Tonight I've been reading Gillian's excellent post about knife crime, hot on the heels of the horribly disturbing report about the two brothers who attacked two other boys, hitting one on the head with a sink, forcing them to commit sexual acts and leaving one so battered he was unconscious. Last week I was at the Edinburgh Fringe watching a profoundly moving piece of theatre entitled 'In a thousand pieces' about sex traffiking – girls lured into thinking they will be moving to education and a better life and ending up being carted from British city to British city where they are raped 50 times a day and never see the outside world. As a volunteer school counselor in an inner city school, I have heard stories not so disturbing that they'd hit the Misery bookshelves, but far too violent and unpleasant to be accepted by a YA publisher. One of my own sons has been mugged twice. At the weekend I was at the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival, listening to a talk about the myth of redemptive violence in Disney movies – time and again we see the only solution to the bad guy being to kill him or her. You worry about violent video games? Saturation in violence starts much younger than that – aren't you worried about that? That was the question being raised.
'But,' said a teenage voice from the floor, 'it's kill or be killed.'
'It's a violent world,' said another young man. 'You've got to get used to it – the sooner the better. Then it's not such a shock later.'
I got chatting to the latter young man on the way out. 'You really think that, do you?' I said. 'That it's a violent world – get used to it?'
'Yeh,' he said. 'There's nothing you can do – you've just got to get on with it. It's human nature.'
'But,' said a friend who was with me (a published poet incidently!) 'so's adultery. Should we just get used to that too?'
'Yeh,' said the young man. 'You might as well.'
On the other hand, I had a youth theatre parent complaining about the use of the word 'bastard' in a YT play being created by 12-14 year olds because she didn't want her daughter to grow up too soon- and I'm sure the editors I've met would be on her side.
I find all this profoundly depressing and I'm sure we all ask ourselves about our role as writers here – observers, moral guardians, activists, entertainers? But my other question is where are the books that reflect this world? I haven't read 'Crossing the Line' but it sounds like it does. Bali Rae's books do I think and possibly Kevin Brooks' and Keith Grey's – but there aren't many. When I suggested a series of books about a gang of young kids, such as those who kick around our estate, unsupervised and at hours of the night abhorrent to parents who are doing bedtime routines which end in a story and a kiss, my agent just laughed. No publisher would publish them because it is middle-class parents and librarians who buy books and they wouldn't want young children reading about dodgy street gangs, apparently. So we all end up reading about a very nice world inhabited by remarkably nice people to whom nothing terribly beastly ever happens – or we read fantasy. Sorry – is there a difference? Isn't it all fantasy?
I haven't met many editors but inevitably they've all been very well- educated and have been well and truly middle class. (They've all been stick-thin too, which is very annoying seeing as they have a sedentary lifestyle!) Most of them have been young and haven't had children. A significant number seem to be products of independent rather than state education. Do they know what it's like to be a kid growing up in today's violent world? I only have the vaguest of insights myself, despite having 4 teenagers and despite spending a large part of my working life working with young people. And we wonder why such a minority reads books.
It's great that 'Crossing the Line' is out there. But where are the books for younger children reflecting our modern world? Is there a raft of books that I have missed? Who is going to publish them? Supposing they are published, which librarians will stock them and which teachers will be bold enough to read them to their classes? And, most importantly, who is going to write them?
One of the endless conundrums of fiction. Do we read it to escape reality – or to embrace it? Do our readers want time away from their lives – or the reassurance that others have been there too?
PS. Sorry there's no picture! My computer died today and I'm using my husband's - and he doesn't have photos of me!!!