Category Archives: Children’s literature
Farewell to Nobel giants
This week saw the death of one Nobel literary award winner and the commemoration of another. Neither attracted anything like the media coverage as the death of Sue Townshend, author of the Adrian Mole series. I’m not decrying Townshend’s popularity or her achievements, just baffled at what kind of news judgement is being exercised among members of the Fifth Estate.
St Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London was the venue for a celebration on Monday of the life and work of Doris Lessing who died in November 2013 at the age of 93. One of the speakers, the biographer and critic Hermione Lee remarked on how Lessing had throughout her work asked “ruthless questions about the way we live now”. As a young woman she rejected the brutal, racist colonial system into which she was born becoming a vociferous and life-long campaigner against apartheid and discrimination and having embraced Communism she came to question its teachings and indeed all other other codified political systems.
The event passed almost unmarked by the mainstream media however – only the Daily Telegraph seems to have shown an interest with this personal reflection by Gaby Wood.
On Thursday, the death was announced of a writer considered to be one of the greatest writers to emerge from Latin America, Gabriel García Márquez. Few other writers did as much to change the course of a region’s literature but that’s what Márquez did with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. It marked the beginning of a long association between the genre of magical realism and Latin American authors. Most of the leading publications have run obituaries and tributes in the last few days but one of the most interesting pieces I’ve come across was a 1981 interview with the great man in Paris Review in which he talked about the differences between his work as a journalist and as fiction writer and the many authors and books that influenced him in his younger days. He was almost knocked off his bed when he read the opening line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis he said, not realising until that point that it was permissible to write in that fashion. Check out the Paris Review article if you can.
Should celebs write children’s fiction?
Madonna’s done it. So have Jamie Lee Curtis, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Ferguson (the former Duchess of York); Katie Price; Paul McCartney and Sting. Some of the ventures by these celebs into the world of children’s fiction have been rather more successful than others. But what makes a singer or actress pick up a pen and begin writing (other than the very obvious reason that they want to keep their name in the public domain and they can trade on their celeb status to earn even more money). More to the point, should they? That’s a question tackled in a debate between Tom Lamont, the Observer newspaper’s commissioning editor and author Robert Muchamore.
Muchamore is very pragmatic about the whole celeb thing:
…while a celebrity name might sway a few parents into buying a picture book, the kids who read them not only don’t know who the celebrity is, but usually don’t even understand what an author is.
Lamont’s point is along the lines that the celebs think writing a children’s book is easy, an attitude which is disrespectful to the skills of ‘real’ children’s authors and also to the child readers. I couldn’t agree more — just because we were all children once doesn’t automatically give us the skills to write for them or to understand that what interested us as children will interest young people of today. There’s an art in finding the right voice and language so that you neither patronise nor confuse, and an art in deciding what would or wouldn’t interest children. Oh and then there’s the whole complicated issue of what topics are ‘appropriate’ for children. Melvin Burgess and Jacqueline Wilson have shown that children’s fiction can tackle emotive subjects like adoption, drugs, divorce but they do so with a huge amount of sensitivity honed over many years of experience.
The one point I was surprised not to see discussed was the issue of funding. If publishers pay large advances to politicians and stage/screen stars who want to dabble in the children’s fiction field, doesn’t that mean less funding is available to support full-time writers?
If you want to join the debate, go to the Observer article
Inevitably the announcement that Donna Tartt is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer generated a lot of buzz this week – with many tweeters complaining a) the wrong persoon won b) the wrong Tartt novel one. TheGoldfinchpulitzer.org/awards/2014
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
And with that opening line, the scene is set for one of the classics of children’s literature. Little Women has charmed readers of all ages ever since its publication in 1863. Within six weeks of its release it had sold more than 13,000 copies (an extraordinary number for the period). Readers hungry for more news of the March family pressed the author Louisa May Alcott to write a sequel. Little Women and its sequel Good Wives made Alcott one of the first children’s authors to be taken seriously by the literary world and ushered in a new genre of books aimed specifically at girls.
It’s very much a domestic novel. Most of the action takes place either in the March’s home or in other homes close by and many of the episodes revolve around domestic activities like cleaning, cooking and sewing. It’s not until Good Wives that the March daughters get to venture further away from the family home.
Given the target audience it’s not surprising that the central characters are mainly female. Men don’t get much of a look in in this novel. They’re outnumbered and some of them are conspicuously absent (most notably Mr March who is serving as a chaplain in the Civil War). When they do make an appearance they seem to a hapless lot, suffering from broken hearts or physical injuries and utterly reliant on the women to sustain and care for them. There’s the family neighbour Mr Lawrence, who is grieving over the death of his daughter but finds solace in the gentleness of young Beth March. There’s Mr March who has to be nursed back to health by the love of his wife and daughters on his return from the war. And then there is the March girls’ new-found friend Laurie, who prefers the warmth and affection of the March home than the richness of his grandfather’s mansion.
The men seem rather insignificant and drippy in comparison to the strong individuals who comprise the female side of the March family. Although Alcott confided to her journal that she “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters” she succeeded in creating girls to whom her readers could relate. Apparently she used her own sisters as models for the four sisters and used a lot of her own experiences and attitudes to develop the character of the second eldest girl Jo March. This vivacious, intelligent girl who cares nothing for outward appearance, struggles repeatedly against her tendency to lose her temper and to hold a grudge. Her sisters (the other ‘little women’) have their fans too — Amy, the proud artistic sister with a passionate interest in her own appearance and in being popular; Meg, the eldest girl who becomes the closest in temperament to her mother; and little Beth, the shy and fragile girl whose disposition is always sweet and selfless.
It’s the trials and tribulations of these girls as they grow into adulthood and deal with the difficulties posed by lack of wealth, that form the focus of the book. It’s told in a series of episodes, some amusing, some touching, in which they win friends, make their own fun, fall in love and worry about their absent father.
But if you think this book is simply about a series of entertaining episodes. This is a book that has a serious purpose. It’s meant to instruct not merely to amuse. If you’re in any doubt about this, look at the Preface which alludes to John Buynan’s Pilgrims Progress and expresses a wish that the novel might affect its readers to the point that “they choose to be Pilgrims better.”
So even before we get to page 1, the didactic nature of the book is evident. And just in case young readers miss the point, it’s reinforced early in Chapter 1 where Mrs March reminds the girls how much they loved playing as pilgrims in their younger days and encourages them to take up their journey again.
We are never too old for this… because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City.
The Christian overtone means that Little Women can be seen as part of a long tradition of improving literature for children. Also in keeping with the cultural norm of mid nineteenth century society, is the fact that it’s the mother figure who takes on the role of guide and mentor (a reflection of the ideology about the traditional role of women as nurturer.) Hence we see it’s Mrs March, a strong and confident woman herself, who seeks to teach her daughters – and through them, young female readers – how to be happy and fulfilled individuals. Not for Mrs March are the outward accoutrements of wealth or status; what she wants for her daughters is the contentment that comes from self respect and love:
Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.
Whenever one of the girls gets into difficulties, Mrs March always seems on hand to provide some wise words and to dole out another of life’s lessons. In one episode, a disastrous attempt by the girls to take over the cooking and cleaning, ends with Marmee teaching them the dangers of thinking only of themselves:
I thought, as a little lesson, I would show you what happens when everyone thinks only of herself. Don’t you feel that it is pleasanter to help one another, to have daily duties which make leisure sweet when it comes, and to bear and forbear, that home may be comfortable and lovely to us all?
Similar scenes happen again and again throughout the book so that by the halfway mark, I felt I was drowning in saccharin.
Clearly, the passage of time has not helped here. My advancing years have made me more critical and, I will admit it, more cynical also. Reading the book as a child I don’t remember noticing the sentimental, sermonising tone — I was too caught up in the tomboy antics of my favourite character, Jo — but reading it again as an adult I found the little homilies from Marmee became too predictable an element of the story. The sermonising was so overt I could not ignore it, which consequently robbed me of interest in the novel. I know the book has a huge fan club. But I shall not be signing up for membership.
Bits and pieces
- Alcott never anticipated her book would prove popular. In her journal she wrote that ” our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”
- if you have a hankering to own an early edition of the novel, you’ll need deep pockets. A hardback copy of a first edition will set you back $25,000.
- After the success of Little Women and Good Wives, Alcott went on to write twice more about the March family in Little Men and then Jo’s Boys
- Alcott became active in the women’s suffrage movement and canvassing door to door trying to encourage women to register to vote.
- Despite the homely image of an author conjured up by Little Women, Alcott was a prolific writer of a vastly different kind of fiction – under the pen name A M Banard, she wrote sensation style stories for several magazines. Behind the Mask is one I would recommend.
Day 6 of Armchair BEA and the chosen topic is the problem world of children’s literature. I say ‘problem’ not because the world depicted in these works is one necessarily of danger or difficulty, but because the very term children’s literature comes bundled with the question of definition and the issue of control.
When we say ‘children’s literature’ what we’re generally talking about is literature written for children rather than literature written by children. So it’s a form of literature written by adults — not only do they write it, but they also decide what gets published and marketed and what gets into libraries and bookshops. So at every point in the chain, adults decide what children can and cannot read.
How do they make those decisions? Frequently they involve value judgements – judgements based on our individual cultural assumptions about ‘childhood’ and how it should be represented in fictional works. How many of us have a view that childhood is a time of innocence and freedom that should be protected? Then there is another set of assumptions made about what is acceptable reading for children. Hence the issue of control. Adults intervene to decide what children can and cannot read instead of letting the readers themselves make their own judgements.
A quick look at the list of books banned in the school and public library system in North America shows just how much of an issue this is. The most recent list of banned/challenged books maintained by the American Library Association contains a high number of books often cited as classics of children’s literature: Huckleberry Finn (number 14) and Of Mice and Men (number 5) for example. Number one on the list is the children’s fiction publishing sensation of the last decade – the Harry Potter series. And at number 8 comes that other hugely successful series – Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
Why are they challenged? Because adults don’t think the subject matter of these books is ‘appropriate’ for children or because the world view they suggest is counter to the one in which the adult believes and want their children to believe. So Pullman is challenged because his books are considered to denigrate Christianity and Rowling because her books promote witchcraft and sorcery. Judy Blume whose books try to deal with the reality of childhood rather than the rosy view, gets challenged because she talks about taboo subjects like menstruation and early explorations of sexuality.
I have no issues with people who feel deeply about certain subjects. I do have an issue about using those beliefs to exert a form of reading censorship on a group categorised by their age alone.