In Praise of Children’s Books
Judith Ridge reflects on the characters who nurtured her childhood love of reading - and passionately argues that we need to recognise, reward and nurture great children’s writing, as separate from great writing for young adults.
When I was eight years old, I fell in love with a book.
This in itself was not unusual, for me or perhaps for any eight-year-old like the one I was — precociously and insatiably bookish, could read before school, you know the type. I’d been in love with lots of books by then: Harry the Dirty Dog (especially when he Didn’t Like Roses), The Magic Faraway Tree and its cousin, The Wishing Chair. I hadn’t yet met the girls who were to become touchstones in my young reading life — Lucy Pevensie, Judy Woolcot and Harriet M. Welsch — but I was well on the way at eight, when I read a book about another girl, called Teddy Truelance, and fell in love.
The book was Longtime Passing by the Australian author Hesba Brinsmead. It’s little-remembered or read now, I expect, but in 1972 it won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year award, and my heart.
Longtime Passing is Hesba Brinsmead’s fictional memoir of her childhood, spent growing up in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Brinsmead was born in 1922, and Longtime Passing describes The Truelance family living in their hand-built slab hut, their father making their living from cutting down the very timbers of the forest that sustained them; their mother, who ‘felt as though she and the children were the only inhabitants of a lost world,’ working to maintain standards, raise her children and then disappear at night into endless re-readings of Pride and Prejudice. And the children lived out their adventures in the bush of the Blue Mountains, a place I knew well, because I too had lived there as an even younger child than I was when I read the book.
It is, I think, very likely true that Longtime Passing was one of the first novels I ever read that had a distinctively and recognisably Australian setting; the first novel that described places I knew intimately, and that used language and portrayed human characters and experiences that were unmistakably Australian. (It may also well have been the first book I read that included Aboriginal Australia in its discussion of the Australian landscape and history; alas, it also recounts an almost certainly fictional account of the ritual sacrifice of a young Aboriginal woman. And so it may be just as well that the book is little remembered, and I am sorry that my childhood affection for the book is irrevocably tainted by this stain.)
Although I mention Teddy as one of the earliest in a long line of literary heroines who made their mark on me, it wasn’t that I fell in love with her so much as the world she inhabited — a world I recognised, but also yearned for. I felt the way the following year, when a television series brought the Woolcot family into my life, those Seven Little Australians, ‘none of (whom) were really good, for the excellent reason that Australian children never are’ (and whose home, Misrule, I would years later borrow to name my blog and social media profiles …) Turner is quite explicit about the nature of the Australian character and the effect of the country’s history and the ‘sunny brilliance of our atmosphere’ on its children, and I recall quite clearly the surprising pleasure of reading about my own country, my own child compatriots.
I developed the same fierce attachment to American and English books, and the characters within them, and a deep and almost painful desire to somehow enter into the world of those characters and books. Lucy Pevensie, already mentioned, is an obvious one — who wouldn’t want to go to Narnia with her? Especially when, like Lucy, you’re the youngest of four siblings, who sometimes felt so grown-up and beyond interest in the games of an eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old. But it wasn’t just Lucy. I so badly fell in love with Harriet the Spy that I played Town in the dirt in my backyard and made a spy route around the streets of Auburn — a suburb in western Sydney about as far removed as the upper east side of Manhattan as it is possible to imagine and still be in the urban, western world.
And what on earth did these books have in common? Sharp-eyed, street-wise, nascent mean girl Harriet M. Welsch bore little resemblance to gentle Lucy Pevensie, and probably neither of them could have stood to be around Judy Woolcot for long. I’m not a great believer in the idea that kids require ‘characters they can relate to’, as the old saw would have it, in order to find themselves lost deep within the pages of a book, although I also think it’s true that I saw — or wanted to see — something of myself in many of my childhood fictional heroes (including Harry the Dirty Dog — and I was a cat girl through and through). It was more than that. When I truly loved a book, it became a kind of yearning to enter fully into that world and somehow live in it. For me, I suspect, it was a wish to cram in as much experience as I possibly could, a kind of platonic pre-adolescent romance with the unattainable, which in my teenage years transformed into crushes on pop stars and boys I was too afraid to actually speak to.
There is something particularly intense, pure (and in many respects, deeply private) about the way a child enters into the world of a book that is completely different from the way a teenager, and certainly an adult, reads. I’m not trying to set up an oppositional position between kids and teenagers and their reading, because I know that teenage readers feel equally passionate about the books they fall in love with. But there’s a certain — I won’t say innocence — but an utter absorption into the world of a book for the dedicated child reader that I think few of us experience post-adolescence. (Francis Spufford, in The Child that Books Built, describes this experience of ‘reading catatonically’ as an airlock: ‘It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside. The silence that fell on noises of people and traffic and dogs allowed an inner door to open to the book’s… script of sound.’)
I’ve written at length in the past about my frustration with the way that YA fiction has attracted the vast bulk of media and critical attention over the past decade or so. I know I am not alone in groaning in frustration whenever I see yet another ‘Best books for teens’ list that is largely made up of the great classics of children’s literature, or when I hear people speak about children’s books as ‘young-young adult’ or any of the equally ugly and tortured descriptors to apparently give respectability to a category of literature that absolutely no-one need make apologies for. The great danger in subsuming children’s books into YA in both public discourse and in the literary pages and blogs, is already, I fear, having an impact on writing and publishing. Since the splitting of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards into Book of the Year: Younger Readers and Book of the Year: Older Readers some 20 years ago, we’ve seen a steady decline in the recognition in those awards, and of recognition in the publishing industry itself of great, substantial, literary fiction for older children (the 8-12 year old range, that golden age of reading). And where there are few awards (the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, for example, only has a prize for Young Adult fiction), and little recognition, there’s little incentive for writers to take on what most children’s authors and publishers agree is the hardest thing to write, and write well: the truly great children’s novel.
We have those writers in this country; people following in the footsteps of the likes of Patricia Wrightson and Ivan Southall, but unlike the bestselling YA authors and those writers of high-selling, popular, commercial children’s fiction, I wonder how many of them you can name?
So it’s not the teenagers I am worried about, nor even the kids for whom reading isn’t their first choice of leisure activity, or for whom reading is a struggle. The truth is, all those young readers are actually very well catered for, with a wider range and variety of books that we’ve ever seen in the history of publishing.
It’s the kind of child reader I was, the kid who wants to follow a Teddy Truelance into the bush, or a Harriet M. Welsch around the block, or a Lucy Pevensie through the back of the cupboard, that I worry about. These kids are great readers, and they need great books. Let’s make sure they’re there to give to them.