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.
My Open University course on children’s literature started yesterday so I’ve been immersed in the pages of Northern Lights, Little Women and Harry Potter for the past week.
The first part of the course is about defining the term ‘children’s literature’. Do we mean literature specifically about children or written specifically for them or even written by children? With the increasing popularity of cross-over fiction like Hunger Games, the boundaries – if they ever really existed – have become ever more blurred.
Reading the course material has also got me thinking whether children and adults read differently. I don’t mean just in terms of the complexity of vocabulary or sentence structure but in terms of what we look for in the act of reading itself.
According to David Beagley who lectures on children’s lit at Trope University in Australia, children tend to read externally by which he means that they use novels to explore and discover experiences that they have not yet had themselves. Experiences such sleeping out of doors (Swallows and Amazons), coping with the first days in a new school when you don’t know anyone (Harry Potter or Blyton’s Malory Towers for example), being falsely accused of being a liar (Jane Eyre) etc etc. Read many books aimed at younger readers and you’ll find a large “education” element mixed in with the pure entertainment element – showing and guiding the reader on appropriate ways to behave and that some reactions are natural aspects of growing up.
I’d never read any of the Harry Potter series until recently but what struck me was how well J..K Rowling balances the ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’ elements. Strip away the fantasy and the magic elements and you’ll find there are plenty of messages about appropriate ways to behave whether that’s about being loyal to friends or sticking up for what you believe in. There are also multiple examples of situations which a child reader could encounter themselves – so we see how Harry deals with bullies like Malfoy and how he decides who will be the friends that are really worth having.
Little Women stands in complete contrast to this. It’s so heavily didactic that I became frustrated with it – far too many episodes ended in a moral lesson from Marmee or a little homily from one of the sisters. But of course, this is my view as an adult reader. Was my experience different when I read it as a young girl? Undoubtedly it was. Reading it as a 10 year old, I never noticed how much sugary ‘lessons in life’ it contained. Instead, I was entranced by the character of Jo Marsh. I wanted to be a tomboy like her and not have to worry about whether my socks were falling down or my dress was stained. So in a sense I was reading as Beagley indicates – I was reading to discover an experience of what it would be like to climb trees. And then I put that knowledge to use by taking my bunch of friends and cousins on our own adventures in the hills near my grand-parents’ home. But now of course, I’ve had those tomboy outdoor experiences so I am less entranced by what Little Women can tell me, which means other aspects of the book (the role of mothers versus fathers in society for example,) come more to the forefront. And they are not substantial enough to keep me as an adult reader engaged.
Following my new plan of rotating between a Booker prize winner; a novel from the reading list for my children’s course and one novel just for fun, the next novel to take its place on the bedside table is Mortal Engines. It’s by Phillip Reeve and took him more than a decade to write (he was fitting writing in with his main job as an illustrator)
I am not exactly enthused by this prospect because its science fiction or science fantasy ( I don’t really understand the difference). This is not a genre I enjoy at all. Decades ago I read some of the John Wyndham novels – particularly Day of the Triffids and the Midwich Cukoos and enjoyed those. But since then I have tried authors like Pratchett and Douglas Adams but given up very early on. I am it seems firmly in the camp of those who prefer their literature to be realist.
So Moral Engines is going to be a struggle. Apparently it is set in a post-apocalyptic world (not very original), ravaged in the past by a nuclear holocaust. To escape the earthquakes, volcanoes and other instabilities, a Nomad leader called Nikola Quercus (why do science fiction writers insist on giving characters such stupid names), who changed his name to Nikolas Quirke (sensible man) , designed a system known as Municipal Darwinism, where entire cities essentially become immense vehicles known as Traction Cities, and must consume one another in order to maintain themselves in a world deprived of most natural resources.
To keep my sanity while reading this I might dip into something more my cup of tea – there is a collection of Guy de Maupassant short stories that have been hanging about for some time. Now could be a good time to begin reading them.
After a week under cloudless blue skies and surrounded by Renaissance architecture, I returned to torrential rain and leaden skies on Saturday. With the forecast for even more of the same I expected to be writing this – my first Sunday Salon post – to the accompaniment of rain plopping onto the conservatory roof. But what a pleasant surprise – I’m sitting instead looking onto fluffy white clouds and listening to the birds chirrup. Sadly there is no Italian gelataria nearby otherwise the afternoon would be perfect.
Apart from marvelling at the splendours of Florence and Sienna, I also somehow managed to get through a fair amount of reading, ending with two unqualified successes, one ‘mediocre’ and one ‘never want to read this kind of book again’ …..
I took with me Staying On by Paul Scott, which won the Man Booker prize in 1977. I first read this novel about 15 years ago and thought at the time it was somewhat ‘light’ in comparison to the grand themes of the Raj Quartet series. A stage version featuring Nadim Sawalha, in one of the key roles, did nothing to change my view. But reading it afresh, I discovered that the comedy which had been played up fully on stage, masked the poignancy of a story of undeclared affection, loneliness and insecurity. I’ll post fuller comments on this later in the week………
My second novel also had a domestic setting but couldn’t have been more different than Staying On. I’ve never read any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels – and knew very little about her other than she wrote one of the early ‘definitive’ biographies of her friend Charlotte Bronte. But the interest spurred in her work through the BBC adaptation of Cranford, encouraged me to give her a go. The experiment wasn’t a resounding success. It felt a very skimpy and insubstantial read – not really a novel so much as a series of episodes. I kept waiting for a plot line to develop but just as something began to sound interesting, it was resolved within the next chapter. On screen, it would come across a bit like a soap opera with the audience as voyeurs looking through the windows of a bunch of spinsters who fret about candles and bonnets the correct form of address for a titled widow. I like my novels to have more substance so its unlikely I will find my way to Mrs Gaskell again.
A work colleague who is also an avid reader, recommended Tatiana de Rosnay to me. It wasn’t until I started reading Sarah’s Key that I remembered having seen the film version earlier this year. Even though the plot was therefore familiar, I found myself engrossed by this dual timeline story of one of the most horrific events in French history – the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. More than 13,000 Jewish men, children and women were removed from their homes by French police and held for days in a baking velodrome without food or water before being transported to labour and concentration camps. It’s an indication of how engrossing this story is, that I started reading Sarah’s Key as the flight took off and barely lifted my eyes from the page until we had touched down… I haven’t finished it yet but am hoping to sneak a few hours with it later on.
Monsters of Men
Just before my holiday started, the winner of this year’s Carnegie prize for children’s literature was announced as Patrick Ness. It was a remarkable achievement since he also won last year’s award with Monsters of Men. After three pages I experienced a sense of panic that somehow the download of Monsters of Men to my Kindle had gone wrong and I had only half the book. The story seemed to open in the middle of a battle with characters that were never described but appeared to have a back story. Only later having done some rapid web searching did I find that Ness’s book was the last in the Chaos Walking trilogy that featured the same characters and this action was a progression from number two in the set. The only reason I had this book on my list because I thought (mistakenly it now appears) that it was on the reading list for my upcoming children’s literature course. Having never managed to see the appeal of science fiction or fantasy I knew this would be a challenge. I struggled on for another 30 pages or so but abandoned it when I learned it’s the newest Ness book I should have been reading. What a relief – his new one A Monster Calls – is undoubtedly dark in tone since it’s about a young boy coming to term’s with his mother’s fatal illness, but at least it doesn’t feature space ships…..