Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Has Realism Gone Too Far? Anne Cassidy

But where is the hope? Anne Fine says, when talking about children’s books.

Modern children’s books are too bleak, she says.

I have a disagreement with anyone who thinks that writing for children is fundamentally different to writing for adults. What I mean by that is there is a sense sometimes that part of our role as children’s writers is to protect children from the harsh realities of life.

But I am just a writer. I tell stories. I don’t have a role to make the world appear a better place for children.

I write crime stories for teens that often have dark and unpleasant story lines. They don’t end happily as such. The main characters go through a lot and I guess they come out the other end as a different person, maybe in some way a better person.

As an adult this is what I require in my own reading. I like my main characters to go through something, to change and develop.

I would, as an adult reader, hate it if the author manufactured some kind of ending that offered me a rosier view of the world.

So, when I write for teens, I do the same thing.

This does not mean that all teen (or children’s) books need to be dark. Variety is the key. I like to think that teens are just like any one else. They’ll read a dark book (perhaps one of mine) then they’ll go for something light, funny, fantastical, rude, historical or even something about a kid who goes off the rails and then gets offered a place at Rodean.


Catherine Johnson said...

Hear, hear Anne. Totally agree, and if you look at what a lot of teens who read are reading it's all those misery memoirs which are a million times less rosy than most - however gritty - novels.
And what about the novel about the girl who wins a scholarship to Roedean and then goes off the rails?

Gillian Philip said...

I agree with every word, Anne. Nobody can argue that there aren't plenty of light, happy or fantastical books around. Besides, dark themes are not incompatible with upbeat or positive - if not strictly happy - endings.

I simply don't get where this complaint is coming from. There's all the choice in the world - an awful lot more than there is in the adult market.

Nicky said...

Hear hear from over here too.
As a writer you have to write what turns up and no one has to buy my ( darkish_) books (actually rather a lot of the little blighters don't.)

Keren David said...

Look how popular soaps are, and also things like Skins. I liked Melvin Burgess's response - “I think well-informed young people are better able to deal with things they may come across,” he said. “I have had letters talking about the humanity of my books, even when the situations the characters are in are very dark and difficult. Just the fact that they are still making jokes and falling in love. Perhaps the light of hope comes from the reader and not the story.”

catdownunder said...

An unknown child once looked up at me in our local library and said, completely out of the blue, "I'm sick of AIDS and death and divorce." Turned out what she wanted was 'a good adventure story' - and there is very little of that in our local library. Children need 'escapist' literature just as much as adults but, unlike adults, they do not have the same opportunities to choose their reading matter. They get presented with what adults believe they should read. It might not be mid-Victorian didacticism but there are still teachers, librarians and parents 'in the know' who believe that all books should have a dual function or the child is 'wasting time' reading!

John Dougherty said...

But what do we mean by 'children'?

I think that up to a certain age children do need endings at least that offer reassurance - and I think most books aimed at those lower age-groups provide exactly that. As we grow older, though, there's an equal need to understand that life doesn't always turn out as we'd like it, which is why as a teen I was enthralled by 1984 and Brave New World.

I suppose I see teen/YA fiction as not quite the same as children's; so as far as the assertion that children's books are too bleak, I'd say that they're not. Teen/YA fiction can be bleak, but what's wrong with that?

Nick Green said...

I don't think fiction is about showing life 'as it really is'. That, I believe, is non-fiction. I think fiction's job is always more sophisticated than that. It is about showing the darkness, yes... but more importantly, about providing a light in that darkness, to guide us through it.

To give an example: A news story would report on the genocide in Rwanda.
A novel, perhaps, would take us along with a child who witnessed that atrocity but survived it.

That's the difference. The fiction seeks out the light in the darkness and runs with that. At least, I believe that's what it should do.

Gillian Philip said...

I understand your point, Cat, but I've found quite the reverse. A lot of teachers and librarians want to keep the dark stuff out. Funnily enough, I've only just discovered that certain English schools won't let my book 'Crossing The Line' through the door, because it glamourises knife crime. Which is interesting, because the gatekeepers in question have quite clearly failed to... read it.

adele geras said...

Have to say: I was at that event in Edinburgh and a completely FALSE spin has been given to what Anne actually said. Anyone who knows her work KNOWS she doesn't advocate Enid B type happy endings. She was merely saying, in the course of a very friendly discussion, that there ARE the sorts of books around where what she referred to as 'middle class rescue' went on. She was neither advocating it, nor saying that that was all that was around, nor even that she liked that sort of thing....room for all sorts of stuff as both Annes say!

Anne Fine said...

Thank you, Adele. And what I actually said was put as a question to the audience of social workers and teachers who deal with vulnerable children. (This was an event organised by Children in Scotland to discuss fiction for children in care and other vulnerable children.) I was simply asking if these bleak endings had any effect on their young clients, and if so, what it was (if they indeed read the books at all). I was not advocating any particular sort of endings. That is a headline invented by the Times Subs to make a news story. And I am a bit surprised that, given the endings of a couple of my own books, notably The Road of Bones and The Tulip Touch, anyone would assume I had advocated anything so horribly simplistic..

Nick Green said...

> That is a headline invented by the Times Subs to make a news story.

It seems that, if you want truly made-up fiction, just read a newspaper!

(But a bit far-fetched to suppose the Subs would actually bother to READ the world of an author they were writing about...)

Nick Green said...

I meant work, not world. Of course. *smacks forehead*

John Dougherty said...

Freudian slip, Nick.

Leslie Wilson said...

BTW, there is a book about a child who witnessed the massacres in Rwanda and survived - it's called 'Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You' and it's written by the German foster-mother of the child, Hanna Janssen. It's deeply moving and not for anyone who isn't feeling strong. But a wonderful book, nonetheless.

It's an interesting question, whether we write to represent the world as it is, or whether we want to play, and I think my aim is to do a mixture of both. I write historical, which could be seen as a kind of escapist, though it's pretty gritty stuff! But I love reading really good light stuff, adore Wodehouse, for example, and Nancy Mitford. They are definitely 'not thick slices of life presented unadorned on a white plate' (I may have got the quote wrong, but that's the sense of it. And yet they are about life, too. I think we need a huge variety of books, dark and light. But I do agree with what Adele Geras once said to me: 'Children deserve a happy ending.' Maybe that's just because I like a happy ending myself, nowadays.

catdownunder said...

Wehave something called 'central buying' here - which means all libraries across the state end up with pretty much the same selection of books. Sadly what we see is largely a selection of 'gloom and doom'. When I told a children's librarian what I had written about she looked shocked and said, "But children don't read those sort of books any more." For her one of "those sort of books" was a straightforward adventure story. Nothing has come of it but the children who have read it want a sequel so I must have done something right.

John Dougherty said...

There is a real myth, Cat, that today's children are somehow qualitatively different from the children of 50 years ago.

There is no difference between a 21st century baby and a stone age baby except for its environment, and no reason to assume that all modern environmental influences are good. Give children the choice, I say, and if they want to read 'old-fashioned' adventure stories, let them!

Sally Nicholls said...

Surely there are as many different types of children as there are adults? Surely children want to read all sorts of different types of books?

Whenever I hear anyone saying 'Don't children need more funny/adventurous/silly/realistic/hard-hitting/dark/happy/sad/fantasy books? I always want to turn round and say 'Yes, actually.' There's a place for all of these and more.

luc said...

kids like adult book now