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Lynne Reid Banks: right for the wrong reasons

The_Fox_and_the_GrapesI think we’ve all written letters like this one. Responding to the announcement that David Almond’s A Song for Ella Grey had won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, author Lynne Reid Banks wrote to that publication:

“Buoyed up by David Almond’s beautiful description (21 November) of his inspiration for writing A Song for Ella Grey, which  has just won the Guardian children’s book prize, I went out and bought two copies for my 12-year-old grandchildren. I trusted him, and I trusted the Guardian – I would never buy a Carnegie medal winner without reading it first.

In the first five pages there is lesbian love, swearing, drinking, and enough other indications that, once again, this is not a book for children. Children are people up to the age of 12. They are not grownups of 17. The books are going straight back to Waterstones.

Woe to us who really do write for children! No prizes for us. Publishing is not a children’s world any more.”

So we all, as we do, jumped down her throat. She was stuffy, out of touch, censorious. I chimed in with a gotcha tweet linking to my review of her own sexy Melusine, published by Charlotte Zolotow at Harper twenty five years ago for ages 12 and up. But I don’t think Banks is so much bothered by Almond’s book (which she admitted she had not read) as she is by an award with “children” in its title going to a book for teens. Her statement that the winner is “once again” not for children as she defines them seems to indicate some simmering resentment on this point, albeit obliquely directed at the Carnegie medal rather than the Guardian award. But even here, her argument seems in bad faith. Almond’s “beautiful description” that impelled Banks to buy the book makes clear that it is for teenagers, and the Guardian award, as well as the Carnegie medal, has gone to YA books before. It is perhaps unkind but on point to say that Banks has never won either.

While Banks’ argument seems to be at heart self-serving, I think there are some valuable discussions yet to be had about the advisability of people as well as prizes lumping children’s and YA books together. And her calling seventeen-year-olds “grownups” has potentially revolutionary implications for our industry. If it is indeed true that most YA fiction is now bought by adults for their own reading pleasure, why not accede the publishing of those books to the adult trade divisions, and why not take them out of the running for children’s book awards?

 

 

 

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. As it stands, I have no problem with awards for Children’s Fiction going to YA… but I don’t think YA and books for younger readers should be competing. These books are, like their readers, animals of different kinds. Is the only choice to accede YA to adult trade divisions? Couldn’t the response be to concede that YA is different from both children and adult lists? Let’s have more awards, not fewer. (And, as a writer of both middle grade and YA fiction, I don’t mind at all admitting that this perspective could be a bit self-serving.)

  2. Vicky Smith says:

    Roger, I’ve been concerned for some time about the influence of adult reading habits and purchasing power on YA. But when you say, “those books,” do you mean YA as a publishing sector or duplicative boilerplate genre fiction clearly thrown on the market to catch the eyes of adults wandering the aisles of big-box stores? If the latter, I’m with you all the way. I mean, actual TEENAGERS still need books to read, no?

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Vicky, I think the boilerplate fiction of which you speak appeals to both YAs and adults reading YA, and I don’t think any publishing division would be willing to publish literary YA without also gathering the rewards of publishing popular formula. I propose–without the slightest belief it would ever come to pass–that books aimed mainly at high school students and adults be published by adult divisions. My January editorial is devoted to praising four such titles, so it’s not like I would give older-YA up without a pang.

  4. Vicky Smith says:

    I would argue that there’s a difference between “published for” and “appealing to” (viz. all the adult SF & fantasy I sucked down as a teenager), and I’m not even trying to section just lit’ry fiction off. There’s plenty of genre fiction that feels thematically YA to me in a way that the boilerplate stuff doesn’t. But now I feel like Potter Stewart–“I know it when I read it”– which I admit is a damn poor standard. Will wait for your editorial before engaging further.

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