My five and a half year old daughter is at a stage in her book consumption where she’s a little bit too old for picture books, but still likes her chapter books short and with pictures in them. Although her reading is coming on in leaps and bounds, we’re still reading to her at night. And so I’m just discovering the horrifying world of books for little girls.

Luckily for me, she hasn’t gone completely gaga for the fairy books. There seem to be at least a thousand of them, and they usually come in sets of seven. They have been a huge publishing success story, and they are written, as far as I can tell, by a team of monkeys with laptops who are trapped in a very sparkly cage on an industrial estate outside Bangalore.

My daughter’s current favourite is a series called Star Girl. These books (there are 8, I think, so far) have a number of things going for them: they’re about girls at a space cadet boarding school who go on assignments to different planets, where they solve problems, often of an environmental nature. The girls are active, decisive, and in charge, and are rewarded for their smarts, initiative and teamwork. So far, so good.

However, they do have some teen-like moments which I find a little jarring. My bookshop shelves the series in the 5-9 years section (not a foolproof guide, I know) and the length, plus the extensive use of illustrations, makes them seem like books aimed at that age group. But the girls in the illustrations look like teenagers, and there’s enough of an interest in gadgets – the girls all have “Spaceberries” – and references to the hot guys who fly the spaceships (although the cadets all seem to be girls, the pilots of the space craft, who are third year cadets, have all been boys in the three books we’ve read so far) make it seem like the characters are supposed to be high school age. The boarding school setting and the nice girls vs mean girls dynamic contributes to this. But I don’t even mind that. I understand that kids like reading about characters who are a little older than themselves. It’s aspirational.

What I do mind is the quality of the prose. The prose in Star Girl isn’t terrible, but it is flat. The characterisation is minimal, there are elementary point of view errors (they’re all written in the third person from the heroine’s perspective, only sometimes you’re told what other characters are thinking, or you’ll see the heroine from the outside – “she looked as if”.) Emotions and locations are also minimally sketched. It’s all about the action, and nothing else.

When I read the first one, I assumed it was a transcription of a TV series (in fact, they’re not). You get a lot of these in children’s fiction. The picture books are particularly unsatisfying, because they attempt to deliver the flavour of the TV original in ways that are simply impossible. Cartoon voice charcterisations and animated action simply don’t translate onto the page of a picture book, even though it seems like they should, since they’re both visual media. But they are different visual media. Great picture books tell stories in pictures, but single pictures, and use words very sparingly to punctuate the visual material. A single still from a TV action sequence can’t necessarily capture the action in the same way, and the attempt to convey the flavour of cartoon dialogue (“he yelped excitedly”) just leads you into a swamp of adverbs.

TV adaptations for older readers also have problems: because the world already exists, the books don’t tend to be very good at creating the world through words, and because of their source material they’re more about dialogue and action than internal psychological states. And I think the older the reader gets, the more this will become a problem.*

I hope I’m not sounding too negative about Star Girl, because my daughter is genuinely excited about them, and the idea is basically good and sound, and unusual enough to be appealing to a feminist mother. What I’m responding to is a sense that the full literary toolkit is not really being brought to bear here, in the prose, but also in the sense of imaginative depth, of thought, about the characters, the ideas, the world. And I fear this is a very common problem among books written for this age group.

So the question I find myself asking is whether these books really have to be like this. Yes, they need to have simple prose. Yes, they need to move quickly. Yes, they need to represent an emotional and psychological reality that young children can understand. But can’t they do more? Be better? What about some wit? Some characterisation? And if they’re set in a fantastical world, whether it’s space or fairies, couldn’t there be a sense of wonder to it? A bit of world-building?

Then again, if my five year old can’t get enough of them, am I just being a book snob, or unfairly bringing an adult readers’ expectations to them, if I want more?

* Total disclosure: I have done five TV to book adaptations. Some of them were better than others. I didn’t publish them under my own name. And I don’t think TV novelisations have to be terrible, but the source material does need to be compatible with prose fiction, and it should offer something more than you can get from the original, such as an insight into the mind of a character you love, to make it worthwhile.

And no, I’m not going to tell you what my pseudonym is.

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