Friday, 23 November 2007

On youth fiction

In a blog response last week, someone mentioned that my books were still being marketed as children’s books and asked for comment. Let me give an explanation here, and then pass along to briefly discuss the whole issue of children’s fiction.

My books were originally written for adults, and still are written for adults. I don’t get a lot of criticism, but certainly no one has said that they are too simplistic or shallow to be considered as adult fiction. On the contrary, many comments have been on the lines that, by the standards of Christian fiction, these are actually deep and thoughtful books. (I fear that this reflects much more on the parlous state of Christian writing than on my writing skills.) Quite simply, the issues I grapple with in the books are those that interest me. I am an adult (albeit with a stubborn streak of adolescence), therefore, the books are adult.

The problem arose when what is now the first volume ended up on Tyndale’s desk: they wanted it but didn’t do fantasy fiction. (You may feel this to be a slightly curious statement given that their biggest seller has been the Left Behind series but I couldn’t possibly comment.) They did however have a youth imprint that they were about to launch and threw me in it. I didn’t object: I was glad to get published in the States. (Of course, in those days the dollar was actually worth something :-)). Since then I have been relocated to the adult category as Tyndale’s first fantasy author. However, there is a bit of a lag time and some people evidently still think of me as a youth author. So if you get the chance please do promote me as adult author.

All this has made me think about what actually makes up youth/children’s fiction. I have no easy answer and I found it easier to define children’s fiction, not by what it is, but by what it isn’t. I decided, in the traditional manner of a Welsh preacher, that there are three things that mark writing for children: a constraint on style, substance and sophistication. By a constrained style, I mean that the writer shuns a heavy and complex prose style full of long words and sentences. By a constrained substance I mean that certain topics are not touched on, or only alluded to in passing. I think these would not simply be the obvious ones of sex and extreme violence, but also include the cynicism, bitterness and despair that characterise much adult fiction. By a constrained sophistication, I mean that we shun the cleverness of allusions, quotes, word games and the like that would go over the head of a young person. Let me give you a non-literary example. The other day, one of our papers had a wordless and well done cartoon of Sarkozy, dressed as Napoleon, riding a donkey alone along a wintery vastness of railway lines. The cartoon required both a knowledge of the present French industrial strife and awareness of Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. The verbal equivalents of this are best avoided in youth writing.

But is there anything else? Is there any particular positive feature that marks out youth fiction? A youthful hero perhaps? Maybe, but that is not essential. An optimistic view of the future? I think that is naiveté. A sense of innocence? No way! But I am open to comments. For what it is worth, I have no intention of trying to write youth fiction as such. What I do intend writing is accessible adult fiction, and it seems to me that that will do.