This year I published a fantasy novel, Impossible Creatures. In November it won the Waterstones Book of the Year – a real shock and joy for me. It’s the story of a cluster of magical islands, in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, where all the creatures of myth are still alive. I’m usually furiously critical of my own work, but Impossible Creatures is, I think, the best of me: a bid to distil what I’ve read and studied, what I know and what I have loved, into an adventure. I also write for adults – I hold a fellowship at Oxford, where I work on Renaissance literature, and wrote a book called Super-Infinite, about the life and work of John Donne. So one of the questions I’m often asked is: which do I prefer – and which is harder – to write for, children or adults?
The truth is, they’re much closer than you’d expect. The disciplines are the same: the discipline of vividness, the discipline of care, the discipline of imagination, and the most ruthless discipline, in the edit, of “Does it matter?”
There are, of course, differences: particularly when you go on a book tour. Adult audiences do not wipe their noses on the spine of their books and then hand them to me to write in. The children I meet are funny and capable of huge generosity, but they are also covered in germs. I always end tours with a clutch of different ailments – one year a cough that lasted ten weeks; another, harrowing year it was head lice. This is not, presumably, something that happened to Charles Dickens. But adults do not bring me drawings of my characters, or dioramas, or plasticine models or knitted figures, or paintings of me, which always suggest I have far more luxuriant hair than I actually do.
The other great delight of writing for children is their eagerness to know: how is it done? I tell the children about how, even with the most fantastical text, you can pilfer from the real world. In Impossible Creatures, the girl, Mal, is able to fly with a magical coat that allows her to sweep up through clouds – but only when the wind blows. A few years ago, for a different book, I spent a summer learning the flying trapeze. I loved it, but was by no means a natural and was wildly over-ambitious. I once tried to backflip off the bar, and landed hard on my face in the net, scraping part of the skin off my cheek. Later that same day, I saw a brilliantly talented young woman fumble a landing, and catch her hand in the net. When she sat up, her little finger was bent all the way down to the wrist. She went green. Like a grisly magpie, I stole the image. In learning to fly in her coat, and how to soar out over herds of unicorns, Mal lands on her face, and bends her little finger all the way back to the wrist.
I hope to write both for children and adults until I die, ideally with a pen in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other. But if I were forced, by some unexpectedly tyrannous literary fairy, to choose between writing for adults and writing for children, I would choose children. Because when you write for a child, you write for someone who is in the process of becoming the person they will be. You write for a person who is ravenously hungry – for ideas, for facts, for comfort, for power, for safety, for certainty, for jokes. The books you read and adore as a child become part of you: if the books are good enough, they get into your blood and bones, hair and eyes and fingernails, and live on inside you, for long after you have forgotten the details of plot or title.
But children don’t yet have the hinterland to sniff out unfailingly the bogus or the snide, the punitive or the snobby, and so, I think, we have a duty to be more ruthless with ourselves when we write – to be tougher, funnier, with higher standards. We owe them a great deal. The best children’s books should be good enough both for the hungriest child and the wisest, sharpest adult. I think often of WH Auden, who said “there are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children”.
For that to happen, children need access to books. The National Literacy Trust estimates that nearly a million children in the UK do not own a book of their own. Between 2010 and 2020, almost 800 libraries were closed. As this magazine pointed out in July 2022, the UK’s spending on libraries is far lower than most European countries’, and steadily dropping: from £18 per capita annually in 2010 down to around £12 now, compared with about £25 per capita in Europe. Finland spends £50.
We need children to have access to a cornucopia of books, a huge variety. Research tells us that children need to encounter both characters who look like themselves and those who look nothing like themselves; to range widely. Data suggests reading for pleasure is essential to flourishing: in a landmark 2002 study the inter-governmental OECD found it to be a key predictor for economic success – and that still applies today. But the main reason to help children to seek out books is this: if you cut a person off from reading, you cut them off from the song that humanity has been singing for thousands of years. You cut them off from what we have laid out for the next generation, and the next, to pass on. It’s in writing that we’ve preserved our boldest, most original thought, our best jokes and most generous comfort. To fail to do everything we can to help children hear that song is a stupidity for which we should not be forgiven. We must fight for it – clamour, vote, donate, and not stop until there are books in the hands of every child, and joyful stories charging through their blood.
[See also: The best children’s books for Christmas 2023]
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special