A Booker Prize winning novel reader of the future
A Booker Prize winning novel reader of the future

BooksJune 24, 2024

Why I’m no longer writing novels for adults

A Booker Prize winning novel reader of the future
A Booker Prize winning novel reader of the future

Rachael King is a finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2024 with her novel The Grimmelings. She explains why writing books for kids is more important to her than ever.

I’m a children’s author. I write for kids. I am shielded from the question most children’s authors get: “When are you going to write an adult novel?” The unspoken: a real book.

Susan Cooper, the legend, talks about her early years when children’s books were not seen as literature – they were books for “kiddy-winks”. When people asked her what she did, they replied – “How lovely! Do you draw your own pictures too?”

The reason I am shielded from this question is because I have already written novels for adults. And I’m not sure I’ll ever go back.

Madeleine L’Engle, author of sci-fi children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time, said: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

I won’t pretend that my ideas were so big and lofty that I was compelled to write for children. I started in this field for perhaps the wrong reason – I wanted to write when I had two children under five, and I wanted to apply for a small Creative New Zealand grant, and I had an idea sitting in my drawer. I thought I could write a children’s book quickly and easily – after all, one thing they are is often a lot shorter than adult books.

My first version took me a year to write, through the earthquakes and aftershocks of 2011, and was 20,000 words long. I thought I had said all I wanted to say, but it was a bit, shall we say, thin. Jenny Hellen, then my editor at Random House (and now my editor at Allen & Unwin) loved it, but suggested it might be even better if it was a bit longer. Was there a part of the story I could expand upon? It was then that I found the real story hiding inside that smaller one, and I began to understand that writing for children wasn’t something that can easily be done with a sleep-addled brain in quick snatches while the kids are napping, and that the pleasure is not just in telling a story but in finding its depths. I wrote the next 20,000 words in just six weeks, fired on a whole new level.

I love that novel, Red Rocks. It’s a good story. But one reviewer pointed out that adult writers often feel they have to dumb things down a bit when writing for children. I bridled at this (OK actually I cried in the car listening to it) but when I went back later to read the book, I could see that the reviewer was right, a bit. In some places. Maybe. And certainly I have seen other adult writers treat their books for young people with less care. Red Rocks went on to win the Esther Glen medal, and it’s currently being turned into a very cool TV series, so I clearly was doing something right, but I would come at it differently next time.

Once my children were old enough, we read novels together. I reread books from my childhood I had loved (some of which were abandoned as too slow and boring and I won’t say which ones because I’ll shatter your childhoods) but I also read new books. I worked for a time at the Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch – one Saturday a month – and with the $70 or so I made after tax, I bought books at a staff discount. This is one of the reasons my children’s shelves are overflowing; the other is simply my addiction to buying books. They are very lucky children indeed, as I keep reminding them, to be the offspring of a hardened bibliophile (hoarding books and reading books are two different hobbies!).

Through reading these books I realised something: I liked them. I liked spending time with the worlds and the characters. I was reading them at a greater pace than my children were, though I told myself it was so I could be a better bookseller and writer, and then a better festival director.

After Red Rocks, I went back to trying to write a novel for adults. And I found that I had lost my mojo. I was trying to write another historical novel – a sort of murder mystery with a vaguely supernatural/time travel aspect to it – and I realised I was sick of historical fiction. I wasn’t reading it, so why on earth was I bothering to try and write it anymore? I got bogged down in research. Despite the slightly fun twist, I wasn’t having fun. Then work for my day job got too much and I stopped trying. I felt like a failure.

When I left my job at WORD Christchurch, I had another middle-grade novel in mind. Even then I was still thinking of it as a sort of heart project – I cringe to say “palette cleanser” – before going back to writing adult novels. Very quickly I learned that if you write with passion and integrity, writing for children is every bit as stimulating, challenging and complex as writing for adults.

Rachael King’s latest novel for children, The Grimmelings; and author Rachael King. (Photo: Matt Bialostocki)

I also have had to face something. Maybe writing for grown-ups just isn’t my thing? By the usual measures my first novel was a success – international publication, an award – but these things are arbitrary I think. My second got nice reviews but ultimately I felt like I’d written a potboiler. I liked it, but it was a strange book – too weird to be commercial, too plotty to be literary. It wasn’t picked up internationally like my first (the Global Financial Crisis didn’t help) except by the Russians, who hated it because it had a woman with tattoos in it. It failed to make the book awards shortlist (back in the days when there was no longlist, so you could at least fool yourself you were probably number six on the list) and my books weren’t entered into the Commonwealth Writers Prize as they was deemed to not be the “sort” of books that win that award, so with limited entries, my publisher only put forward their most literary of titles.

I see the debate and the angst around the Ockhams, and I’m quite glad to be out of it to be honest. I’ve never made the Listener “best of the year” lists, for any of my books. There’s something peaceful about flying under the radar. Children’s books (and their awards) don’t tend to get the same critical attention as adult books. Sometimes they disappear completely: witness a recent article that described Shilo Kino’s new adult novel as her “debut novel”, ignoring the fact her actual debut, Pōrangi Boy, won Best YA at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

It’s not just in New Zealand. Look at the most internationally prestigious of book awards, the Carnegie medal, for example. Margaret Mahy won it twice but so far no other New Zealander has come close as far as I’m aware, though Bren MacDibble has been nominated. Compared to its adult equivalent, the Booker Prize, it gets almost no media coverage at all. Katya Balen, the 2022 winner, speaks of waiting for the phone to ring off the hook with media requests – she got one interview, for the Guardian. One! Compare that to Booker winner Shehan Karunatilaka from the same year. On second thoughts, don’t. It’s a bit depressing.

So why do I do it? Clearly I’m not doing this for the glory. Maybe I want to keep writing for children because I’m in touch with my old child self – essential for writing from a child’s point of view – but also now my own are older I have witnessed more closely what contemporary children want and need, how they interact with the world around them. I’m much more confident. I’m excited about the idea of pushing my passions on to young readers (my next book is about a primary school girls’ rock band, followed closely by a YA fantasy involving horses, a bleak windy island and folk horror). I can write books that are just as complex and interesting as any adult novel.

Most importantly, children are the adults of the future, so we owe it to them and ourselves to pay attention and give them good books – and by “good” I don’t just mean literary, or worthy, I mean books that grab them. That feed their imagination and their passions and turn them into lifelong readers. That have the power to shape their worldview in a world that desperately needs compassion and imaginative thinking if we’re ever going to find our way out of this deep dark hole.  

Underestimate the importance of child readers at your peril, especially if you work in the literary world. After all, who is going to buy all those Ockham books, those Booker books in the future? It’s the people who are children now. Will I go back to writing for adults? Perhaps. But I am happy to be “just” a children’s writer. It is more than enough.  

The finalists for the 2024 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults can be found at the awards website. The Grimmelings by Rachael King (Allen & Unwin NZ, $25) is available to purchase from Unity Books

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