One of the best things about becoming a parent is the fresh stock of new books to enjoy - and I don’t mean Gina Ford and the rest of the how-to-be the-smuggest-parent-in-the-world cabal. I’m referring to the joys to be had in that section of Waterstones with the day-glo carpets and overly bright lighting -Yes, the kids’ corner; the very area I used to walk swiftly past with a shudder on my way to the 3-for-2 table. How times can change. Now I’m as familiar with the new Julia Donaldson, as I am with the Booker shortlist, and I’m also rediscovering a few old favourites from my own distant past.
Okay, so at first glance these books may seem like the antithesis of everything a grown-up reader and writer of novels holds dear – they take less than ten minutes to read, contain a lot of pictures, not to mention pop-ups or pull-outs, and admittedly their prime protagonists tend to be animals, dragons, or witches who speak in rhyming couplets. But so what? The really good children’s books have a lot to teach us budding writers of adult fiction, especially ones like me, with a tendency for using ten words when one will suffice, not to mention a predisposition for going off on a tangent just as the action is hotting up.
By and large, stories for the under fives revolve around a quick fix of humour, a good lead character with plenty of gumption and plenty of interaction with other characters. They often come with a simple moral stitched into the lining; where good things like patience, love and kindness are rewarded and honoured, and naughtiness and meanness are -if not exactly punished - ironed out by the final page. It’s true that for their young audiences, the illustrations can be just as important as the words, and in books by the likes of Julia Donaldson, Janet and Allan Ahlbergh and Oliver Jeffers, often play a vital role in providing sub-plot or a splash of period or geographical context. But it’s the words I’m interested in, and there are some phrases and – okay, I admit it - rhyming couplets, that I find myself repeating in my head like a mantra, hours after the story has been read. Take that last line from modern classic The Gruffalo –
“The mouse saw the nut, and the nut was good” – it’s so epic it’s practically biblical.
Or one of my favourites from Where the Wild Things Are – “And the walls became the world all around.” Utterly beautiful, and utterly simple.
Or that equally simple but profound universal truth that “Some birds are like that” offered by Oliver Jeffers in Up and Down, when his boy hero is given the cold shoulder by a seagull.
And it isn’t just the language in these books; occasionally you’ll come across a storyline that, approached from a different angle, can read like a Pandora’s Box of adult fears and desire. I’m thinking here of the graphically terrifying ‘adventures’ of Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s garden, or the orgy of decadence at the heart of Where the Wild Things Are, or, a current bedtime favourite in our house, Judith Kerr’s 1968 classic The Tiger Who Came to Tea, which has at times had me contemplating a PhD proposal on the tropes of sexual difference contained within its 750 or so words. Not only is there the transgressive and overt masculinity of the eponymous tiger, who calls on the little girl and her mother and eats them out of house and home, but there is the machismo of the father who returns from the world of work to whisk mother and daughter off for sausage and chips; a feast which in turn, is replaced by the clear-as-day longing of the girl and the mother for the tiger’s return – Angela Carter couldn’t have done a better job of it.
Perhaps as some kind of antidote to all this short, sharp sweetness, I find myself selecting very long novels to read in my own time. Last year it was Crime and Punishment (it’s always on those 100-Books-You-Should-Have-Read-By Now lists, so I thought I’d check it out) and this year it has been The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Both books deal with guilt and desire amidst family dysfunction, and both run away on considerable tangents, fleshing out and justifying their protagonists’ actions. There is back-story galore, anecdotes aplenty, and page after page of internal wranglings of conscience.
Meanwhile, in my own writing I am attempting to turn something too long into something shorter and at least sharper if it can’t be sweet. We’re talking about tightening up a first draft that is so long I can’t actually afford the ink cartridges and paper to print it out. Thus, I am pleased with myself if after an editing session my overall wordcount has come down by a few hundred, and less happy when I realise that for my plot to work later on I really do need that vital, but lengthy bit of back-story to stay just where it is.
The long and the short of my reading diet finally collided today when I read a newly tweaked chapter to the cat while my son was away with the nap fairies. I quickly discovered that if it doesn’t sound good read out loud, it won’t feel right read in the head, and even the best illustrations in the world can’t turn a bad bit of writing into a good one.