Does Lynne Reid Banks have a point?

Little bit of a fracas last week in the world of children’s publishing as Lynne Reid Banks, author of books for children and adults, voiced her disapproval of the Guardian Children’s Book Prize being awarded to A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond (see full letter here). ‘This is not a book for children,’ she wrote. ‘Children are people up to the age of 12. They are not grownups of 17… Woe to us who really do write for children! No prizes for us.’

Phew! Lynne Reid Banks packed a lot of punch into this short letter!

First, let’s say that she’s not actually criticising Almond or his book. In a conversation on Radio 4 in response to this letter, she told Almond she loved his writing. (And here is how I feel about A Song for Ella Grey) What she is saying here is:

  1. People are children until they are 12 (or 13? Not sure if she means up to AND including. Let’s say 13).
  2. Books designated ‘children’s books’ should be aimed at these under 13-year-olds.
  3. People who give children’s book prizes should be looking at books for under 13-year-olds because books aimed at people older than this are not suitable for children.

So let’s look at point 1. Obviously anyone who has been a parent or teacher – maybe anyone who’s been a child – knows that age ranges on books are STUPID. Children develop reading skills at different rates and they develop emotional maturity at different rates, and sometimes their reading skill and their maturity are so vastly out of kilter that it’s almost impossible for them to find appropriate reading matter. BUT in my experience, on the whole, they take what they need and want to from whatever reading matter is available to them. Not all 13-year-olds are ready to read ‘adult’ books. And some under-13s are ready. And besides, most children who read a lot for pleasure will read ‘up’ and ‘down’. They’ll go back again and again to the children’s books they love while making their first forays into YA and adult books, and chances are a lot of them will still come back to old favourites when they are absolutely definitely adults.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that I find point 1 a weird statement. The only difference between 12- and 13-year-olds is that 13-year-olds are at secondary school. Should a secondary school library contain only ‘adult’ books? Actually mine did, and I think it turned a lots of kids off reading.

I’m less sure about point 2. There is definitely a difference between YA and books for younger children. It’s not just a matter of edgy material such as the ‘lesbian love, swearing, drinking’ that Reid Banks complains about in Ella Grey. There is that, of course, and sometimes YA books have dark themes that you wouldn’t want to expose younger children to any more than you’d want them to watch 18-rated movies. But it seems to me that the difference is more often in the layering of plot and theme, the psychological depth of the book. I’m not saying that there are not such themes and depth in books for younger children, but they tend to be less central, less obvious, and the books tend to be more obviously plot-led. (Not always though: I was discussing Philippa Pearce’s A Dog So Small with a group of 12-year-olds the other day. They hated it. ‘What’s it about?’ they said. ‘What’s the point?’ So we talked about it and they worked out that it was about how it feels to be lonely and depressed and through that discussion they started to like the story better and to feel for the character instead of being irritated by him. It’s definitely a book for under-13s, but you’d have to be a pretty mature under-13 to ‘get’ it without a little help.)

But YA books, though read by a LOT of adults, are not the same as adult books. Firstly because the protagonists are always teens or possibly young adults and as such they have limited experiences. YA books almost always involve some element of self-discovery or moving away from childhood and into adulthood. Personally I’d like to see a few more that extended further into adulthood. When you think of the books which are now designated YA though they were originally written as adult books, you see a much wider scope: I Capture the Castle, Flambards, Little Women all allow their characters to grow up. Although today’s YA is read so much by adults, equally there are plenty of adults who will not look at it, because they find the concerns of young people uninteresting. Trying to persuade people I know who are not in the world of children’s books to read my YA books has convinced me of this: I spend a lot of time saying, ‘I wrote it for young adults, but you don’t have to be a young adult to read it.’ (Sigh!)

So what am I saying to point 2? Yes, young adult books share much with adult books, possibly more than they share with children’s books, but they are not the same as adult books, so you can’t say anything aimed at people over 13 is an adult book (even if that’s what people did in the past). It was so much simpler when there were just ‘books’. Who is Treasure Island aimed at?

Point 3. Deep breath. Obviously people who are asked to judge book prizes are experts. Or if not experts they are knowledgeable enough to have valid opinions. I wouldn’t dream of saying these people judge wrongly. But it seems to me that although Lynne Reid Banks appears to be being rather simplistic in her opinion that YA books should not be included in children’s book prizes, she does have a point. It is very, very difficult to compare books for younger children with YA books. Impossible, I would think to compare YA books with picture books. And in order to award a prize, you have to compare. Because YA books are for older readers, they tend to embrace weightier matters or more complex themes than books for younger children. Book prizes are awarded on literary merit. It’s easier to see literary merit in books that embrace weightier matters or more complex themes, and so YA books will always have the advantage when judged against books for younger readers. There’s a reason that a children’s book has only once been the overall winner of the Costa prize – it’s because judging something simpler against something more complex is a really hard call – and note that the book that won the Costa, Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, contained complex theological and philosophical ideas as well as a rollicking adventure.

I disagree with Lynne Reid Banks that YA books are not for children, but I do think there is a place for prizes which exclude them, or which have several categories. There’s also a place for a prize just for YA (which now exists). And if you did exclude YA books from children’s book prizes, how long would it be before picture book authors started wondering why THEY were not picking up the prize more often?

Claire Watts


Coming next week on the Paisley Pirahna Blog…

A Christmas serial story

A new episode each day

A bookish giveaway every day

Check in on December 18th for the first episode!

Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? (Find it here)



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