Thursday 5 October 2006

What Makes a Children’s Book Great?

Author Tony Bradman, critic Julia Eccleshare and teacher/critic Gwynneth Bailey discussed What Makes a Children’s Book Great at an event co-sponsored by SCBWI British Isles and the Society of Authors on 14 September 2006.

What makes a children’s book great has everything to do with who you are and little to do with tried and tested formulae.

Author Tony Bradman confesses that his favourite picture book choices is informed by the fact that his children were little in the 1980s – and so his favourites include many from that period: Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake, Not Now Bernard by David McKee, Avocado Baby by John Burningham, The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont.

The Guardian children’s book critic Julia Eccleshare harks back to her three childhood favourites: Children on the Oregon Trail by A. Rutger Van Der Loeff, The Swarm in May by William Mayne and Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.

Teacher Gwynneth Bailey, who also writes for the Times Educational Supplement and reviews books for Books for Keeps and other review sites, struggled to list her five favourite books and settled for the following eleven:

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
All Afloat on Noah’s Boat by Tony Mitton
Cockatoos by Quentin Blake
Sophie and the Sea Wolf by Helen Cresswell
Tanka Tanka Skunk by Steve Webb
The Whale’s Song by Dyan Sheldon
Unwitting Wisdom: An Anthology of Aesop’s Fables by Helen Ward
The Cockerel and the Fox by Helen Ward
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
Catkin by Antonia Barber
Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

The Story or the Telling?

Julia polled “a gang of lanky, over-schooled 15 year olds” on what they believed made a children’s book great. Their answers read like a creative writing textbook:

  • It must have a great story.

  • There must be a battle between good and evil

  • You must like the characters

  • It must be set in a place you have never been to that you would like to visit
“I agree with all this but I would not say that is all,” says Julia. “What makes children’s books great? I don’t think it’s the story. How many kids finish reading a book and say that it was the narrative drive from A to B that kept them reading. What you tend to remember (from a great book) is not the story but the emotional intelligence. It’s the storytelling.”

Reading about three owl babies waiting for their mother in Owl Babies resonates with young readers. “Children really identify with Owl Babies,” says Gwynneth., “when mum goes off, is she going to come back?”

As a ten year old reading Children on the Oregon Trail, Julia felt connected with the travails of the pioneering American family at the heart of the story. “I could identify entirely with the family,” she says. “It had an emotional intelligence that somehow made you empathetic about other people in your life as well.”

For Tony, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe struck a similar empathetic chord. “My own dad left when I was very young and The Eagle of the Ninth, which was published the year I was born, was about a boy searching for the truth about his dad,” he says. “What makes books like these qualify (for greatness) is what makes Shakespeare great – the universality of their themes.”

It’s in the Writing

“What am I looking for in a picture book? I want the words to sing!” says Gwynneth, treating the audience to an energetic performance of the onomatopoeic Tanka Tanka Skunk by Steve Webb. Tanka the elephant and his friend Skunk drum to an infectious rhythm:

And this is caterpillar.
His name has four beats.
Sometimes great writing has little to do with words, says Tony. A Visit to the Doctor by Helen Oxenbury, a hilarious but wordless story is told only with simple drawings. And then there are great words with great pictures like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak – “Its genius is that it is great art in the service of great storytelling.”

It is the writing that puts William Mayne’s The Swarm in May on Julia’s list. Julia, who as a Smarties Prize judge has just finished ploughing through 300 books, explains: “The thing that worries me most about writing today is the over-writing – too much tell and not enough show. I think we have lost sight of the fact that you can tell a story economically. The point about an author like Mayne is the spare writing … which has an almost poetic quality. There is a quality to his writing that is electrifying – it still electrifies me.”

Writing from Childhood

“Childhood is a very fashionable thing to write about at the moment but adult writers don’t know what it is to be a child,” says Julia.

“But Philippa Pearce (Tom’s Midnight Garden) is absolutely clear about how a child sees the world. The remarkable thing about her is that she never gets outside childhood. There is a kind of helplessness in her writing, a kind of not being in control. She captures the very essence of what it feels like to be a child.”

“Eye on the ball, children first,” says Tony. “People are sniffy about Jacky (Jacqueline Wilson) but in (books like) The Illustrated Mum she can really capture the child surviving adult mayhem, the way children are very sensitive, very aware of things.”

And yet the current glut of fantasy in the children’s market seems a rejection Jacqueline Wilson style reality-in-fiction.

Says Julia of fantasy, “We cannot possibly continue at the level we have at the moment. We don’t seem to be allowed to write about children in the real world perhaps because children (today) are more policed, monitored and controlled than at any other time. You cannot have reality in fiction when children are not allowed to do anything.”

A Struggle Between Story and Utilitarian Anxieties

Julia tells of her struggle every week to select children’s books to write about in the Guardian. “Let’s not give it all to the 12-pluses,” she sighs. “Every week, I have to decide in my mind what really constitutes children fiction.”

“There has always been a tension between what adults want from them (books) and what children get from them,” says Tony. “Either the story should teach a moral lesson, or somehow be educational. If a child enjoys a book, the parent instantly disagrees – it must be trash!”

Books targeted at five to eight year olds in particular have “always been a Cinderella group obsessed with literacy”. “You get educational publishing with dreadful reading schemes and books rebranded with national curriculum goals,” he says. “The market is full of anxious parents.”

Says Julia: “Publishing is only a business. (Children’s books) may be art but publishers will only publish what works.”

Authors owe a debt to J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), she says – “Whatever one thinks of J.K. her work has put us in an unthinkable position. She has shown that publishers can make money out of children’s books. Every author in the land should never forget their gratitude to her. Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo) has done the same for picture books. Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials) has given children’s books intellectual credibility.”

The Art of Urgency

“I read a phenomenal amount and for me, the acid test of a great book, is whether you want to give it to someone else to read,” says Julia. “What makes a book so amazing is the feeling that you cannot stop reading it. This is an urgent book, you say. Urgent is something a book has to be.”

Julia remembers reading Anne Fine’s Mrs Doubtfire – “hilarious and truly funny” – and handing it straight across to her husband and telling him to read it.

“The great books,” she says, “are the ones that make readers.”


  1. Thanks for the full report on this event. It's interesting to see what people said in answer to the question. I've linked to this from my blog with creative writing resources (that goes along with a creative writing workshop I'm starting in a few weeks):

  2. Can anyone tell me if the book that Julia Eccleshare is talking about in this article - Children on the Oregon Trail - is a picture book that would have been published before 1985? There was a great book about a pioneer family in my primary school classroom and I have been trying to find it for many years!

  3. i don't think it's a picture book. i found this link to children on the oregon trail on tried looking up picture books about pioneer families, but there are so many! hope you find it someday.


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