Given that Children's Book Week is next week (1- 7 )Oct), I thought I'd mention that a couple of weeks ago I visited my local Waterstones because the children's author Garth Nix was doing a signing there. And what a good experience it turned out to be - it was so encouraging to see a queue of children, not just parents, there (though there were some parents dutifully standing in line, with armfuls of books to be signed for their children). These were children who were calling out to each other across the shopfloor, naming books and characters as if they knew them! Hallelujah, I thought, some of the blighters actually do read! One teenager boasted to another that a mate of his was going to be so sick when he heard he'd met Garth Nix. This was great.
I, dutiful parent too, stood in line with my Nix-lit and met Mr Nix and he turned out to be a really nice man - he'd taken the time (as do Mr Horowitz and Mr Pullman) to engage in conversation with every signee and give each of them an individual moment which served to counter the conveyor-belt aspect of these affairs (publisher's representative progresses down the waiting line with little orange slips of paper to pop into your book to speed up the signing process: 'And who would you like yours signed to?')
So, I had a brief chat with Mr Nix, about the difficulty of pronouncing the name of his heroine, Sabriel - turns out the man himself doesn't know: he changes it according to his mood. I like that. I didn't tell him that I'm the only one in our household who's read Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, even though I leave them around invitingly, for my boys to read. So far, the only spontaneous reading I've seen my boys do involves Yu-gi-oh, Antony Horowitz and Lemony Snicket. Which is something - but they're missing out on so much! (Not their mother's fiction, of course - they are tied to chairs and forced to listen to that).
Given that I've been writing children's fiction lately, I've found myself getting into reading it too - though I'm careful to avoid anything that resembles what I myself am writing, in terms of subject matter or location: I want to plough my own furrow undisturbed. And what might have been a pursuit of duty has been an absolute delight. It's a cliche now to say that we seem to be living in another golden age of children's fiction, but I really believe it might be true. Certainly children's fiction is garnering so much more attention and respect than it might have done fifteen or even ten years ago. This is a two-edged sword because everyone wants to get into it now, including writers who are extremely successful in the adult sphere (Joanne Harris, Jeannette Winterson, for example), and the obligatory toying with the form from the celebrity contingent (Madonna, Julianne Moore, Jordan - who writes about ponies, can you believe it!)
So here are some of the books I've recently delighted in:
Marcus Sedgewick: My Swordhand is Singing - starkly beautiful vampire fable
Michelle Paver: just finished Outcast, which is the fourth of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. They're brilliant: the sense of time and place is spot on, the hero, Torak, has a touching bond with his companion Wolf (and parts of the books are narrated by Wolf himself), landscape and survival techniques of the Stone Age are immaculately researched and the pace of the stories never lets up.
Geraldine McCaughrean: White Darkness - the heroine visits Antarctica with her mad uncle and converses in her head all the time with Titus Oates of Captain Scott's expedition, because she has a crush on him. Very funny, original and beautiful.
Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief - great fun, as the hero, discovering one of the Greek gods is his father, goes on a quest across America to recover Zeus's stolen lightning bolt. A road movie with Greek divinities: Ares rides a Harley and wears shades.
Celia Rees: Witch Child. It's The Crucible all over again and none the worse for that.
Julie Hearn: Follow Me Down - excellent sense of period, lively, amusing - but also with pathos. Loved the Bendy Man.
Eva Ibbotson: Journey to the River Sea - lyrical, beautifully structured story, set on the Amazon where there's a strange and lovely blend of the exotic and the normal.
And the aforesaid Garth Nix - dark horror, gripping adventure and amazing levels of originality.
So I think you'll get the sense of the sort of thing I appreciate in a good children's book: emotional engagement, a genuine sense of a child's perception of the world, convincing use of setting both in place and time, language which is vibrant with sharp and telling and often beautiful images, dialogue which animates the story and the characters, and a momentum and suspense that means you can't put the thing down. Oh, and the sort of idea at the core of it all that makes you think 'Damn, damn, damn! Now why didn't I think of that?'