When it comes to reviewing children’s books Frances Ball asks
Who’s an Expert?
Recently, while I was flipping through a magazine offering reviews of children’s books, I found an alarming letter. The writer complained that recent reviews had not been written by ‘real experts’. Instead, by some horrible accident, the books had fallen into the hands of children before the right people had graded, sorted and approved them. Innocent children had read these books, even enjoyed them.
Obviously some people are more skilled reviewers than others, and some groups such as teachers and librarians can offer a wider knowledge of children’s books than non-professionals. But we are talking about children’s books. We need more space devoted to children’s opinions. We need a few junior consultants advising publishers and bookshops too.
Discussion of children’s books tends to follow the pattern set by discussion of adult books. We have reviews, articles, papers, collections of papers. Could we be more imaginative? Are we heading in the same direction as much adult book criticism where the experts have become so fascinated by their own activities, and the opinions of their colleagues, that the books they review are almost irrelevant? These issues got a sudden airing earlier this year when Cambridge University found its English Faculty in less than perfect condition. In the Observer Richard Webster attacked the structuralist school of literary criticism, commenting: ‘The problem with structuralist writing is not that it is impenetrable to the layman. The problem is that a great deal of it is impenetrable to the specialist.’ It would be a great pity if similar problems spread to children’s books. Fun would die, irreverence would be studied out of existence.
Who are the experts anyway? My dictionary tells me that an expert is someone ‘having special skill or knowledge’. Who has the special skill or knowledge to review children’s books? What is it we need to know? There are the ordinary things like price, appearance, length of text, fact or fiction. Then there are the bigger questions that involve the relationship of the child to the book and the book to the child. How does the adult reviewer respond to a book intended for a child? Is it possible to peel away the layers of experience gained in the years since childhood? Some adults obviously have the gift of illuminating the world of childhood with literary skills gained in later years. Some do not.
Of course, there is one group which always has special up-to-date knowledge of childhood – children. Earlier this year the Federation of Children’s Book Groups gave a Children’s Book Award. With help from children they chose Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake. They commented that the adults alone would not have reached the same decision but it taught them something.
One of the delights of working with children and books is the range of honest and unpredictable reactions. Does it matter to a child who has just discovered that other children are lonely too that the book revealing this fact got bad reviews last week? No. Reviews are useful. With over 3,000 new titles a year becoming available they are essential. But the form they take, and the purpose they serve should give more power to the consumers – children.
Frances Ball who sent us this opinion is an ex-teacher, now mum and part-time writer. She lives in Devon and has been a community bookseller.