I’m coming to the end of my fabulous learning experience at Hot Key, but I will admit that there is one aspect of children’s publishing that troubles me. For many years, age grouping children’s fiction has made me feel uncomfortable, but the issue has puzzled me, more so, in the past two weeks. On my first day, I learnt the in house target audience of Hot Key was approximately 9 -19. Logistically, this is vaguely considered as two age groups: 9-12, and the young adult audience. While Hot Key do not age band books, the content of the book causes a consideration of which audience it is most likely to appeal to.
A few days in to my placement, and one thing occurred to me: there seemed to be noticeably less manuscripts where the content would suit a younger age band. I wondered whether this was my issue, had I forgotten what I looked for in a book when I was ten? Or, is it that we remember more clearly what we were reading when we were teens, making it easier to write for that audience?
There was only one thing I could do to help me find answers; I had to stop being twenty three. My mission became to return to being ten years old. Think, I told myself, what were you reading when you were ten? I remembered Lucy Daniel’s Animal Ark series. My stomach squirmed a little because with this memory came another one. One of my biggest fears when I was younger was that I would grow up and stop reading the stories I loved. No word of a lie, I promised myself that no matter how old I got I would never stop reading the Animal Ark series. Not knowing where my series of books are now, I realised that my ten year old self would frown disapprovingly on twenty three year old me.
The Hobbit came to mind. But it still failed to enlighten me as to why there were less people writing 9-12 fiction. Then I recalled reading Of Mice and Men. I had decided one day to read what my older sister was reading for school. Two hours later, I emerged from my bedroom crying hysterically, that little bit more disillusioned with the world, but the book became one of my favourites. But what did this tell me about what I should be looking for when reading children’s fiction now? I’d come across three titles, none of which were aimed at the same audience, but all of which I loved. It dawned on me that this was the most important revelation of my journey to being ten years old.
Fast forward one year to when I was eleven and I began to get a clearer understanding of the issue. I had to give two book reports for school. The first was on a book that would be picked for me by the teacher. The second would be my own choice. The teacher selected Tarka the Otter, a book I hated. I told the class with the utmost conviction that this was the most boring book I had ever read (no disrespect to anyone who loves this book!). The teacher, slightly bewildered, insisted that she thought I would really enjoy the book. The following week I did my choice, my favourite book of the moment, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
But why did my teacher get it so wrong? She had seen the shy, timid girl that I was, and thought a book about an otter and the countryside was exactly what I wanted to read. The truth was that age targeting and subject matter weren’t things that I thought about, the only thing I wanted to read was a great story.
I realised, for me, this is where the problem lies in younger fiction. Remembering these books was not something that came to me quickly. I’ve spent the past two weeks trying to recall what it was I loved to read when I was little. Just as my teacher failed to relate to what I would want to read, I also struggled to relate to the younger audience. Teen fiction, I still read, but apart from Coraline and Un Lun Dun, I haven’t read anything, in recent years, that would appeal to the younger audience. I wonder, is this also the problem writers face?
My journey reminded me that what I looked for in a book was adventure; simply, a story that grabbed me. I worry, though, that my biggest issue when approaching children’s fiction now, is that I was focusing too much on that 9-12 bracket. Book shops have categorised children’s fiction into ages as a selling point, but are we so busy thinking in terms of this age band that we hinder our ability to relate to our inner child? Just for fun, let’s pretend that every bookshop in the country was having a revamp and replacing the 9-12 sign. Do you think there would be a more sufficient way of labelling this category?