A Song for Ella Grey is a children’s book – and a great one

Children’s author Lynne Reid Banks says David Almond’s novel is ‘not a book for children’ – but young readers must come to their own conclusions

Alice in Wonderland, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, was for a long time banned from classrooms in New Hampshire for references to sexual fantasies and masturbation. Try any classic children’s text, from Alice to Harry Potter – copies of which have been burned in protest – and you’ll find that somewhere in the world, it has been attacked or banned. Piglet in Winnie the Pooh might be construed as an offence to Muslims. The persistent nudity of the central child character in Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen is offensive to some modern eyes. And don’t even get me started on Heather Has Two Mommies …

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Whether or not carefully manufactured outrage on behalf of lobbying groups can be counted as a critically valid one is another matter. I certainly stand by my view that A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond, to which a panel of children’s authors (including myself) and critics recently awarded the Guardian children’s fiction prize, is a classic children’s text that will be read long into the future alongside some of the titles above.

That’s not a view shared by another writer for children. Author Lynne Reid Banks, in a letter to this paper, said she felt let down by our choice, declaring it “not a book for children”, and bemoaning the fact that “publishing is not a children’s world anymore.”

I’m sorry she feels that way. It is a book inspired by one of the oldest stories there is, Orpheus and Eurydice. Almond’s contemporary updating of this classic myth follows a group of young teenage friends on the north-east coast who discover the power of art and love for themselves for the first time. I would argue that is not only a fundamental human experience, but also a critical part of growing up.

There is indeed “lesbian love, swearing and drinking” in the first few pages, and that’s no bad thing. Young people today have to make sense of a complex, diverse world of intersecting, layered narratives, available to them on a permanent loop in just a few clicks. Good writing for children will help them navigate adult experience with awareness and understanding.

Don’t just take my word for it. Of all the books on our prize longlist reviewed by young critics for the Guardian Children’s Books website, not only was A Song for Ella Grey the most reviewed, it was the most powerfully received. Teenager Megan Foley wrote: “I realised that I had finally found a book that put into words my thoughts, and in all honesty, it shocked me (in a good way).” Schoolgirl Sara El-Khamlichi felt “it was not just a book, but a literary masterpiece.”

All children ever want – certainly after the age of 10 or 11 – is to be older. All their parents ever want is for them not to get old too quickly. That tension will never disappear, and parents, librarians, publishers, and booksellers will be fretting about what is appropriate for a sensitive market until the world ends.

But one thing remains as true as it ever has, put simply by another young reviewer of Ella Grey, Charlotte Walden: “Readers will come to their own conclusions.” They always will, even younger ones, and no one should stand in their way.

Contributor

Piers Torday

The GuardianTramp

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