I’m an unashamed lover of children’s fiction. This is probably partly because I was a book nerd as a child, judging the success of a birthday or Christmas by how many books it delivered. (Best year, fifteen, including The Neverending Story, which I was annoyed to find did end and was so a total false sell as far as I was concerned.)
I loved Susan Cooper and Ursula Le Quin with a heart-racing passion. I started to re-read them recently, telling myself it was research for a children’s book I wanted to write, and raced through all of their books, buying out of print collections of Ursula Le Quin’s essays and all of her non-fiction, desperate to keep her voice in my head. When I finished them all I couldn’t think of anyone else I wanted to read because I loved her mind so much, so I just didn’t read for a bit.
I don’t think it’s escapism, or at least not the obvious kind. These books are beautifully written, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and not muted in ambition or reach at all. Susan Cooper’s have child characters (Ursula Le Quin’s, young adults) and they don’t have sex or violence in, but other than that, to me, they feel adult in all but cynicism, and perhaps that’s why I still like to take a long swim in them. If they’re an escape from anything, it’s gloom and smartness.
Bambi is another wonderful book (read on Ursula Le Quin’s recommendation; sadly recommended in an essay not in person). Descriptive writing that is poetically precise, themes that are realistic and difficult, characters that are resonant and relatable (even when they’re animals) – the same great stuff, but perhaps with even less pandering to an under-twelves audience. (I loved the chattering squirrel, boring everyone with punchline-free stories about his cousin.) Also on her recommendation, I read The Box of Delights (and couldn’t believe I hadn’t before) and found the same pin-sharp writing, seriousness and writerly ambition there.
It’s the austerity of tone that does it for me. No crash, bang, wallop, smart-Alec jokes, side eye to the kids here. These books are written with a deep respect for young readers, who are of course simply younger people, with all of the complexity, darkness, nuance and contradiction that we expect to find in any other person, and with just as uncompromising a demand for writing that reflects their real world and just as sharp a nose (or sharper) for fakery.
And this is why I love them. They’re written with a proper love and respect for their reader; they’re written for the ideal reader, knowing they’ll find them.