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.