Stop dumbing it down – a message to authors of children’s fiction

One of the lovely roles I have is as an occasional book reviewer for ALEA and it’s a job I love. Every now and then, I get sent some books to read and the pile is very diverse in age range, topic and genre.

Sometimes, I get some absolute gems. Picture books that are well crafted with rich language and evocative illustrations, holding you on the page. Short stories which artfully build up in a limited amount of words and often leave you wanting more. Novels with great characters (and not so noble characters) which you can identify with and walk alongside.

However I have noticed, both in this role and in my general obsession of reading young people’s literature, that the diet being served up for children is not always rich and high quality. In particular, I’ve recently read quite a few shorter novels, pitched at the grade 2-6 market which are the literary equivalent of burger and fries – quick to produce, quicker to read but with no substance. Stories without quality storylines or themes. Characters who are shallow and 2 dimensional. Even worse, Australian authors who feel the need to write as if they are American, borrowing colloquialisms and stereotypes from their culture. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that books embracing¬†American culture are bad or that I don’t enjoy them, just that I’d rather see Australian culture celebrated and reflected in books that purport to be Australian).

Most importantly, what I’m seeing is books completely bereft of the rich language of literature. For some reason, it appears that many authors feel the need to ‘dumb it down’, particularly for this age group and I don’t understand why. Picture books generally have a fantastic array of language – why, as children get older, should this disappear? I vividly remember reading all sorts of literature as a child – The Railway Children, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Heidi (read to me as a 4 year old), even Les Miserables when I was in Year 7 (thanks to my older sister studying it at University). I didn’t always understand all of the words or sentiments but that was part of the mystery, challenge and, dare I say it, fun of reading. It became a problem to solve, a secret to uncover and a world to explore. It also gave me a plethora of new words to try to fit into dinner time conversation (usually incorrectly) and surprise my parents with.

So, authors, I implore you. Don’t be tempted to turn your ability to craft rich and amazing tales into a mass produced, assembly line of fast food books. Young people need to be surrounded by quality literature which lets them explore and experience their world in all its richness and diversity, from the safety of a comfortable reading spot.