Julia Donaldson has today been crowned as the new Children’s Laureate. Gleanings from the children’s literati on Facebook suggest a response that ranges from “underwhelmed” to “disappointed”; initial press reactions, on the other hand, seem genuinely to approve the choice of this very popular author. Sidestepping this debate, for the moment, I think the difference itself is worth pondering.
The Children’s Laureate award is given for lifetime achievement: specifically, for having written or illustrated children’s books. But if you selected someone who then locked themselves away in their writing shack for two years and didn’t so much as support their local save-the-library campaign, it would clearly not be very productive, however many additional bestsellers they managed to produce during that time. And that raises interesting questions about the role and identity of the author.
Anyone who has dipped a toe into the murky waters of literary studies knows that the author is dead. In the post-Barthesian world, we are entirely clear on that point if nothing else. OK, well perhaps the author has experienced a degree of After-Theory resurrection, but s/he is still firmly in a place called ‘Context’. But step out of the postmodern world of literary and cultural studies and into the real world (a risky term; interpret how you will) of literary culture, and you find an author who has never been in such rude health, as attested by the proliferation of author interviews, appearances, signings, blogs, and so on and on. The cult of the author gathers to worship at the proliferating literary festivals. Ours here in Cambridge is called Wordfest, but maybe Authorfest would be a more suitable title. As many authors have pointed out, the demand to create a media presence can be a considerable threat to their writing and – for some, though admittedly not for all – it sits uneasily with the more introverted personality that has enabled them to write well in the first place. The pressure from publishers is enormous. Just because you’re an author doesn’t mean you’ve got a note to say you’re excused celebrity games.
So, what did the Children’s Laureate panel take into consideration? Is it the quality of the literary achievement alone, or is it some sort of text–author package? Donaldson is unarguably a market brand, but was that included in the calculations? Of course the criteria are not ennumerated. But let’s suppose for a moment that they are judging on the quality of the output alone, then we are back to the old question of what is a good book for children and who’s to say? If we take Peter Hunt’s childist line, then we might say that on the evidence of library borrowings, at least – she was she was the most borrowed children’s author in public libraries in 2010 – quality is assured. But clearly this is not the view of all children’s literature critics.
I do feel I ought declare my position – and I would if I had one. For various reasons I find myself torn and not wanting to judge too hastily. I agree that as picturebooks go, these lack the richness and depth found in other works. Scholars have consistently passed them over, presumably for this reason. I did a quick check on all the major children’s lit journals, and no one has seen fit to either write or include an article that even makes a passing mention of Julia Donaldson. On the other hand, Donaldson is undeniably appreciated by children and, apparently, by the sagacious Michael Rosen.
In lieu of a position, I’ll venture a proposition. I wonder if, in judging these books as picturebooks, we are in fact making a category error. Julia Donaldson started her writing career composing songs for children’s television, and still regularly acts and sings them to life. These are not works in the line of picturebooks, but are perhaps descended from the folktale and the ballad and the nursery rhyme. They are songs and poems and playscripts, set to pictures, and waiting to be dramatised. In fact they invite dramatisation, which is why they are so good for reading aloud to children, inviting them into active play and performance – something which Margaret Mackey argues is an important aspect of children’s interaction with books.
One thing of which I am confident is that Julia Donaldson will be taking her Children’s Laureate show on the road. “It’s not an honour you can bask in,” she says, signalling her intention to make her two years’ worth count. And that is worth the rejoicing.