Wednesday 11 May 2011

Creating Pisstory Meg Harper

There used to be a beautiful garden on the corner of our road. Not the sort of cottagey, lush, chaotic garden I’d rather like myself but a traditional, rather formal combination of greensward and floribunda roses with a few tastefully placed specimen shrubs. There was also a gleaming penny farthing as a feature, incongruous but appealing, always delicately outlined with tiny fairy lights at Christmas.
The creator moved away last year and yesterday the new occupants committed an act of dire destruction. Diggers arrived and the entire garden had gone by 11am. Perhaps the owners are going to create something wonderful themselves. Judging by the number of huge white delivery sacks sagging in the wreckage, however, I suspect that they want something low maintenance – a parking lot, for example.
Far be it from me to decry progress or personal freedom of choice. The new owners clearly need something other than a formal garden and fair enough; it is their property. Nonetheless, I wept over the glorious rose bushes which I hope have at least reached the municipal composter and I find myself asking questions about our responsibility to the community in our public acts. That garden gave me great joy and I used to tell the creator so when he was out there tending it. He still lives locally so he will have the pain of seeing that his work has been destroyed. How much should we reign in our personal desires out of consideration for others? A big question. How much value should we put on that which already exists when it stands in the way of something new? It’s a question which town planners and developers constantly battle with and which Capability Brown and his sponsors didn’t seem to consider at all!
What has all this to do with children’s books?!
The other day I did one of my occasional reccies in Waterstones. What’s being promoted, what’s new, what haven’t I read that I should have etc etc. To be honest, I was appalled. There was nothing like the wide selection carried by my local independent. That’s normal but this time the range was even narrower than usual and the blocks of books by the usual suspects were vast. More shocking, in my opinion, was the increased shelf-space given over to the Snot and Bogey brigade. The desperation to publish books that boys will read is getting alarming. Humour revolves around poo and flatulence (we now have the adventures of a farting dog, for goodness sake!) and history is degenerating into pisstory. I’ve recently had a short fictionalised biography of Elizabeth 1st published. ('Elizabeth 1st - The Story of the Last Tudor Queen') Imagine my delight at my most recent school visit when I was approached by a child who wanted to ask a question about it. And the question? Was it true that Elizabeth 1st had used the first toilet ever? Elizabeth 1st must be one of the most formidable personalities our national history offers – and a child’s interest has somehow been reduced to where she went to the loo!
It seems to me that what happened to my neighbour’s garden is happening to children’s literature. In pursuing current agendas (getting boys to read at any cost, for example) we’re trashing a great tradition. I think of the heritage that lies behind the early readers that are being churned out now and I’m asking questions. I’m a left-wing, liberal, armchair revolutionary but I’m also a Christian (albeit a heretical one!) and I’m thinking about what it says in Philippians 4: 8 ...’whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’ It seems to me that instead we’re asking our children to think about poo. We are replacing what has traditionally been seen as worthy content of children’s books by something far inferior. The same goes for what seems to be happening in my neighbour’s garden.


catdownunder said...

I am often appalled at what appears on the library shelves and even in our local independent bookshop. It has been that way for a long time. Books here seem to fall into one of two categories - the sort of book you are talking about and the sort of book which is intended to teach children about an "issue", usually a social issue. When I suggested that children sometimes wanted to lose themselves in a good book I was told that this was a "waste of time".
I am now wondering whether writing an adventure type story was a mistake!

adele said...

The story about the garden is terribly sad. Awful. I hope the new owners put in one even's the least they can do. But re the rubbish there is about, I know how you feel. I've read a few books lately that just made my heart sink and it's not that there hasn't always been rubbish around, it's just the the proportions are different when it comes to the stocking and visibility of GOOD STUFF. I know there IS good stuff out there but somehow it doesn't have the visibility and presence of the rubbish, which is I suppose easier to sell. This wouldn't matter quite so much were it not for the fact that non-visibility means lower sales and lower sales means: the writer of the wonderful, invisible book will not be given another contract to write another terrific novel. It's all very sad. I thought it was just me and a consequence of old age, etc but clearly not! Thanks for a very interesting post.

Meg Harper said...

Exactly. All of that. Cat, I really hope it wasn't a mistake to write an adventure story - I don't think so because there are some great adventure stories out there. My kids' book group loved 'Chasing Vermeer' and 'Framed'.Adele, you're so right - it's the proportions. We know there's wonderful stuff being written (and going out of print too fast) but it's becoming invisible. Hidden by piles of poo. Old age, Adele? - pah!!!!

Stroppy Author said...

Tricky to respond to this, as my best-selling book by far is called 1001 Horrible Facts. And the only commission I have for this summer is a book for Barrington Stoke that is a follow-up to Grim, Gross and Grisly. Are these books rubbish? I don't think so, but I'm open to persuasion.

Firstly, they are non-fiction. They are not stories about farts and poo, they contain carefully researched facts about humans (in one case) and all aspects of the natural world and history (in the other). They provide small gobbets of amusing or amazing information that I hope will open a child's eyes to the wonders of the world around them. Because it IS wonderful (in the sense of wonder-inducing) that there are some animals that eat their mates, or that people in some countries make a drink from rotting seagulls, or that if you could stretch out your gut it would be 9 metres long. Maybe we would prefer children to be amazed at something more pleasant. But perhaps that will come later if they have had the doors to reading, science and history opened for them - or at least left ajar so that they can peek through.

Meg Harper said...

Good point, Stroppy Author - and I'm certainly not knocking some books in the gross and grisly genre. But my quick scan the other day suggested that the quality is getting lower and lower - what was a clever and wacky idea for making the glories of our planet and our history engaging, has become, in some instances, a cheap trick.

Emma Barnes said...

Things go in waves don't they? The Horrible Histories are clever, funny and well-researched - as well as concentrating on the horrible - but then it seems like everything has to be put into the "yuk" mould because of their success. When fantasy was huge, it seemed that every piece of historical fiction had to have a "magic" element to it.

Maybe if one fairly straight, historical adventure story makes it really big, that too will set off a new trend.

And I feel really sad about the garden too :(

Cathy Butler said...

I'm ambivalent about the snot 'n' bogey brigade. Or rather, I think it varies a good deal in quality (I really like Captain Underpants, but farts and poo are obviously the very stuff of cheap laughs and faux subversiveness too).

In its historical incarnation, I suppose you can see this as a manifestation of the movement for "history from below" (as it were). Over the last couple of generations school history lessons have shifted from "kings and battles" to social history - and in that context sewage and sanitary arrangements are genuinely important subjects! In fact, Sir John Harington's flushing toilet (the one used by Elizabeth) took pride of place in a documentary on domestic living I happened to catch just a couple of weeks ago. If he'd had the foresight to invent the U-bend as well, he might be up there with Edison, rather than being known as the translator of Orlando Furioso.

But I'm not really disagreeing with you. I'm old-fashioned enough to think that a decent knowledge of Queen Elizabeth should extend to other fundamentals.

Meg Harper said...

Yes, good points one and all. I think that's a very interesting reflection, Charlie - the up side of all this is that at least we are seeing a different strata of history. Talking of which, the 'Dirt' exhibition at The Wellcome Foundation is interesting. I realised I know far too much about dirt already to learn an awful lot but I still found it very thought-provoking and would recommend it - especially as its free, appropriately enough.

Lynne Garner said...

I wasn't going to leave a comment but I’ve decided I would because my latest book features a bodily function. This is something I never dreamt I would write about but when an editor is offering you a contract what do you do? As with all my picture books I try to include some sort of lesson. So although the bodily function may be the initial ‘pull’ of the book the title is really about not blaming others and taking responsibly for your own actions.

I’ll admit it was a thrill as I watched my 80-year-old aunt cry with laughter as she read the proofs and my three-year-old nephew giggle and clap as the book was read to him. Has my book joined the bandwagon, well I’ll be honest yes it has! Is it selling at the moment, it would appear so. Will it sell when the ‘yuk’ bubble bursts? I doubt it!

So half of me asks if it is an issue, as the readers are getting something they enjoy. Whilst the other half of me agrees with you that there does appear to be a lot of books using the yuk factor as a selling point. However as with all genres they come and they go. We were over-run by wizards, now it’s vampires and werewolves and in a few years something else will be filling the shelves. Whatever genre is ‘hot’ there will be good books and there will be bad. We just have to hope most of it is good.

Lou Ann Homan said...

Thankk God I have found your blog!
I share your thougths of this garden and to books. At our local book fair two weeks ago, the best sellers were posters and cheap toys!

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in Lynne G's concept of a 'yuk bubble'. Haven't children always liked reading/talking about farts etc? Chaucer got a good deal of mileage from it, too.

I don't think it's a marketing bubble: I think it's more that, culturally, adults right now are allowing kids to read about what they want to read about, rather than insisting that books *should be* about 'proper', non-sniggerly, subjects.

I welcome anything that gets children to read - and laugh. If that's poo, or lizard guts, or whatever supports a good story, I say Bravo (and tee hee).