Janet McAllister: Books break the age barrier

Author Eoin Colfer.
Author Eoin Colfer.

As a 12-year-old, Eoin (pronounced "Owen") Colfer was reading books by adults for adults. The Irish author jokes that he wanted to walk around with tomes by Stephen King and Jack Higgins under his arm, and sneer at peers who weren't quite up to his lurid level of sophistication. He wanted books with fast yet complicated plots.

So that's what he writes for today's 12-year-olds - pacy comic novels about evil boy genius Artemis Fowl; and whaddaya know, adults like his books too. "They just have to make sure no one sees the cover," Colfer says.

But that last part's no longer true; we grown-up fans of Colfer's Fowl-and-fairies mix are loud and proud about our addiction to what's supposedly at the young end of the Young Adult (YA) genre. In fact, I was more excited about Colfer's appearance at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival last week than I was about anybody else's (with the possible exception of "children's" picture book creator Oliver Jeffers).

The idea that many books are all-ages gigs is coming of age. For example, last year I mentioned the judges of the NZ Post Children's Book Awards for picture books had put the call out for more all-ages entries; this year, as if in response, the five finalists were wonderfully varied, including Ant Sang's graphic novel Shaolin Burning, eventual category winner Rahui (an eerie, swirling outlining of grief published in both Maori and English by Chris Szekely and Malcolm Ross), and Waiting for Later by Tina Matthews, particularly remarkable for both its illustrations and design.

Also in the category was the fun, read-aloud, Children's Choice winner The Cat's Pyjamas by Catherine Foreman (it's a great pity the back blurb gives the cat a gender when the story carefully doesn't).

Or rather, I should say that this idea - that certain books break age barriers - is coming around again. As Colfer pointed out, 19th century books ostensibly for children like Treasure Island and Alice in Wonderland are considered unqualified classics. In the same AWRF session, fantasy author Emily Rodda suggested that Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre would be considered YA rather than adults' books, were they to be published for the first time today. But in the 19th century, everyone from children to grandmothers read those stories aloud to each other.

In a later festival session, Maurice Gee recalled that he was introduced to Charles Dickens by a neighbour, at age 10. At the time, Gee was an aficionado of pulp Western writer Zane Grey and "I'd never read Charles Dickens and I didn't want to ... All that tiny type and double columns!"

But he took home Oliver Twist, and persevered with difficulty through the first paragraph with its one long byzantine sentence which refers to Oliver only as an "item of mortality". By page three the young Gee was hooked. Much like Roald Dahl's Matilda, he then steadily worked his way through the Dickens oeuvre, one book a week.

As he put it, by reading Dickens, "fellow feeling took the place of [the] facile identification" that he'd found reading Zane Grey. Not all our fictional fellows need to be our own age. Just like real life.

- NZ Herald

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