Have adult readers hijacked children's books?
I noticed yesterday that the new-ish Mark Haddon book, Boom!, came wrapped with a black band suggesting it was “for children of all ages”. I’m intrigued. There’s a quote on Amazon from the Bookseller review: “A hilarious adventure by Mark Haddon, who has an innate and dazzling rapport with his target audience”. I guess if I work with those two statements, I could naturally come to the conclusion that his target audience is everyone. Or, at the very least, that’s who his publisher wants it to be.
There’s a huge number of adults that read and like children’s books. I’m one of them. I like to think we’re a discerning bunch, and possibly know a good story better than readers who put up with pages of wobble and drivel in adult books. How many adults will finish a book simply because they’ve started it, and not because they’re enjoying it? I bet you those books are for grown-ups. It rarely happens with children’s books – okay, Harry Potter’s “100-page hanging around in a tent” in the Deathly Hallows bored me to tears, but I still got to the end.
But when you see publishers actively selling children’s books to an adult audience, I think there’s a problem. “Children of all ages” doesn’t wash with me. It seems confused, and that can’t be good for anyone, author or reader. One of the reviewers of Boom! on Amazon helpfully writes: “As soon as it arrived I realised that I had made a big mistake because this is very clearly a children’s rather than an adult’s book.”
This readership crossover issue clearly works both ways. Adult’s books packaged as children’s books are as confusing to kids as children’s books for grown-ups.
I was recently chatting to a bookseller about Bog Child, by Siobhan Dowd. The book’s beautifully written, and I’m sure we’ll see it on the BBC as a Sunday night drama at some point soon, but we spoke about it winning the Carnegie prize and she told me how in shadow reading groups within schools, the children just didn’t get it. So how did it win the prize if the children didn’t enjoy it? It was voted for by adults, of course.
Now that’s possibly a different problem – children’s book prizes being voted for by adults, who have different sensibilities to a child – but it highlights the confusion that’s created by not targeting a readership. With children’s books, writing for a set audience is usually imperative to success, and if the book breaks out into other markets, so be it.
But I think the fact of the matter is that children’s books are now judged differently, as much as to how they’ll be received by adults as children. Because of this, children’s titles are often reviewed with an eye to the adult reader, which can be incredibly unhelpful.
I write children’s books for children. It’s lovely if adults like them but they’re not who I write for. It’s unlikely my stories will ever make school reading lists, mainly because I want children to enjoy them. I want my books to be fun and exciting, and I hope they help children think that books are great to read.
I remember I am David sending me to sleep at school, and that’s an awful thing to say. Children’s books shouldn’t do that. They should excite, inspire, and make children readers for life. In contrast, shortly after finishing that book, we read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator in class and I loved it. To me, that says a lot about how to get kids to enjoy reading – save history for the history class.
So let children’s books stand and fall on whether they’re good children’s books for children. If they’re brilliant, adults will like them anyway.