Anthony McGowan and Daniel Hahn talk Children’s Literature
With Stranger Things getting such a solid reception, and film adaptations of The BFG, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to find them, all getting an A/W release, it’s safe to say that children’s literature, while always popular, is currently enjoying an extra bit of attention.
The panel Hitchhiker’s Guide to Children’s Literature, featuring popular YA author Anthony McGowan, and writer/editor/translator Daniel Hahn, therefore, attracted a very enthusiastic crowd to the Brac Stage on the final day of the Dhaka Lit Fest.
The session opened up with a discussion on the state of reading in general, with concerns being expressed by both panellists about reading habits on the decline, and the challenge of getting children to read. Anthony McGowan was of the opinion that it is perhaps harder, at least in the UK, to get boys to pick up the reading habit, and he talked a bit about his own stories as attempts to draw young male readers into the fold, so to speak. Hahn drew from his experiences to talk about the role of marketing, and seemingly arbitrary decisions, such as the choice of a colour or artwork for the book cover, that influence the market and affect audience segregation. Both writers were of the opinion that girls are much likelier than boys to pick up a book that isn’t seemingly marketed towards them. “I was writing for 16-17 year old boys; it turns out that most of my readers were 12 year old girls” McGowan explained.
Another big concern that was addressed was the prevalence of technology and other entertainment options posing a threat to the reading habit. McGowan talked about how immersive some of these technologies, particularly videogames are, which is a tall ask for traditional books, but also said this ought to be taken up as a challenge by authors. To clarify that he has nothing against videogames, he said “You’re not a bad person if you don’t read a lot of books”, to which Daniel Hahn quipped “You might be.”
Daniel Hahn began to respond to the question raised about the case of children’s fiction that was translated from other languages by saying “We (the English-speaking world) are terrible importers of culture.” He elaborated by talking about all the foreign books translated into English, that he had read while growing up, and how he wasn’t even aware that they were translated because the cultural markers of the foreign literature had not been translated. He echoed a fear he had expressed in an earlier panel – about the wealth of literary treasures in other languages that have not been translated into English, and so remain inaccessible to English-speaking readers. With children’s literature, in particular, the problem isn’t just in the text itself, but also the illustrations – for children’s literature relies heavily on visuals as well – which don’t always translate well across cultures.
Wrapping up the conversation with a brief discussion about the various threats to the industry – from celebrities using ghostwriters to publish books, and thus stealing market space from “real” authors, to audio-visual adaptations of traditional books, changing the way that writers approach writing. Despite all the seeming competition, both writers seem to feel that a good book will stand the test of time.