Once, walking home, I saw a boy strolling in the opposite direction while simultaneously reading a copy of the latest novel by Ian McEwan. Thinking it pretty unusual to see someone that engrossed in a book, I stopped the young man and said: “It’s really good then, is it?” The poor guy looked at me like I’d just threatened his life and quickly ran away. Readers can be skittish things, but in the age of digital devices I miss passing people and spying on the words that they are falling into. Just as we aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, we probably shouldn’t judge a reader by their reading material--but has it ever stopped us, in either case?
Lemony Snicket once said that we should never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them. While judging for the council and travelling around the state, I certainly had more than one book with me—I’d be falling behind if I left home with anything less than a boxful. But even as someone who publicly loves children’s books—writes his own, for crying out loud—
I found myself very self conscious when I took some of my books out into public. What would people think when I was reading the latest Our Australian Girl at uni on my lunch break? Was it okay to sit in a coffee shop as a twenty-three old man, poring over the pictures of Fearless in Love?
The Guardian published an article recently titled 1Children’s Books Are Never Just For Children.' The article spoke of the care and brilliance of children’s books, wondering why they are never considered for major literary awards like the Man Booker or the Costa (one might also reasonably argue the Miles Franklin or Vogel), even when they have such longevity on our shelves, being visited and re-visited long after their passage from one generation to the next. In my experience, the Children’s Book Council of Australia takes children’s literature unerringly seriously. (Without risking too unsavoury a glimpse behind the curtain, let’s just say that the level of passion in the arguments that take place in the process of the Children’s Book of the Year Awards fall only fractionally short of trial by combat.) We love our children’s books. We live them. But can we get the rest of the world to take them seriously? Or are they just for kids?
Writers like Sonya Hartnett jump with wild abandon in and out of the realms of children and adult literature, sometimes even balancing precariously on the ledge between the two. But is Children of the King really a lesser work of craftsmanship when compared to Golden Boys, merely because of its audience? Does the value of Thursday’s Child change depending upon the design of its cover and the shelf upon which it sits in the library? Children’s books have an innocence and a simplicity to them, but so do many works of art. In many cases they are—regardless of their lack of widespread acknowledgment as such—every bit as deserving of major critical and literary attention as adult books—
sometimes even more so. Graphic novels, Y.A., picture books: all have lived too long in the shadow of the things that we feel are ‘appropriate’ adult reading. Children’s books and their ghettoised kin should be considered thoughtfully by the main panel on ABC’s The Book Club. They should be garnering major adult literary awards. They should be read in coffee shops and in universities—both outside and inside the classroom. If we want to stroll down the street reading them, we shouldn’t feel self-conscious about doing so. (Watch for traffic, please.) Why? Because children’s books matter. They’ve always mattered.
Now it’s time to acknowledge them.
(& from the editor [drumroll])
Category winner of The Coffee Club Arts and Fashion Award in the Southern Cross Young Achiever of the Year 2015. Read about these prestigious awards in the Tasmanian Premier's announcement.