If the real world isn't censored – why should fiction be?

Last week author Lynne Reid Banks criticised the choice of David Almond’s A Song for Ella Grey as winner of the Guardian children’s fiction prize 2015. Site members ConfessionsofaBookLover and Lottie Longshanks respond

Last week author Lynne Reid Banks had this letter published in the Guardian, where she criticised the choice of David Almond winning The Guardian children’s fiction prize 2015 with A Song for Ella Grey. Here’s an extract of the letter:

In the first five pages there is lesbian love, swearing, drinking, and enough other indications that, once again, this is not a book for children. Children are people up to the age of 12. They are not grownups of 17. The books are going straight back to Waterstones.

Woe to us who really do write for children! No prizes for us. Publishing is not a children’s world any more.

Author and the judge Piers Torday responded here and the whole story was picked up on Twitter and even Radio 4.

But how do young people themselves feel? We have had many reviews of David Almond’s A Song For Ella Grey on the Guardian children’s books site, and three of them were awarded Young Critic of the year prize including Megan Foley, Sara El-Khamlichi and 12-year-old site member Lottie Longshanks.

Lottie Longshanks tells us how why she is glad David ALmond’s A Song for Ella Grey won the Guardian children’s fiction prize here:

I am 12 and I absolutely loved A Song for Ella Grey. I fell in love with David Almond’s writing when I was 7 and read My Name is Mina. Ella grey sent me searching for the myth which I did not know and also into book 4 of Paradise Lost to find the quotation “Evil be thou my good.” I will remember the book as a lovely haunting story because of the beautiful poetic language rather than any of the adult stuff, I’m not even a teenager till next July but there was nothing in the book that I don’t know about already. You can’t avoid knowing if you read the papers, watch a bit of TV or listen to people talking at school. My dad thinks that I am sensible enough to read what I choose and I can talk to him or my grandparents about anything. David Almond is brilliant at weaving all sorts of themes into stunningly written stories that you will always remember. It doesn’t stop me from still enjoying books that I loved when I was very little, but how will I be able to deal with grown up things if I don’t know about them till I am 17? Young people today should be helped to make their own choices.

And after reading Lynne Reid Banks’ letter, site member Confessionsofabooklover had this response:

I had the honour of attending the ceremony at The Guardian where David was announced as the winner of the Guardian children’s fiction prize, and I was overjoyed that David came out as the winner. Of the many fantastic names that made the shortlist, David was competing in among some of the brightest names in publishing on the whole, and I was so impressed that he’d won and was able to remain as humble as he did about it.

It’s therefore a delightful thing for me to read that you went and bought copies for your 12-year-old grandchildren. As a site member for The Guardian children’s Books site, I’ve read many of the titles that were in the running from the Prize from longlist to finalist, and I can honestly say it’s a really powerful book from a really powerful author.

But in your letter, and I quote you directly, you say, “Publishing is not a children’s world anymore.”

As a children’s author yourself, I’m surprised you take this view. Publishing is a children’s world now more than ever.

I need only point out the YA books being adapted into box office hits, like The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, John Green’s phenomenal titles, and the fact that children’s books are now being read more and more extensively by an adult population proves that the time is now for children’s books in publishing. To give you an idea, a 2012 survey showed that 55% of YA readers are actually adults. A so called “golden age” in children’s publishing was reported on earlier this year by The Guardian, where sales across all formats for children’s books rose to £349m. To put that into some sort of perspective for you, if children’s books were a country, they would’ve had the 26th largest economy by GDP in 2014 (according to the International Monetary Fund), above countries like Norway, Austria, Ireland and New Zealand.

So I think it’s grossly unfair to say that “publishing is not a children’s world anymore.”

But your letter highlights a far bigger and far more pressing issue for me, and it’s the issue of “issue books.”

A Song for Ella Grey cover
Photograph: PR company handout

Our school systems here in the UK especially are inexcusably terrible at covering real world issues, abandoning sexuality, identity, religion and helping to play their part in preventing discrimination in the modern world, in favour of tightening guidelines on better grades and performance targets. Since our schools started failing schoolchildren, fiction has been filling the gap. David Levithan is a perfect example of doing this. Books of his like Two Boys Kissing and Wide Awake cover the LGBT+ community perfectly, and help breed a tolerant society so perhaps one day we can wave goodbye to homophobia and racism.

And when I ask authors about why they choose to cover these issues in fiction, they give me an answer that usually follows one common theme: “If the real world isn’t censored, why should fiction be?”

So I’m sorry you felt that A Song For Ella Grey was not for your 12-year-old grandchildren, and you are perfectly entitled to that opinion and you of course have the right to do whatever you wish. But legally children are still children until the age of 18, and even from the ages of 12 and under, you’ll find that children are asking these questions because this is their world, our world, as much as it is yours, and they have a right to understand it and question it.

When it comes to children’s books that reflect the world we really live in, then the time is now more than ever before. We’re seeing a revolution in children’s publishing, and if you’re not already in it, join it.

And if I may add it, I would advise continuing to support and trust The Guardian because the winner was chosen by authors, not editors. And even if it was chosen by The Guardian, they did a brilliant job with it anyway.

Thanks for these brilliant responses Confessionsofabooklover and Lottie Longshanks. What do you think? Join in the discussion on Twitter @GdnChildrensBks or by emailing childrens.books@theguardian.com and we’ll add to this blog.

ConfessionsofaBookLover and Lottie Longshanks

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