THE PROBLEM with the general discussion of children's books is that there is no general discussion. Every so often, there is a particular discussion, usually not about the books but their subject matter. It resolves almost at once into two positions: "Children's books ought to be about nice things", and "Children's books ought to be about reality, which is nasty". But why doesn't the general conversation about contemporary literature include the names of writers such as Jan Mark, Janni Howker or Peter Dickinson?
Perhaps the problem is with the very term. As with any qualifier (black, women's, gay), the word "children's" seems to limit and exclude rather than welcome and broaden. I am happy to take up a good book by a woman; but a book labelled "women's writing" says "I have nothing to say to you, because you're a man." Maybe "children's book" says the same sort of thing to those adults who are not professionally or personally involved with children.
Which is a great pity. But there are one or two signs that the barriers are beginning to shake a little, if not actually crumble. One is the increasing use of the term "young adult" instead of "teenage" for books at the upper end of the age range. Another is the appearance on some lists this autumn of books such as Peter Dickinson's The Kin (see the review by Nicholas Tucker above), Michelle Magorian's A Spoonful of Jam and Susan Price's The Sterkarm Handshake. These are long books, which look and behave and speak to readers for all the world as if those readers were intelligent and curious and capable of following a complex narrative. And from my point of view, there is the cheering fact that when I speak at a festival or some other event - as I did last week at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature - half of my audience seems to consist of unaccompanied adults. They listen closely and ask questions and make observations, with no noticeable loss of dignity. …