What Makes Good Children's Fiction

What makes a good children’s book?


I suppose the answer to that depends very much on the age of the child we’re writing for. A board book for a toddler will need brightly coloured pictures and few words whereas an adventure story for a ten year old will require quite a lot of words and possibly no pictures at all.

I can’t remember what books I had sixty years ago when I was a toddler. The second world war had just ended (apparently my first word after mamma and dadda was flags pronounced by my immature tongue as slags because there were a huge number of celebrations going on as a consequence of a hard-won victory, with bunting every which-where, and paper, like just about everything else, was in short supply.

But I can remember what books I loved when I could actually read. I was a frequent visitor to the children’s library (in Rugby where I was born and, until adulthood, bred). And I can recall being often a solitary visitor: I don't think many of my friends went choosing books as often as I did.

But it's not as sad as it might sound: first let me set the scene. Few people had television sets in the early fifties. My uncle had one, and for years the only time I saw the television was on Boxing Day when we visited him. I didn’t think much of it, but then I had a whole panoply of books with their rich worlds of adventure at my command. I didn’t need speckled grey and white (that television was never actually black and white) images that dissolved into a sea of snow every time a car drove past – and there were a few cars even in those far-off days.

Take away computers, games consols, televisions with their DVDs and videos, all electronic games and most toys from modern children and they might well show the same enthusiasm for their local children's library as I did.

So what made those books good?

I can’t remember all of the stuff I absorbed from the library although I know that both Enid Blyton and Captain W E Johns figured prominently because they were my favourite authors. And books by those two authors had one thing in common: they contained adventures. They weren’t intended to teach us anything, though they did incidentally, of course: but their primary function was to entertain. Since then Enid Blyton’s books have become somewhat frowned upon by educationalists and those who purport to know the ins and outs of literature for the young. Her books, say self-appointed experts, are too restrictive when it comes to language and their heroes and heroines definitely too middle class. How, we are asked, can a working class child coming from a home where the provision of shoes was a major problem, identify with the one-dimensional children that formed the famous five?

I can answer that one. I came from such a home. My mother was widowed when I was four, and I had a younger brother too. Life was one huge struggle in times made hard enough by the residual constrictions caused by the War. Anyone out there old enough to remember that glorious day when sweets went off-ration and you could actually go yourself to the shop and - wait for it - actually buy some?

Anyway, my mother existed on a state widow’s pension and a part-time job as a dinner lady in a school. When it came to toys I had few luxuries, which was just as well bearing in mind there weren’t many in the shops. I had a bike, which I made myself by visiting a scrap yard when it was shut (I didn’t know there was anything wrong with such a subterfuge – I was totally innocent back then). And my brother and I shared a wonderful pedal car in which we both risked life and limb many times – we lived on a little road at the top of a hill and we raced down that hill times many, careless of danger and only aware of the thrill of the speed! I shudder to think of what might have happened!

Yet as far as I was concerned, the characters from the Famous Five weren’t a different class from me. They were four kids and a dog, and in my mind I might have been one of them. And they weren’t one-dimensional to me, either: they had adventures, and I wanted adventures. I wanted to be there, defeating bands of bad men. It was the adventure that appealed, not the characters that participated in it. Maybe the lack of sophistication might strike modern children as old fashioned, but to me the Famous Five (and before them, when I was younger, the Secret Seven) represented a wide and exciting world I might find myself in, one day, if I was lucky.

A word here about physical manifestations of class in the fifties in a still-hard-up UK. One of the difficulties was still the provision of clothing and I can't remember having much to wear above my school clothes. There were no things to change into in the evenings unless I had to swap one pair of school shorts for an old pair. It was much harder than it is today to distinguish between the child from a well-off home and one from a poorer background. So the Famous Five and the "Of Adventure" books were food and drink to my growing mind, but all things must end: the last page of the last remaining book must be absorbed - and then what?

Then came Biggles, by Captain W E Johns. Biggles was a first world war pilot, a flying "Ace" and he, too, had adventures. I seem to remember that he even fell in love in one short story, called, I seem to remember, Affaire de Coeur! And that's not much more than fifty years since I last read the book it came from, or even thought of it. The doings of Biggles fed my need for manly bravery and adventure – and I suppose he was one-dimensional, too, though that didn’t matter to me. I revelled in dog fights across the skies, straffing the hun and generally winning! And another war with Germany had come to its inglorious conclusion not too many years earlier, so the whole notion of shooting down German planes wasn't as bad as it would be these days.

By the time that I had come to the end of those books (and I remember almost mourning when I finished the last Biggles book, knowing there would be no more – and even moved, briefly, on to Worrals though Worrals was intended for girls and so a most unmanly tome to read - best not be caught with one in my satchel) I had to look elsewhere. The television still didn’t offer me anything – we didn’t have one and anyway they were still grey and white and speckled. There was the radio, of course, and I enjoyed listening to a few things on that. It would have been about 1955 and music was still boring and intended for the grown-ups, though across the Atalntic Rock 'n' Roll was flexing its robust limbs - and about time too! Children’s radio programmes were often condescending and either for very young children or adults. So it was still books, and I read them with a will. Everything by any author the children’s library contained on its well-used shelves combined with an increasing spattering from the adult library.

I even learned about the greenhouse effect from Captain W E Johns, in a science fiction novel about Mars. It's a snippet of knowledge that has been with me down all the years since then, and informed a great deal of my thinking. Anyway, I read all that I could, and then my life was changed for good when I met Sherlock Holmes in the adult library.

I know that the great Holmes was never intended as a hero of children’s literature, but in a way he was to me a logical successor to Biggles. And now I could learn as well as enjoy. Set in late Victorian times I could begin to compare my own time with then. Comparing the experiences of people from different ages has been something that has fascinated me all my life since then.


So why have I said all this? Well, one of my Lulu books is intended for children and if my marbles remain intact and I am granted sufficient years I intend to write several more. And why shouldn't I? Entertaining the growing mind, and en route, maybe, informing it, must be one of the worthiest of all tasks.

Officer Gentry and the Ghost of Mavis Adder is intended as a book for the schoolboy still inside me to enjoy. It marries my fascination with comparing different times and the way people cope with the varying problems that totally different environments throw at them, with the need for a story. Both aspects are important, and the idea of creating enough electricity to operate a hand-held time machine out of lemon juice and a few coins still inspires me!

So maybe I’ve defined what makes a good children’s book: adventure and characters to identify with together with something to think about. After all, there's more than the world to play with, there's all of time and space as well! I think it’s as simple as that. And maybe that’s why Harry Potter and his chums are so welcome by children everywhere.

There's a sample of the book available just here Go on - check it out: you know that you want to!