at least for those of us living in good old Blighty. For Auntie Beeb has commissioned a series based on the trilogy. So over several hours, we can hope to see something closer to Pullman’s original idea realised.

So, hurray for Pullman! Hurray for the Beeb! And hurray for intolerance!

For if there had been no anti-Golden Compass lobby, all three books may have been made into less than adequate films, thus making another adaptation redundant.

Do watch the BBC adaptation if you can – but read the books first, as a reminder of how great some children’s literature can be. 



*Don’t search Goodporn for these titles – I made them up. As I made up Goodporn. Or, at least, I hope I did.

The red satin corset of shame: what the contents of your bookshelf reveals about you


Ever worried someone might open the top of your skull and take a look at your brain?

Not in an physical, ‘err, it’s all pink and membraney and looks a bit like a blushing cauliflower’ sort of way, but in a ‘hell, what kind of twisted weirdness is this? And what’s that horrible, many tentacled thing hiding in the corner that looks like it wants to eat me’ kind of way’?

What I mean is, would you be worried if someone could see your inner workings (again, not the pink squidgy ones)?

We all have our secrets. I’ve written here before about how good people are at acting normal and how great kids are at showing their inner weirdo – well, outer weirdo … Just total, 100% weirdo.

If all adults feel they have to hide parts of themselves in order to fit in with all the other adults hiding parts of themselves and trying to fit in, are there unexpected ways in which these hidden depths ooze out, exposing the red-satin-corset-of-shame below the buttoned-down collar of respectability?

Before you begin to imagine I have a garage filled with life-sized, fully automated Lego models of serial killers or a catalogued assortment of ear wax, body hair and nail clippings, may I reassure you that I’m talking about books here.

Now, some people’s bookshelves may be filled with sumptuous leather bound volumes of Dickens, Hemingway, Austen and Hardy. Those volumes may be well-thumbed and oft read.  The owners may love the Classics, enjoy bathing in the warm joy of words, the love of literary genius.

Or they may just be snobs who want to show off an intelligence they don’t possess, mirrors only ever reflecting, never absorbing these wonders of erudition.

I’m guessing, though, that your bookshelf is very much like mine – a jumble of papery friends you’ve accumulated over the years. As with human friends, they’ll be some you love, that you return to time and again, that give back more each time you return to them.

But, you may also have the book equivalent of a friend-who-shouldn’t-really-be-a-friend, some piece of rubbish you picked up years ago. Maybe you’re not quite sure where or how they came into your life, you keep meaning to shake them off but can’t quite muster the energy to finally throw them out. 

So maybe, your bookshelf is a little like opening up your head and rummaging through its contents. Maybe it’s a window into your psyche, a little hint at still water running deep, or that you’re just a bit of an odd ball with a fixation with manhole covers, beer mat collecting and edible invertebrates.

From my own bookshelf, you’d learn I have a fascination for the Tudor period, especially the life of its seamen (note the spelling please).

You’ll also find a smattering of local history and dialect books, and Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England by Emily Cockayne – a fascinating book about dirty Georgians.

There’s plenty of fiction, of course. Books I read as a kid through to modern YA, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and, yes, some Classics – Dickens, Austen, Mary Shelley, George Elliott, Conana Doyle.

And beside the guides to fiction writing, the books to teach yourself crochet, knitting and gardening (because there’s surely nothing you can’t learn from books) there are some about fossils – and a lovely big picture book filled with skeletons.

So, imagine Sherlock Holmes was trying to work out my personality from the contents of my bookshelf, because let’s face it, that’s the kind of thing he’d do.

I’d be a maiden in some distress, probably with a large fortune and a good line in lace hankies and suspect male relations. From the contents of my shelves, Mr Holmes might learn a thing or two …

‘Our quarry has an erratic mind, Watson – do you see the jumble of tomes, one atop the other, seemingly without rhyme or reason. And the subject matter – from antiquity through to our own day? Surely a sign of derangement, a person who is at once juvenile and geriatric, with a dangerous preoccupation with the grimy underbelly of society, with darkness and with death.

‘Call a hansom cab at once. The game is afoot!’

What does the contents of your bookshelf reveal about you? Would your books on real crime surprise your Nan? Would your collection of French romantic poetry have your work colleagues passing out with shock?