May 4, 2018

Are children’s books becoming dangerously introspective and depressing?


The 2018 Brandford Boase Award, an annual British prize celebrating outstanding debut novels for young people, has just announced its shortlist. This year the judges noticed a depressing trend: at least a third of the books submitted were domestic dramas dealing with intense, often traumatic issues affecting children.

The judging panel is made up of chair Julia Eccleshare, who is the children’s director of the Hay Festival; author Philip Womack; bookshop owner Urmi Merchant; author M.G. Leonard; and education worker Helen Swinyard. They read sixty books before coming up with the seven-strong shortlist. During the selection process, Womack felt concerned by the lack of old-school, hijinx-filled adventures, he told Alison Flood at the Guardian:

“There are some adventure stories around today, but they tend not to be debuts. Most of these stories tend to be so enclosed, so claustrophobic, so depressing and formulaic. It seems to me to be rather a worrying new trend… While each had its own merits, it became clear that there was a formula, and—which is my own opinion, and not necessarily that of the other panellists—it does make for a rather depressing children’s literary landscape.”

Eccleshare wrote an opinion piece for the Bookseller on the submission and shortlist process, agreeing with Womack on the trend she also could not avoid noticing in the books she was reading:

Many deal with things going wrong in families: family breakdown, accidents, deaths, mental health problems from depression and addiction to borderline personality disorders, all of which it will be impossible for a child to resolve as the issues are insurmountable. Any story revolving around characters, whether adult of children, whose approach to daily life is different provides unpredictability, new challenges and an unending raft of complex situations to navigate.

So why has there been this shift away from the adventure books of yore? Eccleshare thinks it’s a symptom of our digital era. Where kids used to spend their days outside playing in the street, riding their bikes and journeying into the woods, now they’re often indoors, crouched over a PlayStation, the front door firmly locked to protect from potential predators. As she wrote for the Bookseller:

After all, outdoor adventure took a big hit with the arrival of the mobile phone and the increased lack of freedom for children to be out alone. It has been dwindling ever since as a fictional form, except where the outdoors is either fantastical or historical but, this year, it seemed almost to have disappeared from new novels. Either authors instinctively know not to even try to tread into such dangerous territory or publishers play safe by side-stepping such stories when they are submitted. Instead, action with complex characters but set on a tiny scale was dominant.

Tamara Macfarlane, a bookseller at the children’s bookshop Tales on Moon Lane, took this idea even further, telling Flood the trend could be a symptom of an overprotective society that stifles children: “I hope it’s not a reflection of the claustrophobic nature of the times, with everything being a bit over-monitored and over-measured and over-controlled, and the lack of freedom children have now in terms of getting out of the house and escaping.”

Eccleshare has a slightly more positive view of the trend. From the submissions she read, “while some floundered largely because too many characters were unreliable in some way which meant the story lacked credibility, many others showed the skilful way today’s authors handled a new kind of adventure which depends on interaction rather than action.”

The shortlist.

It is surely not the case that children in our time are suddenly experiencing more family trauma than, say, twenty years ago. It seems that perhaps we are more willing to address the problems children are facing. And we cannot deny that with the advent of the internet, children are growing up in a digitally-biased landscape that differs starkly from the one which kids read Enid Blyton (or even Harry Potter, which began to be published twenty-one years ago). Surely literature has to change to reflect this?

This year’s Branford Boase shortlist celebrates adventure over domesticity, from a questing knight-in-training in Knighthood for Beginners to a magical subterranean London adventure in The City of Secret Rivers. Fair play: let’s set children’s imaginations aflame and let them escape into exciting new realms. But can’t these fantastical quests and explorations sit alongside realistic family dramas? Any “trend” that gets kids reading seems positive, even if the books are dealing with negative issues. The danger comes when publishers (and it’s publishers who define the literary landscape) throw their eggs into one thematic basket to the detriment of diversity.

The winner of the Branford Boase Award will be announced on July 4th.

The 2018 Branford Boase Award shortlist



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.