Children’s fiction. As an adult, it’s like Marmite. You either love it or you hate it. I personally love it. Well, unless it’s something like Winnie the Pooh. Then frankly I’m a bit old.
Take Harry Potter, for instance. Yes, they are children’s books. But they are extremely well written, have very intricate plots and at times are very amusing. They also deal with a lot of issues which are extremely adult. Themes such as death, grief, oppression, survival and the need to question authority and not blindly follow like lemmings over a precipice. They teach children that life is not all hearts and flowers and sunshine and moonbeams. They also deal with issues that are seen as adolescent but actually are still prevalent in adult life: fancying someone you are too scared to tell you like, romantic rejection, heartbreak.
A few months ago Lynn Shepherd, author of what she calls ‘literary mysteries’ (I’ve never read any of them so I can’t judge, but from the blurbs they sound like glorified fan fiction to me), got into a lot of fucking shit for writing an article saying that JK Rowling should stop publishing as it stops other writers from having a chance of selling their books. There were a lot of things which were bullshit about her article – for starters, other writers being around has never seemed to stop others from selling, if they’re good enough. Also, she seems to have a very limited knowledge of how the publishing industry works. What fucked me off the most though was her comment about adults reading children’s books: “I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there’s so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds.”
OK. Let’s start with a favourite book of mine, Goodnight Mr Tom, about a boy who is evacuated during the war, and who suffers abuse at the hand of his mother. Next, Bridge to Terabithia, a heartbreaking tale of loss of a friend during childhood. Another one, Mr Stink, a story of how a rich man loses his wife and home, becoming a tramp. I could go on – To Kill A Mockingbird, Narnia, His Dark Materials, etc, etc. But the point I’m making is is that these are not stories which are of no value intellectually or morally. To insinuate that they are is an insult to children and teenagers everywhere. Just because you are not an adult doesn’t make you stupid. Being an avid reader I’ve found that the same themes crop up in both books for children and adults. It’s not like we’re different fucking species.
And so, onto my main point of the evening. I’ve just read an article about this year’s Carnegie medal winner for children’s literature, Kevin Brooks, for his novel The Bunker Diary, about a teenager who is captured and imprisoned. Brooks’s win has caused controversy due to his book’s depiction of violence. To comment on this, I’d like to quote JK Rowling. I was once an interview with her, where she said she’d received letters from parents after the fourth book, asking for there to be no more deaths in the next books as it upset their children. Her response? Basically, if you don’t like what is in my books, don’t read them.
I remember once having an argument with someone who said that children’s books shouldn’t contain themes such as death, violence or anything that would cause upset. Well you know what? Upset is a huge part of life, whether you fucking like it or not. You can try and protect children from it, but eventually it will affect them in some way. Surely it is better for them to be introduced to it via literature, or films, or TV, so they can see how best to deal with it once it does come? After all, it’s not like in Harry Potter someone died and then that was it. We went through the grieving process with the characters, and came out the other end, showing children that life does go on after we lose someone we love. Is that a bad thing to teach children? And going back to Brooks’ novel. Yes, it’s not nice to think about children experiencing violence. But unfortunately some do and other children should know and understand this. How else can they learn empathy?
We all experience death, rejection, loss and heartbreak at some point. Yes, children may get upset if they read about such things. But it does not do to hide these things from children. In fact, if we do, it is an insult to their intelligence and their ability to deal with such matters. I’ve found that they’re generally more resilient than adults. So let’s treat them as such.