Children's column: books for all ages

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children Friday, 20th March 2009

Patrick Ness's inspiring blog is offering advice for writers. Although Ness, Booktrust's writer-in-virtual-residence, has come to our attention with his multi-award-winning teen book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, he has also written for adults. And his tips will resonate for any audience. The Society of Authors should draw members attention to this site. What strikes me is that the same fundamental questions about writing, and the same answers, where it is possible to frame any, apply whatever age your readers. It is also true of criticism: we judge, not by a separate set of childish criteria, whether a children's book is successful, but by the same measures of whether the language is fit for purpose and the book well-made, whether it is original, moving, funny, convincing, truthful, surprising, and so on. Skilled craftsmanship is apparent however it is used: just as you can identify good carpentry whether the product is a coffee table or a crib.

Contrary to the myth that adults choose for children 'difficult' and 'worthy' books, which children don t actually like, it seems to me that genuinely funny books make us laugh at any age, and that we are all moved by stories that are sad, frightening, suspenseful, evocative Picturebooks need to engage small children, but they also require a double audience: they have to appeal to adults as well, or the experience of repeatedly reading aloud will not communicate delight as it should. And children, in their reading as in every other aspect of their lives, are very quickly curious about all aspects of human experience though they respond to reading with more intensity than most adults.
It is worth drawing their attention to books that are good of their kind (not least those that do not set out to be difficult or worthy), because well-crafted work is the most rewarding and nourishing in the long run. My position has always been W H Auden's much-quoted assertion, writing about C'S Lewis: 'There are good books which are only for adults [because they presuppose adult experience] but there are no good books that are only for children.' Lewis went so far as to say: 'I am also inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story.'

Ness's advice, to try to make a book great, is worth following.