Here’s a question. Do you think children’s books these days are better than they used to be?
Recently, I was looking through one of my bookshelves, just browsing – as you do – through some reading memories. I came upon a book I owned as an eleven-year-old, and I remembered loving it passionately, thinking of it for a long time as one of my favourite books. It’s an Irish book – Irish author, Irish publisher – and uses Irish mythology as the basis for its plot. It reimagines the story of the fairy woman Niamh Cinn-Óir (Niamh of the Golden Hair), and her human husband Oisín, whom she takes away to Tír Na n-Óg, the Land of Youth. It has beautiful illustrations, and an amazingly designed cover, and the sight of it brought back a lot of good memories. Best of all, the author of the book is still writing – he has published a prodigious amount of stories for children over the course of the last twenty or thirty years, most recently a fantastically imagined series about witchcraft and alchemy which I really enjoy – and so I grabbed it up and immediately started re-reading it, perhaps in an attempt to relive some of my childhood love for it.
Except – well. It wasn’t as good, not nearly as good, as I remembered.
I do realise that many years have passed and lots of water has flowed under the bridge of my youth, and all that – but I’m the sort of person for whom that sort of thing doesn’t matter. I love children’s books, and I’d like to think I always will, even when my eyesight’s failing so badly that I need to get the Large Print editions of my favourite stories. I loved this story as a little girl, and I could see why – it had all the things I adored at the time, and which I’m still partial to now. Mythology, love, adventure, horses, monsters, and a brave little boy who faces his fears. So why didn’t I love it any more?
It was because of how the book was written, I think.
Reading this book reminded me of the stereotypical ‘bad’ essay: ‘And then this happened, and then that happened, and then, and then, and then…’ – it was, pretty much, a list of things happening, without any tension or subplots or dynamism. There was no characterisation – the brave little boy was brave at the beginning of the story, and he was brave at the end. Niamh and Oisín were unchanging throughout. Oisín, at one point, takes his leave of Niamh and she fears she’ll never see him again, but there is no emotion in their goodbye. I wasn’t expecting a lingering kissing scene, or anything of that ilk, but something would have been good. Children’s books are emotional, and one of the most significant things in a child’s life is learning about what it means to say goodbye – so this emotionless, businesslike farewell was puzzling to me. There is an encounter with a terrifying monster near the end of the book – or, at least, a monster who would be terrifying, if the author had allowed any sort of tension to creep into the story. The whole thing is told like a medieval chronicle. It’s essentially a list of things, a shopping list of children’s fantasy literature essentials all piled into one book.
I’m not trying to say that the person who wrote this book is not talented – his list of writing accomplishments is mighty, and I admire him very much for what he has brought to children’s literature – but what I mean is, perhaps the requirements for a good, gripping children’s book have changed radically since the days in which this one was published. What made a magical children’s story then seems to have morphed into a different beast, these days.
I’m reading a children’s book at the moment, Sarah Prineas’ ‘The Magic Thief.’ I adore her use of dialogue, her creation of interesting and three-dimensional characters, and the ways in which things like letters between the players in the story are interspersed with the narrative to create all the things I love in a book – intrigue, suspense, and interest.
I am not yet finished the book, but I’m hopeful that these things will be maintained throughout, and that I’ll be left breathless with admiration and thirsty for more by the end of the story. Importantly, I feel that ‘The Magic Thief’ is the sort of book I’ll come back to in five, ten, twenty years’ time and still enjoy, much the same way as I still enjoy the books of Alan Garner, which I first read when I was eight years old. Those stories have the same power over my mind now as they did when I was a mere slip of a girl. However, a lot of the books I loved as a kid have slipped beneath the murk of memory, at this stage. I have a feeling a lot of them were written like this story of Niamh and her Oisín – paint-by-numbers type tales which don’t weave the same sort of spell over a reader once childhood is over.
‘The Magic Thief’ is a good book, not just a good children’s book. I have also been lucky enough to read another good children’s book in recent weeks, which I’ll be reviewing next Saturday. Rich, and detailed, and complex, and interesting, these books couldn’t be more different from my childhood favourite. I hesitate to say that the simplicity inherent in the story of Niamh and Oisín was common to all books of that time, because of course one cannot draw a conclusion like that based on a single example – and, of course, there are good children’s books from generations back which are now deserved classics. But still, I wonder whether children’s books have become better over the past twenty years or so, in terms of the reading challenge they offer to children and the richness and skill of their storytelling. Perhaps it’s that readers have become more demanding, and perhaps it’s also true that there has been an explosion of interest in children’s books, and in publishing for young people, and – as in every walk of life – competition can raise standards.
If so, it’s a great time to be a reader.