Writing for children is not second-best

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OK, here we go.

J.K. Rowling (I think we all know who she is) has just published her first novel for adults.

It’s getting extremely mixed reviews.

I haven’t read the book, and quite frankly, I don’t intend to. Rowling appears to be trying to deal with Issues (Lots of them. All at once), and quite frankly, I get enough gritty realism in my day job without having to go through it when I’m trying to relax with a book as well. However, I acknowledge that there is a place for gritty realism in books, and that fiction can be an excellent way of bringing problems to people’s notice and discussing things that would otherwise not get discussed. So, fair play to her.

Poor J.K. is suffering from the appalling disadvantage of having written seven wildly successful children’s books, and – even more damningly – having had this success without the de rigeur apprenticeship of slaving away over a hot word processor to produce book after book that no-one’s ever heard of before she got her Big Break. From unknown to bestseller – no wonder half of the literary world hates her. Jealous? Of course not.

However, the mixed reviews may not be entirely due to the fact that the poor woman could have found a cure for cancer and achieved world peace and people would still be bitchy. There may be some truth to the less-than-effusive reviews. Some of the criticisms may well be merited – long-winded (yeah, I can believe that), at best when talking about and relating to children (definitely)… and so on. I’ve read the Harry Potter books, and whatever you might think about them and their literary merit, J.K. knows kids. I’m young enough to remember being eleven, and old enough to know how eleven looks from the heady heights of Grown Up. And J.K. gets it absolutely spot on, right through the series. And not only does she write her kids well, she knows what kids want to read.

So, having established that – whatever you might think of the storyline – Harry Potter demonstrates that she’s an exceptionally good children’s writer, why does she want to write for adults?

Well, obviously it could be that she just wants to write for adults. The woman is allowed to have her own ideas and ambitions, obviously.

On the other hand, could it be the perception that if you haven’t written for adults, you’re not a ‘real’ author? Not a serious author. I mean… kids’ books? Anyone can write a kids’ book, right – it doesn’t have to be great literature. It’s only for kids.

I don’t agree. I think writing for children is a speciality in its own right, and just as difficult and demanding as any other. Some authors can do both (Terry Pratchett, for instance). Some authors, however, are outstanding children’s writers but just their style just doesn’t cross over to adults. Diana Wynne Jones springs to mind – her children’s books are wonderful; the characters and plot fit precisely. Her books for adults, however, to me, feel…. thin. Simplistic. As if she’s just taking her usual style and added sex.

Margaret Atwood has apparently tried to write for children and not been terribly successful, as have some others. This does not surprise me. Writing for children and writing for adults are two entirely different things; it’s almost like writing for two different species. It’s certainly equivalent to writing for two different cultures. Most people can only get the hang of one culture properly.

J.K. Rowling, having established her undoubted talent as a writer for children, should be happy with that. If she truly wishes to write for adults, then of course she should do so – if she writes for the joy of writing, who are we to gainsay her? If she has a story she simply must tell, then of course she should tell it. However, she should also bear in mind that the rest of us don’t actually have to read it.

But if she is making the move into adult fiction simply because she feels she ‘ought’ to, that this is what is needed to make her a ‘serious’ author, then she should think again. Children are not second-class citizens; writing for them is not the province only of those who don’t have ‘what it takes’ to write real books. Writers for children arguably have the most difficult and most essential job of all – to instil in children a love of reading. Once a child loves reading, they’ll love it for life. But to start that process… now, that’s the trick.

I hope that J.K. Rowling does not find the mixed reviews of her first adult novel too discouraging, and that she does finally find her true place as an author – wherever that turns out to be. And when she does, I hope she feels the pride she deserves in what she has achieved.

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