Tuesday, 5 May 2009

On Hope - by Marie-Louise Jensen

I think hope is a necessary ingredient of a children’s book. It’s a personal opinion, not shared by everyone.
My own taste in reading runs to happy endings. There are enough miserable things going on in real life, as far as I’m concerned, for me to look for more between the covers of a book. I like to know that however bad things get during a story, and it’s fine if they are very bad in the middle, and you can’t see a way out, they are all going to turn out all right in the end. That’s why I love reading children’s books and why I love writing them. Because it can be seen as soft or unrealistic to have happy endings in adult books. But you can get away with it for kids. Everything can be wonderfully happily resolved without your readers muttering ‘unconvincing’.
But my feeling is that children’s books are getting darker and darker and I’m no longer feeling secure when I launch myself into a new book. The cover and the blurb certainly don't always warn you. It reminds me of why I stopped reading adult books – because you don’t quite know what sort of horrors lurk between the pages and how much it’s going to haunt you afterwards.
When I studied holocaust literature at university, many moons ago, I read a piece by Jean Amery describing the after-effects of torture. He says it takes away your trust in the world, utterly and completely, and it can never be restored. There is no security ever again.
I sometimes feel concerned that reading really bleak books where everything ends miserably is (on a very tiny scale, of course) a bit like torture. You’ve been shown and drawn into a vision of unbearable misery, you’ve been haunted by dark happenings. They can stay with you. I myself have a number of images from children’s books I’ve read over the past couple of years that haunt my conscious mind with things I would infinitely prefer not to have there.
And yet we expose our kids happily to such books. We give them prizes that never seem to go to happy books, funny books, and books for little children. They become best-sellers and get put on reading lists as a result.
I know I’m over-sensitive. But I can’t help wondering if we need to give our children more security in an increasingly violent world, and not expose them to some of the very worst of human nature in their reading. I'm sure many, many people will disagree with this. But rightly or wrongly, it's what I feel.

16 comments:

Nick Green said...

I don't think I've read any books for children that end in total misery... help me out!

Even the Lemony Snicket books (which are tongue-in-cheek anyway) always conceal a ray of hope amidst the unrelenting gloom. I know you weren't talking about those, though...

David Calcutt said...

I agree with much of what you say about the excessive darknessa and violence in some children's/teen literature at present - and sometimes feel it's a calculating attempt to get on shortlists and win prizes, as violence and despair seem to be this season's fashion. However, I don't think we should aim to "give" young people anything in literarure - just as you wouldn't aim to "give" adult readers anything if writing a book for them. We should just aim, I think, to write the best and most truthful books we can.

bookwitch said...

At last someone who agrees with me!

Elen Caldecott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elen Caldecott said...

Nicola Morgan made a really interesting point about this on her blog. I'll just post the link rather than paraphrase. It is the section near the end called 'safety nets'. I found it a really useful image.

BTW, I can't seem to put a target in the HTML to open the link in a new window. Does blogger comments not accept it?

Anne Cassidy said...

I don't agree with Marie-Louise on this. I write dark crime fiction for teens and sometimes simply can't manage a 'happy' ending. I think when you write a story the ending has to emerge from the events that you are describing. This is why I never know how my books will end. I think I would do a disservice to my readers if I were to describe bad things and then say, But don't worry it all turns out well in the end! As for prizes choosing dark books to win this isn't the case. When My book LOOKING FOR JJ was on the Carnegie shortlist (seems like ions ago now) it was trounced by MILLIONS, Frank Cottrel Boyce's book which was certainly upbeat.

adele said...

I think that the main thing is: HOPE. If you can leave your readers with some of that, even the tiniest bit, then all kinds of gruesome/sad/ frightening things are permissible. EG. The story of Dido (my novel by the same name is published tomorrow so I've got it on the brain...forgive shameless plug!) ends in huge tragedy but I've given my main TEENAGE character as happy an ending as possible - certainly a hopeful one.
I also think that the prizes ought ALL to have junior and senior sections. I've been banging on about this for donkey's years. It's unfair to pit a book for seven-year-olds against a tough, teenage title. Why can't prizes do this? Beats me!

CarolineG said...

My ten year old recently read Then by Maurice Gleitzman, which is incredibly upsetting, although beautifully written. He cried for ages when he finished it and I cried too when I read it subsequently. I wouldn;t want to think all children's books had to be upbeat, but I must admit I was left feeling very unsettled by this one.

Ms. Yingling said...

We need both kinds of books, but I prefer the ones with some hope. The ending doesn't have to be rainbows and sunshine, but I like to think that eventually, things will get a little better. Students often like to read depressing books to make their own lives seem not as bad, but you are right about the depressing books usually winning awards-- and being used as class novels by teachers.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Yes, I agree about hope being the main issue. Of course every book can't have a happy ending, and shouldn't have, but there needs to be hope at least for the central character. Hope for them and for the world they live in. And yes, it would be brilliant if prizes had age categories.
As for Ms Yingling's comment about Then - yes, I've had all too many similar upsetting experiences recently, and it's starting to put me off trying out new books/authors for myself and my children. Especially prize winners - ha ha!
So glad a happy book won once, Anne, thanks for introducing some balance.

lily said...

Such an interesting topic, how to balance hope with realism and the demands of truth (if such a thing is possible in fiction...)

I think if you choose to write about a potentially dark topic you are honour-bound to deal with the implications of that topic; to stick on a happy ending to a story involving (for example) drug abuse or homelessness would be simply irresponsible; it's like saying - you can do terrible and dangerous things but don't worry, there are no repercussions! (sadly what so much TV and film seems to be saying). I do agree with the comment about hope though. An ending can be really sad and dark but still have some hope in it, and that is surely important for readers who have their whole lives ahead of them.

As a teenager I loved sad endings, but the first book I read where the end was totally without hope was 1984. it made a HUGE impression - mainly because I knew this was the only possible end this book could have. But it's not a children's book (though teenagers love it) and I guess I started to grow up when I read it.

Linda Strachan said...

I agree that hope of some sort is very important in a children's book, perhaps more so for teenagers, especially if the subject matter is quite dark. I agree with Ms Yingling that hope doesn't mean having a cheery, happy ending that is unrealistic because that is sending out the wrong message.
Hope is leaving the reader with the thought that however bad things get there can be alternate possibilities in life. I think young people need that - they often don't have enough life experience to see a way out of a difficult situation and as writers we should be showing them that it may not turn out all roses but life is worth going on with. Also that there is hope for some kind of future for them if they look for it, and for the characters they have come to know and care for in the story.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

That's a very intelligent and well-expressed view, Linda - you've put it better than I managed to, and I shall save your comment for future reference!

Anne said...

BUT aren't we all falling into the trap that we have a mission of sorts as a writer for young adults? That we have some responsibility for their moral and emotional well being over and above just telling them a story? I don't think we should see ourselves in this role, indeed I think the notion of us, as writers, being 'gatekeepers' watching over the stuff they read is the very thing that puts them off reading at all. I wouldn't read a book where someone had made sure there was 'hope' at the end. I think the teenager who would have trouble with the bleak(or otherwise) message of a young adult novel simply won't get through it. It's not as though the 'dark' books start off happily and spring their misery on you at the end. I think teens, like adults have a right to read honest stuff. They'll know if it's right for them. if not they won't read it.

Gillian Philip said...

I'm with Anne's last comment. I don't have a 'mission' or a 'message': I want to write stories. Any theme is something that grows with the story; if I have something to 'say', one of the characters will eventually say it, in one way or another, but I certainly won't. I happen to like some redemption at the end, but it has to come out of the story and the characters. You can't force redemption on anyone for the sake of an ending.
Having said which, I hate books that seem to despise all hope or redemption - adult or children's. So there you go, I'm making no sense. But I've typed it, so I might as well post it...

Linda Strachan said...

I agree with Gillian
it is not about trying to force any kind of message but I wonder if those who are prepared to write a book - for young people particularly - that is without hope of some kind, might be either doing it for shock value or because of their own inner demons?

I don't think writers should have any kind of mission except to tell a good story and write it well, but within that a little human kindness and care for your readers - aligned with some sense of responsibility - is not too much to ask. In the same way that if you write for children of any age you know they are impressionable and you might be giving them their first vision of some aspect of the world, so there is no excuse for (and I would imagine very few publishers who would publish it anyway) writing that encourages and enthuses about dangerous behaviour as something to aspire to. At the same time no one likes to be preached to or have the waving finger of authority in their face. It is a balancing act but isn't this part of what makes writing for children so fascinating?