Monday, June 25, 2007

teenies not tweenies

I wandered into Readings and Borders today as I ambled home from a meeting with my thesis supervisor. My mission was to check out junior fiction (what Borders classifies as books for 4-9 year olds) as I am writing a book that currently sits between two age groups and my editor suggested that it would be nice to write it a bit younger as she said there isn't as much around for that younger age group.

And she's so right. Which is so weird because there used to be. Enid Blyton of course comes immediately to mind, but also Noel Streatfield, Rumer Godden (I love her - Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Holly and Ivy, Mr McFadden's Halloween to name a few), Nina Bawden, Jane Gardam, E Nesbit, Lucy Boston, Michael Bond's Paddington books, Mary Norton's Borrowers series, E.B. White (most notably Charlotte's Web of course, but also Stuart Little), Joan Aiken (Gobbolino the Witch's Cat), Joan G. Robinson's Teddy Robinson books, the My Naughty Little Sister books, Roald Dahl (specially The Magic Finger, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr Fox for the very young), Milly Molly Mandy, the Flat Stanley books...Oh and Ramona. Of course Ramona. And Beverly Cleary's other books too - The Mouse and the Motorcycle springs to mind. A lot of these books are in constant reprint and it's not hard to see why.

There are so many freaking FAIRY and PRINCESS books it also made me want to vomit rainbows and butterflies. Jeez louise. Look, I have nothing against either princesses or fairies. But come on. Where are the books about ordinary girls with ordinary problems? And why does it all have to be so flipping twee? I love fairies, I even have a tattoo of one on my back, but fairies should be wild creatures, unpredictable, often malevolent. They are not all enviro-freaking-mentalists with great hair, whose biggest problem is finding a handbag to match their vaguely left-wing morality. And yes, the princess paradigm can be empowering. But these, I'm sorry, are not. Nothing that over-commodified can be empowering, nothing that slight and undernourished with ideas and complexity. And don't even start me on what there is for boys which is pretty much


Look don't get me wrong, there are some great books still being published for this age group. I picked up The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson and was struck by the distinctive voice and the very authentic characterisation (you know, considering it's about owls). Oh no hang on, it's 20 years old.

I love the Tashi books by Anna Fienberg and her mum, Barbara. Martine Murray's Henrietta books are freaking cute in a slightly hairbrained freewheeling way (that's meant to be a compliment). There's some really good quality writing in the Penguin Bites series (Jane Godwin's The Day I Turned Ten is a really beautiful book in its own right). Ursula Dubosarsky has written for this age group and I know it must be elegant and captivating. And there are more, I know there are more. But the bookshelves in both Borders and Readings are so disappointing. All these generic spines, and princess and fairy books, so disappointing. Oog.

And before I get riled up I want to add that I don't think publishers are to blame. Clearly they want stronger books in this market, or mine does anyway. I just wonder if we've lost the knack somehow to write for these girls. Is Bratz to blame, with its commodified bodies and capitalist culture? Or are we scared of challenging them? Looking at that list of classics above, there's lots of books there that aren't 'easy' reads, many of them have rich voices and challenging vocabulary. Some have quite sinister characters or bad behaviour or daunting themes (like Roald Dahl's bad guys, or Charlotte's death). They're many of them not very politically correct. And yet they remain in print and popular. Are we scared to write like this, so we're letting another generation tell our children stories, not reflecting the (perhaps more complicated and confusing, certainly faster paced) world around them, where kids have more information available to them much earlier - are we scared we can't speak five year old anymore? Or has the nursery culture dried up, the days of cosy third person narrators with their readers on their knees, are we scared they don't want to sit and listen anymore?

Come on, people. Tell me some good early chapter books. Cheer me up. I know there's heaps for those slightly older kids (8-10), but those very first, keen readers who want something more than just a reader, who are confident enough with language to want characters to identify with and a really great story, please tell me there's more for them out there than Princess Perfectly Boring Pants and Fairly Stupid Fairies.


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  2. o! teddy robinson. i love teddy robinson...

    i had a tape when i was little with teddy robinson on one side and milly molly mandy on the other. i wore it out...

  3. Anonymous2:33 PM

    Geez, you really don't like those Rainbow Magic books, do you? Actually, as the father of a girl who would buy them and have them read before the tram had made it home...I found 'em hard to love, too. Highly, highly formulaic, very thin writing, crummy illustrations. Not much to recommend save the possibility (I won't say fact!) that they develop reading muscles. Maybe. But don't ask me to back up that notion. I can't.

    Er, Lauren Child's Clarice Bean series (three so far) are superior teenies (pre-tweenies) fiction. You know them. Go get 'em. Clarice Bean Spells Trtouble is just brilliant. Can't overlook Jacqueline Wilson, either. I know some of her books are for older kids (tweens and young teens) but titles like Candyfloss, Sleepovers, Double Act and others are worth a look. The illustrations by Nick Sharrat are a big plus in these books, adding a comfort/recognition factor that aids developing readers. Some good stories, too. That helps.
    Also, hard to find but The Quigleys series by Simon Mason are dee-lightful, four stories per book about an almost normal suburban family. Fabulous writing, it's all in the tone and the pacing. Also slightly illustrated.

  4. Anonymous6:59 PM

    I am so very pleased that someone else has heard of Rumer Godden! My mother, in a fit of pre-pubescent rebellion, stole the books from her library's "getting burnt" pile (literally getting burnt - new school librarian who disapproved of 'unworthy' fiction in the library taking up space). So I have this deliciously old and perfectly illustrated copy of Miss Flower and Miss Happiness. It is such a perfectly sorrowful yet happy story without the twee or the absurd. Just lovely.

    I'm hearing you on the flower fairy crap. My god-daughter loves that sort of crud - she's had a difficult time lately so I can see the appeal of it but at the same time there is no substance. I'm happy enough for kids to read crud (I know I do) but there's a problem when it is more prevalent than anything else.

  5. I had a lovely English professor once (whose name was Professor Love, which made everything he said have extra credibility) said that girls who consume vast quantities of crappy romance books as teengagers often have better than average reading comprehension. I know I read a lot of them (I was a HUGE Sweet Valley High fan, along with Sweet Dreams and later Dolly Fiction, though I was a little bit old for those by the time they came out), alongside much better quality books, and I am a very fast reader perhaps as a result.

    But yes, it's making sure there's books of literary merit available as well. There are so many great picture books around, it would be great to have some stonger chapter books.

    Thanks for the titles Mike. I'll have a look. I love Clarice Bean, though so far we've only encountered her in picture book form. The Quigleys sound right up my alley, must check them out.

  6. Oh and book burning...


  7. I read an awful lot of Babysitters Club books in late primary school. I didn't like Sweet Valley High, the boy-crazy blonde thing never interested me, but my best mate did. She and I both made it through university English, have functional adult relationships, and we still read quality & trash for pleasure.

    I remember my Mum reading me Oscar Wilde's short stories about that age too. And the Magic Pudding.

  8. I'll get Molly to help me with this one as she has a bookcase full of books like these!

    The Quigleys though..yes! And yes to Jacquiline Wilson too.

  9. You mentioned all the stuff I love to read to Ash, Rumer, Enid, Roald, Lauren .. I'll be looking out for the Quigley's now. Christ Almighty! (see Amazon).

  10. Anonymous8:01 PM

    reading age group of 4-9 year olds? that is like saying 16yr olds and 45yr olds have similar!

    Have you a copy of "Don't Leave Childhood Without..." ?
    Its a booklet written by the Specialist Children's Booksellers (NSW based) which has many of the classics I had forgotten were such crucial part of my early reading).

    It has things broken up into (actually though about) age groupings.

    Moomin series, Gumnut Babies, Morris Gleitzman, Paul Jennings (yay, justine clarke in early Round the Twist on tv!!), Robin Klein, Ruth Park, Victor Kelleher, Nadia Wheatly, Junko Morimoto, Doug MacLeod, Libby Hathorn. It was a fast and slippery slope into John Marsden and Isobell Carmody after that.

    OHOHOH! And the great "pick-a-path-adventure" craze that swept through Lucky Book Club! I recall lots of boys liking them, but mostly it was war-toys encyclopaedias the boys i went to school with read. One was even into early PC magazines.

    Then some odd ones my older brother had from the 60's/70's, "the tale of the deady bones desert", "the house that sailed away".

    We also had much more hard core stuff read to us, The Hobbit and lots of poetry and stuff like that. We also had things read to us till I was quite old, a nice bedtime routine.

    I also had a very early interest in more adult literature through television adaptions (although not till i was 8 or so, as we didn't have a telly till then).
    I was very into Adrian Mole early, and even weirder stuff like "The Singing Detective".

  11. Hey... a random thought vaguely linked to the post... do you remember a series of books as kids (I know I read them over and over for a time, but have no specific recollection of you necessarily reading them) that was about a family of I think four kids, set in the Southern (I think) states of the US around wartime (2nd?). There was lots of vegetable canning and good wholesome fun and swimming in the dam and sandy-haired Norman Rockwell kids and the family surrey cart and horse named Lorna Doone (the only freakin detail I can remember!). I really want to find them again as a comfort read. I think there were four books in all. Dammit. I wish I could remember more. One time they went out collecting scrap metal "for the war effort". It was very sweet and innocent and kind of Darling Buds of May with the Rockwell hue.

  12. Anonymous7:52 PM

    Hi Penni.
    i was lucky enough to find undine and a copy of little trulsa by Ester Ringner-Lundgren at the same ye olde booke shoppe. little trulsa is a 'happy little troll girl' - maybe she could work for the 4-8 set?? And what of Moomintroll? I have a 20 month old Paddington freak! Am always on the lookout for good littlies books.wille keep your search in mind. how foul are the bratz? they don't even look cool ...

  13. I share your pain. And so does my 5 year old daughter.

  14. Chiming in late here, but I can't recommend highly enough 'Rowan of Rin' by Emily Rodda.

    And she's from Melbourne!

    There are five in the series, all good, but the first is the best.

  15. Oh yes, I've been meaning to read the Emily Rodda books. Also I'm told the Thora books about a half mermaid by Gillian Johnson are good.

  16. Emily Rodda also wrote the wonderful Fairy Realm series (yes, more freakin' fairies!)My daughter is almost 7 and they are our nightly bedtime reading. Some malevolent fairies in there too, along with bushfire threats, nasty classmates and meddling neighbours.
    I'm also reading Tolkien's The Hobbit to her and my 4 1/2 year old boy, two thirds of the way through and they love it, and want The Lord of the Rings next (God help us all).
    Hilary Mackay writes excellent, very funny books; I have the whole Casson family series (for 10 years plus), and books for younger readers. My daughter is also into Beverley Cleary's Ramona books. The brilliant author and illustrator Shirley Hughes has written novels for children too.
    I share your pain about the children's section at bookstores. That is why I'm forever trawling the library to find hidden gems. Good luck!

  17. Sorry, me again. This topic is a passion of mine! Did anyone mention Elisabeth Beresford? All the Magic series: Invisible magic, Sea green magic, etc, though they might be for older than 8 years, and she wrote the magnificent Wombles books too. I don't think anyone mentioned Judy Blume, Betsy Byars, Anne Fine or Paula Danziger, or my favourite, Joan Aiken. The Silver Crown by Robert O'Brien.
    Then there's the Scandanavian authors like Astrid Lindgren - Pippi Longstocking, and Little O by Edith Unnerstad.
    My daughter also devours those interminable horse series books: Saddle Club; Pony Pals, Pony Tails, there are literally hundreds of them if you add them all up. I pick them up for 50c-$1 at the op shops.
    Oh, I recently saw "Book Crush" by Nancy Pearl (of Book Lust fame) which lists hundreds of books for children of all ages, broken down into categories and general age groups.