Distasteful? Yes. Worth shrugging off? Possibly.
But also a good opportunity to highlight the vital contribution of kids' authors.
Joining many others who've replied to Amis' quip, I've an opinion piece in today's Canberra Times, 'Penning books for the young not a life sentence'. Here's the column in full:
‘If I had a serious brain injury,’ said novelist Martin Amis recently, ‘I might well write a children's book.’ A typically blunt quip from Amis, to be shrugged off not fumed over.
But if we’re generous, he’s making a reasonable point: he’d have to be a different man to write different novels. Amis sees kids’ literature as a restriction of his authorial freedom: writing for a specific age, instead of exploring his own literary logic, and that of the manuscript. And besides: it’d force him to write in a ‘lower register’ than normal.
Still, there’s not even a whiff of admiration in Amis’ words, which suggest contempt, not writerly fellowship. Rather than responding with praise, or even begrudging respect, he keeps children’s writing at arm’s length.
This is a common attitude: for many, kids’ books are not ‘real’ writing. They’re simplistic, dumbed down. Even Young Adult fiction suffers from this: as if the stories and characters were somehow less crafted than those of ordinary novels. More specifically, it’s as if writing for children or teenagers were a step down; that the kids’ aisle is for authors who are slumming it.
This is an error. Not because kids’ books aren’t more simple or short – oftentimes they are. No-one will mistake Roger Hargreaves’ Little Miss Naughty for Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. It’s an error because it misses the extraordinary artistry of children’s literature, and the vital contribution it makes to society.
First, the artistry. Like haiku poetry, the children’s author can pack immense detail into a few syllables. Character, story, scene, rhythm – all within eight beats. All the elements of adult fiction are there – if there is less nuance, there is sometimes more vividness: witness Miffy’s quiet, joyful curiosity. And for older children, and their parents, there are works like A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin stories and poems. The tales of Pooh combine slapstick humour with bittersweet longing, and almost existentialist absurdity.
In short, this is serious literary craftsmanship. Simple is not simplistic or unskilled. Sometimes the best proof of brilliance is distillation, not expansion.
Second, its contribution to society. One of the foundations of our modern age is literacy. Writing enables us to analyse ideas, express emotion and sharpen perception. It keeps us informed, lucid, entertained. Most of what we recognise as civilization – arts, sciences, engineering, law – is facilitated by the written word. And much of what’s physical or sensory – like sport, romance, gardening – is recorded, celebrated, inspired by writing.
None of this is possible without literacy. And this is more than putting sounds to alphabetical or numerical signs. It begins with this, but is enriched and enhanced by intimacy with rhythm, metaphor, register. New stories, characters, scenes – all of this adds to our familiarity with the vicissitudes of the human condition. Put simply, literacy helps children to swim in the water of thought, feeling, perception.
And children’s literature is an invitation to this stream. It is more than a primer or textbook, important as these are. It combines all the elements of literacy with beauty and humour. Mick Inkpen’s Kipper series, for example, is laugh-out-loud funny. With a few well-chosen words, Inkpen conveys Kipper the dog’s curiosity, naivety and clumsiness. Much as he wanted to, Kipper couldn’t make a nest like the birds – he only had three sticks. Great is the teacher whose instruction is enjoyed not endured.
So kids’ literature is neither easy nor trivial – it is born of serious craftsmanship, and it is crucial to our society’s health.
I don’t want to oversell the point, of course. I’ve yet to read anything in Thomas the Tank Engine that moved me like Persuasion. She’s a lovely mouse, but Maisy will never quite evoke the subtle psychological drama of The Golden Bowl. Story time is not Being and Time.
But I’d have missed Jane Austen, Henry James and Martin Heidegger altogether if it hadn’t been for Mr Nonsense, Mary Poppins and Asterix the Gaul. And in thirty years, another generation will say the same of characters penned by Mem Fox, Kirsty Murray or Simmone Howell. Children’s authors, we who are about to smile or weep salute you.