Monday, August 20, 2012

Quality children's literature no longer exists.


That's something I heard someone announce, quite vehemently, at a writer's event I attended a few weeks back.

"There's just no such thing as good children's literature anymore," a woman said sadly, and a little angrily. "It was so much better when we were kids." A bunch of attendees nodded vigorously and murmured their assent. I sat wriggling in my seat. I wanted to leap to my feet and shout THERE IS SO MUCH AWESOME KIDS' LIT OUT THERE WHAT ARE YOU CRAZY YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY LOOKING IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES. Yes, just like that, with no punctuation or any sense of social etiquette. But it was a panel and lots of people were talking and I'm not really given to violent public outburts anyway, so instead I just sat and listened while there was a general bemoaning of great books for children.

So you understand by now that my post title is a lie -- or at least you understand that I believe quite the opposite to be true: there is so much great children's literature out there. And "the olden days" don't hold the monopoly on quality. There was fluff published then just as there is fluff published now. The reason we don't read much of the fluff from yesteryear is because fluff doesn't endure. It doesn't keep being reprinted and issued in fresh covers with new illustrations by contemporary artists.

The same may be said of our season now in fifty years or so, when the good stuff is still being read. Honestly, there probably isn't time enough in a life to read all the great books people have written for kids (though we can try). But like most things worth seeing/doing/experiencing/appreciating, the best children's books take a little more effort in seeking out. It's not enough to go into the nearest bookstore franchise, KMart, or discount warehouse and scan the shelves. Often, you'll find row upon row of inflated series books about horses or vampires or bodily functions*. These stories are good sellers but can often be fluff; what is appealing to the masses is not always of the highest quality**.

For a better chance at discovering some gems, head a little further afield and hunt out an independent bookstore. Indie bookstores are usually run by people who care deeply about the written word, and the stock is hand-picked by staff and owners. I can often browse in chain bookstores and walk out empty-handed, but in independent stores, it's usually impossible for me to stick with just one purchase.

To guide your hunt for great kids' lit, keep track of award winners. The 2012 Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year winners were announced three days ago, showcasing the latest and the best of Australian kids' and YA lit:

The book of the year for older readers is The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner, with Bill Condon's A Straight Line to my Heart and Robert Newton's When We Were Two claiming the Honour titles. For younger readers, the winning title is Kate Constable's Crow Country, with Honour books Nanberry: Black Brother White (Jackie French) and The Truth About Verity Sparks (Susan Green). Winners in the early childhood category are Nick Bland's The Runaway Hug (book of the year), and Sonya Hartnett's Come Down, Cat! and Elizabeth Honey's That's Not a Daffodil (honour books).

The picture book of the year (not necessarily for younger children) went to Bob Graham's A Bus Called Heaven and honour awards to Ron Brooks' and Margaret Wild's The Dream of the Thylacine and Bruce Whatley and Jackie French's Flood. Finally, the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books went to Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch's One Small Island: the Story of Macquarie Island with Anh and Suzanne Do's The Little Refugee taking out the honour title.

The fact that a book has won an award doesn't make it an automatic fit for your child; parents and guardians should actively join kids in the reading process and make informed decisions about which titles are appropriate for which kids. But when a book has received an award such as this one, you are already part of the way there, knowing that there is a quality to the craft and creation of this piece of literature.

If one list of award-winning Australian books isn't enough, check out the shortlist for the 2012 Queensland Literary Awards, which was released today. Or check out the list of Newbery Medal-winning books, which spans ninety years of quality American children's literature.

One of the fabulous things about award-winning books is that they are often very quickly added to library catalogues, making them locally accessible for free. So since it's Children's Book Week here in Australia, your mission -- should you choose to accept it -- is to head out to a bookstore or library and find one new really great children's book. A gold star if you report back to me with your findings!

*which is not to say people can't write well about horses, vampires, or bodily functions, either.
**though sometimes it is. This isn't a rule!

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Conversations:

Meaghan -- I wish you could come to my Capitol Party, too! Although considering my current rate of organisation, maybe it won't have happened by the time you get here!

Rachael -- I'm glad you liked the post. Your little emoticon made me happy.

Laura Elizabeth -- it's hard for me to believe you hate the sound of your voice recorded because I think you have a lovely, lovely voice -- feminine and clear and not a touch of bogan! (and I'm so looking forward to our Bourne-date!)

Staish -- I wasn't blogging from my iPad, but I was videoing from it!

Andrea -- occasionally there are these spurts of bravery, lol.

Joy -- you'll be getting some mail from me soon!

Jessica -- glad you liked the video :)

harri -- I can't promise I'll do more videos, but if I work up my courage again, maybe I will.

Anon -- you are very sweet. Like I said to Harri, if I get injected with a fresh dose of braveness, maybe I'll do more videos. Mostly I wimp out.

Asea -- you are FAMOUS! You are on videos! And you're like the awesome girly one amidst a group of guys. AND you have a really cute voice. Please tell me more about what you're doing in the vid and how this came about.

Samantha -- and YOU are lovely.

12 comments:

  1. For once, the CBCA did a good job and actually chose some fun books. All of my favourites were in the younger readers section; in fact, I thought a lot of them probably belonged in the older readers section, but that was irrelevant, because they were all fantastic and definitely worth reading.

    Have you read Verity Sparks? It's such a gorgeous book - you simply must add it to your pile of books to read if you haven't read it yet.

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  2. For once, the CBCA did a good job and actually chose some fun books. All of my favourites were in the younger readers section; in fact, I thought a lot of them probably belonged in the older readers section, but that was irrelevant, because they were all fantastic and definitely worth reading.

    Have you read Verity Sparks? It's such a gorgeous book - you simply must add it to your pile of books to read if you haven't read it yet.

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  3. OK, I'm not quite sure how you got two comments for the price of one, there... but enjoy!

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  4. Woah, Katie... hogging all the space in the comments section :)

    I went to the library just the other week and I just went straight to the YA section. I will read one of my spoils and let you know. Oh, actually I will let you know now. It is called "Before The Storm" by Sean McMullen. I picked it pretty much because the cover made me laugh. For an apparently highly regarded author, the cover looks to me like a mock-up of a professional cover or something I would put together for a book I was doing. Here is the link: http://www.darkermatter.com/issue5/review.php If you scroll down, you can read a synopsis and see the cover in all its glory. And I enjoy that the reviewer made fun of the cover too!

    I'll let you know if I think it's any good. I like the idea of a sci-fi novel set in Australia. Something a bit different.

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  5. When you say "find one new really great children's book" do you mean new, as in, written/published recently, or does "new to me" count? :)

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  6. I agree it definitely can be hard to find good books for kids, but they are out there. :) So much of what our little ones pick up at the library is I guess what you have called fluff here. I'm meaner and label it garbage. Most of it is actually not offensive, just really pathetic. Watch my blog for our week of reading "Cooking with Grandma"! :)
    Also, I have sometimes wondered if books were better when I was a kid, but I honestly think that I just like those books better because I have fond childhood memories of having them read to me. I think our kids will have the same memories of books I don't have warm fuzzy feelings about because I've read them to them and they will have their own childhood memories of them.
    I've got "Arthur" and "Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day" from the library at the mo :)

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    Replies
    1. This might comment on Andrea's comment; the normal comment box seems to be on holiday today.

      I would just like to say, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom! Also Eric Carle. Also Redwall, for the older kids. So there. :-P

      You think I'm cute? Aww, thanks! Uh, yeah, I guess I'm famous to whoever watches that podcast! It's a movie review podcast that my friends Steve and Nate do with various other folk every week. They often have guests, so when I'm in town (they live near my parents), I often join them to view and discuss films. I think I've done... 5? I would have done more if I lived closer! But now I don't even live in the same state as they do anymore, so I probably won't be on any for a while.

      Another episode I guest comment in (warning, this is older): http://youtu.be/A2G0YUjW9gw

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  7. Iloveyouiloveyouiloveyou!!
    Let's have lots of babies and read with them and marry them off to each other then read wi our grand babies and be part of an epic, never-ending book club of joy!

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  8. Oh, I agree with this! My lecturer for Writing for Young People uses examples (mostly) from the last decade, as well as books he read as a kid and he speaks of them both equally. He's a cool dude.

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