Wednesday 4 February 2015

The Best Books Of The 21st Century?

The BBC recently conducted a poll to find the best books of the 21st Century.  They asked "several dozen critics" to vote.  Sadly, these critics didn't seem to know anything about children's & young adult literature, because there was no mention on their list of Philip Pullman or JK Rowling.  No Mark Haddon, Jacqueline Wilson, David Almond, Meg Rosoff, Patrick Ness, Malorie Blackman; no RJ Palacio, MT Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar… nothing.  Not a single MG or YA book appeared on that list.

How can anyone write about 21st Century fiction without mentioning Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, at the very least?  Some of the richest and most imaginative contemporary literature is being written for young readers.  In a hundred years time, many of these books will be classics.  It's hard to imagine a list of classic Edwardian literature that doesn't include Rudyard Kipling or E Nesbit; Peter Pan or The Secret Garden.  Yet their modern equivalents are being overlooked, especially MG books.

I feel certain that one day, Kate Saunders's Five Children On The Western Front will join Nesbit's original Five Children And It on classic literature lists.  But in all the discussion of this year's Costa Book Awards, it was barely mentioned outside the children's books world.

I don't want to take anything away from H Is For Hawk, which won the Costa, or The Brief And Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, which topped the BBC list.  I loved that book and what it did with texts like The Lord Of The Rings.  But it didn't seem to me to be qualitatively different to what MT Anderson did with 18th century texts in The Astonishing Life Of Octavian Nothing, Traitor To The Nation; or what Philip Pullman did with Milton, Blake and the Bible in His Dark Materials.  So I'm not arguing against adult literary fiction.  I just don't understand why the entire field of children's literature gets excluded from lists like this.  I think it should be recognised and included too.

It's arguable that high culture – as represented by literary prizes, traditional media and universities – has never taken children's literature seriously.  Prejudice remains to the point that some people deny children's fiction can be literature at all.  Last year, the University Of Kent sparked a controversy on Twitter by appearing to suggest exactly this; I wrote a bit about it at the time 

Yet anyone who's taken the time to read some contemporary children's literature will know how brilliant the best of it is.  "A loved children's book sears into you," Francesca Simon told me recently.  "It becomes part of who you are, what you love, what you care about, in a way no adult book could ever emulate."

That's certainly my experience.  I will never forget reading Watership Down at the age of 8: it changed my life.  But it was only on re-reading it as an adult that I realised its depth; its allusions to world mythology, Greek tragedy and Shakespeare; its political and philosophical dimensions.  It's a multi-layered work of astonishing scope and ambition – yet at 8, I could enjoy it as a thrilling, page-turning adventure.

That was exactly the kind of book I wanted to write myself, one day.  My aim was to make modern myths: stories anyone could enjoy, however old they were.  Whether or not I succeed in my aim, I've never doubted that children's fiction is the place to do it.  Because books like Watership Down and The Jungle Books, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials have proved again and again that children's literature is really just literature, transcending every kind of label.

We're lucky to have so many amazing people working in children's books today.  Of course, there are writers – from 1960s veterans like Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin and Peter Dickinson (all still active), to the newest breakthrough authors, like Abi Elphinstone, Tatum Flynn, Lu Hersey and Katherine Woodfine (all with debuts this year!)  But we also have excellent critics like Julia Eccleshare, Amanda Craig, Nicolette Jones, Daniel Hahn, Imogen Russell Williams and Lorna Bradbury (none of whom the BBC apparently consulted for their poll).  We've had a series of brilliant Children's Laureates spreading the word, none more powerfully than current Laureate Malorie Blackman.  We have dedicated organisations like Booktrust, the CLPE and the UKLA; hugely vibrant blogging and vlogging communities; and a massive presence in online spaces like the Guardian children's books site and Twitter, where children's books routinely dominate hashtag games like #bookadayuk. 

All of this is amazing.  So why doesn't the field receive more recognition in the wider world?  Only one children's prize-winner has ever won the overall Costa/Whitbread Book of the Year so far (The Amber Spyglass, which made history when it became the first).  Not a single children's book has ever made a Booker shortlist, let alone won.  Mainstream media coverage is almost non-existent.  Children's books now account for 1/4 of the entire UK book market.  Should they therefore not receive 1/4 of review space and other attention?  In reality, they get less than 1/40.

So I'm delighted to see so many people coming together behind BookZone's brilliant MG Strikes Back initiative.  And I'm glad to announce that we're doing a poll here to balance out the BBC one: a poll of the best 21st Century children's books so far.  Not to say that any book is better than any other, but just to point out how many fantastic books have been written in our field over the last 15 years – and to show that the field as a whole deserves to be included, recognised and celebrated by the wider culture at large.  So please go along to the polling page here, cast your vote, and make your voice heard!


  1. “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.”― C.S. Lewis

    Shocked at that extract from University of Kent. The YA book prize launched last year...maybe 2015 will be the year that MG gets some of the spotlight. Hope so!

  2. Erm, is it because JK Rowling, Pullman et al are actually 20th (not 21st) century books? Just a thought, though I might seem to be looking for excuses :-)

  3. Thanks so much for the comments – feedback is always appreciated. I love that CS Lewis quote!

    On the question of whether JK Rowling is 20th Century, while it's true that the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, more than half the series was published in the 21st Century. Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (book 4) was the first; it was published in July 2000.

    With Philip Pullman, while Northern Lights (1995) and The Subtle Knife (1997) were published in the 20th Century, The Amber Spyglass was published in October 2000, so once again, it is a 21st Century book.

    As Pullman views the trilogy as being one book in three parts, and as the trilogy was not complete until 2000, there's also an argument that His Dark Materials as a whole should be viewed as a 21st Century book. It was certainly not published in one volume before the 21st Century.

    1. but the 21st Century didn't start until Jan 1st 2001....lights blue touch-paper and steps back

    2. Thanks for your point. You're absolutely right that the 21st Century officially began in 2001, despite the fact that many people view it as beginning in 2000.

      My blog was a response to the BBC poll list, which contains two novels published in 2000: White Teeth, and The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Klay. So I was following the BBC's definition of the 21st Century. If those books were eligible for their poll, then so were The Amber Spyglass and four of the Harry Potter books.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Great strike! Ah - I see we're voting for Children's books only (written for 8-13 yrs), first published in UK.

  6. Brilliant, thank you, incredible that all this still has to be said! Francesca Simon describes the power of children's books beautifully above, and in a nutshell. A children's writer needs to be much more aware of their possible effect.

    Joan Aiken wrote: " A child may only read six hundred books in the course of their childhood" (and sadly often fewer) " Only the best is good enough for children. A children's writer should ideally be a dedicated is their duty to demonstrate that the world is not a simple place. Far from it. It is an infinitely rich, strange, confusing, wonderful, cruel, mysterious, beautiful, inexplicable riddle."

    How many adult books are written with this sense of responsibility to humanity?

    Lizza Aiken

  7. Harry Potter and His Dark Materials are YA. Not MG