Capturing the spirit of a genre

24th July 1998 at 01:00
HOW TO WRITE FOR CHILDREN AND GET PUBLISHED. By Louise Jordan. Piatkus Pounds 14.99.

CHILDREN'S BOOK PUBLISHING IN BRITAIN SINCE 1945. Edited by Kimberley Reynolds and Nicholas Tucker. Scholar PressAshgate Pounds 39.95.

So you want to write the first great children's book of the new millennium? No how-to manual will do it for you, especially one honest enough to point out, as Jordan's does, that "there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to creative writing". The best you might hope for would be a mixture of sound practical advice and inspirational encouragement, combined in a way that patronises neither you nor your chosen literary genre.

There is, certainly, plenty of advice here, some of it so "practical" that it is difficult to imagine even the most absolute of beginners really needing it and some so uncertain (for example, on the question of swearing in children's books) that it becomes almost pointless. Encouragement is here also in quantity, though more in a keep-on-trying mode than in an inspirational one. The principal goal is publication, and the models of writing endorsed, explicitly or implicitly, are those that offer a racy immediacy, ranging from S E Hinton (transformed here into a male) to Philip Ridley. Appropriately enough, Jordan's own style falls into this category, and while its occasional breathlessness and lapse into cliche can become wearing, it always avoids the temptation to patronise.

The breeziness of Jordan's approach is replaced in the seven essays which comprise the Reynolds and Tucker volume by a tone that is overall more formal and academic, though not to the extent that the book's appeal will be limited to a specialised audience. (The price will ensure that.) It ambitiously attempts to chart some of the changes that have characterised British children's publishing over the past 50 years, to relate these to wider societal, political and technological developments and to speculate about what the future may bring.

Seeing children's publishing as "a product of historical circumstance, ideology and market forces", Reynolds and Tucker set out in their introductory essays to demonstrate the complex entanglement of these components. While much of the historical circumstances will be familiar to many readers, the insights into the structures and hierarchies of the publishing industry (the significance of the role played by women, for instance) are newer and more illuminating. These are well documented pages, gaining their authenticity from a liberal use of unique material garnered from interviews with a wide range of those involved in editing, writing, illustrating and publishing. At the heart of all of their comments is a concern as to how children's publishing may evolve, particularly with regard to the maintenance of quality.

The changing ways in which notions of quality are perceived are brought into further focus in Keith Barker's "Prize-fighting", a straightforward chronological account of children's book awards in the years under review. Judith Graham, on picture books, is more analytical and is especially commendable on the technicalities of their production, as is Geoff Fox on "movable" books. Most attractive of all in this group of essays, however, is Philip Pullman on "Picture Stories and Graphic Novels", proof yet again that a combination of enthusiasm and expertise is irresistible.

As an effort to capture the spirit of an industry in a state of accelerating change, this is a book which balances its recognition of that industry's "indisputable success" and its "acute problems". It is by turns invigorating and disturbing, and much of what is discussed remains, in the book's final phrase, "an uncomfortably open question". It is a pity that its value as a reference book is diminished by an index and, in some of the essays, by bibliographical listings that are neither comprehensive nor totally accurate.

Robert Dunbar Robert Dunbar lectures in English at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin

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