New Adventures in Apocalyptic Children’s Literature

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Today was a great day. I bought a car which does not smell like burnt petrol and mouldy potatoes AND has Radio 4 on speed dial. I watched the very marvellous, Cinema Paradiso at the QFT. I finally managed to convince a Ballymena-based hairdresser to cut my fringe as high and blunt as I’ve been demanding since 2010. I found a Chesney Hawkes single under my bed and a tiny tape recorder with tiny cassette tapes. (This will come in useful for interviewing people about Bob Dylan and the Causeway Safari Park when I start my research for Roundabouts).

Best of all, however, I took a break from crunching through the novel and had another stab at writing children’s fiction. I’m attempting to write a 2,000 word opener to a children’s book before the Leicester Children’s Writing Prize closes tomorrow. I am discovering, as I’ve often been told, that writing for children is ten times more difficult and demanding than writing for grown ups. So far I’ve come up with 1,200 words of the most horrifying, apocalyptic story about a child having a mental breakdown and refusing to leave a cupboard unless he’s wrapped in tin foil. I have no idea if any child would want to read this story and less idea if any parent would let their child read it. (You’d be on the right track if you imagined Cormac McCarthy taking a stab at a Ladybird book). It’s nicely written but it’s definitely not Pollyanna. If nothing else this experiment is really making me appreciate the way good children’s authors manage to displace much of their adult cynicism to write with a truly uncluttered child’s perspective. Everything I’ve written today sounds exactly like a grown up trying to write for a child. Hats off to anyone who can and does write believable children’s literature.

I have to say, I was indulged as child by parents who read to me every night and took me to the library for my 6 books per week ration and knew that a book token was always a better present than a Barbie. Very early on I fell in love with the children’s classics, not to mention Nancy Drew and Roald Dahl, Joan Aiken and Enid Blyton, (politically incorrect as she may now seem to today’s children and the grown ups reading to today’s children, I’d devoured the whole canon of Famous Five books before my eighth birthday and Enid undoubtedly paved the way for Agatha Christie at ten and Jane Eyre in my first term at big school).

I read to my nephew Caleb every chance I can get. I want him to grow up associating books with positive, special moments and not being forced to read simply for literacy’s sake. I know he’s much more likely to stick with reading if he falls in love with it while he’s little. Sometimes, while I’m reading aloud, I get blindsided by the absolute nonsense which can pass for modern children’s literature. These books are often faddish, dull and poorly written. Increasingly they’re churned out just to sell another product; a spin off from a television programme, toy or computer game. They’re not the kind of books that stick. Other books, we absolutely love- Oliver Jeffers, Julia Donaldson, Roald Dahl of course. More often than not Caleb picks these books over all the others. Children are pretty smart. They know what a good story should read like and they deserve to have as much care and attention devoted to the writing of their books as their adult peers. Bearing all this in mind, for the sake of young and impressionable readers everywhere, I think I’ll probably head back to the novel tomorrow and admit that I’m not talented enough to charm the junior reading market. Or maybe I’ll test the tin foil boy out on Caleb and see what he thinks.

Illustration above, (also discovered under my bed this morning), from my last ill-fated attempt at apocalyptic children’s literature in which a ferocious dinosaur crushes the Tower Centre, Ballymena to pulp and rubble. This, it should be stated, was more of an outlet for my pent up frustration during a brief period spent working in the Yankee Candle Store in the Tower Centre than any legitimate attempt to engage a younger audience.

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