Sam Leith Sam Leith

What adults don’t get about children’s books


Children’s writing has been having a bit of a moment over the past couple of weeks, after a conversation on social media between children’s authors gathered into a sort of cri de coeur about the public neglect of their craft. Children’s books, they said, are barely covered in newspaper review pages or on the radio these days. Prizes for their creators have dwindled in number – the Smarties and Guardian prizes have long gone by the board, and the children’s category at the Costa book awards went down with that ship. We all know about the dwindling stock of public libraries. The writers complained, too, that publishers are using celebrity name recognition for the path of least resistance: diverting their marketing budgets into ghostwritten pap by TV stars.  

That, they rightly said, is a sad thing. Their complaints made some headlines, bounced the odd newspaper books page into promising greater coverage and even earned airtime on the Today programme. Good. Children’s writing is important: more important than adult literature, because it comes first. To adapt Jesus’s line that ‘nobody comes to the Father but through me’, we can say that nobody comes to Marilynne Robinson but through Winnie-the-Pooh. Everybody’s experience of reading grows out of children’s literature. It’s in nursery rhymes, fairy stories, picture books and comics that we learn the grammar of storytelling and that we first enter fictive worlds in which we can start to imagine ourselves as someone else. It’s from Dr Seuss (or ‘Doctor Zoiss’, as my perverse old friend Lord Hannan insists on pronouncing him) rather than Shakespeare that we first learn how words can bounce and pop against one another.

When a children’s writer gets taken up by his or her audience, they sell in a way that grown-up authors can only envy.  

As it happens, we’re going through a bit of a golden age for children’s writing. Looking just across the bookshelves of my own children I see works by Katherine Rundell, Piers Torday, S.

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