Thursday, 29 November 2012

On the way to the forum - Cathy Butler



Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to Turkey, to take part in a forum on Young Adult Literature. When I got home, I thought of writing a post on the city where I had stayed – the marvellous palimpsest that is at once Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul. I certainly saw many wonderful sights: Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque... but others have been there before me, and besides, I will need time to digest those memories, not least (oddly enough) because I forgot to take a camera. Probably it will be the little things that stay with me: the unexpected cats that roam the square between the mosques, a small child eating roasted chestnuts, the runic graffiti scratched into the marble of Hagia Sophia  by a bored Viking. Most haunting of all, the forest of floodlit pillars (many culled from abandoned pagan temples) that support the roof of the Basilica Cistern, next door to my hotel. Most of the pillars are plain and austere, but one is carved with tear drops: no one knows why, or where it came from. There’s a story in that, if one knew how to tell it.

But back to the Young Adult Literature Forum, which was attended not only by Turks but also by representatives from Germany, Sweden, Serbia, Spain and France. Some of these countries have long traditions of children’s literature; in others it is relatively new. Some have longstanding democratic traditions, while others have had oppressive or authoritarian governments. (There is, I note, a strong correlation between these circumstances.) It was interesting and salutary to find that the topic that excited most discussion was whether children’s literature should be used to instil moral “lessons” – a discussion that spilled over with seeming inevitability into one about censorship.

It’s easy to feel smug about such things. We like to think that in the anglophone world, at least, whatever those stern Victorians may have thought about using books as an instrument of instruction rather than of pleasure, we have learned better. Books should be interesting and fun, surely, rather than exercises in finger-wagging?

Well, maybe. Actually, while the language has changed, I suspect that many people still see children’s books as instruments of instruction, even if the instruction is in “emotional wisdom” rather than “moral lessons.” They still discuss characters and stories in terms of the ways they model behaviour for children, the examples they set. They still think of books as having a profound influence, beneficial or otherwise. Scratch a Guardian reader, find a top-hatted Victorian moralist.

Perhaps that is no bad thing. Books should be capable of making a difference to their readers – yes, and of teaching them too. It would be sad if they became simply a way of stimulating a pleasant aesthetic sensation, or of passing a tedious hour between games on the X-Box. That children’s books are talked of in apocalyptic terms, and that they attract moral censors worried about children being “corrupted," is a testament to their power.  We may disagree with the censors’ analysis, but their attention is an enormous back-handed compliment. 

Viva didacticism!

26 comments:

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Lynda Waterhouse said...

Not sure I want to scratch a Guardian reader! Thank you for taking me on journey to Turkey this morning and sharing the image of the tear drops. I find that small details that catch your imagination are the things that often give stories a moral integrity.

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Sue Purkiss said...

This sounds a fascinating visit. And it's a very interesting point about moral messages: I think many of us include those, even if we don't quite want to realise it (why not?)- or even if they're different kinds of messages to those of 50 years ago.

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Lily said...

is that fact that there are so many deleted comments a meta-comment on your post's censorship theme?

Anonymous said...
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John Dougherty said...

@Lily: no, more a comment on the fact that for some reason all the handbag-&-shoe spammers have decided to visit us on the same day! Really not sure why.

Elen C said...

Hmm, yes, tonnes of spam comments for this post.
Is there a keyword in the post that's brought them out of the woodwork?!
Something to keep an eye on... I know everyone hates the word verification, but it might become necessary...

Catherine Butler said...

I hope it's not me! I had to ban anonymous comments on my personal blog recently, largely because I already had all the Ugg knock-offs I could possibly need, but it seems they won't let me alone until I buy more!

Stroppy Author said...

An interesting idea, Cathy. I think it's more nuanced, though, than didacticism in another hat. A lot of modern books for children reflect and endorse experience. Modelling behaviour is perhaps guidance rather than teaching, presentation of consequences rather than overt moralising.

There is more space left for the child reader to use his or her judgment, and a greater inclination to present conundra with no clear right or wrong choice. This is not teaching in any conventional way, though it is perhaps helping to equip a child with life skills. The books that are most likely to be slammed by the censors are those which don't clearly present the 'right' moral choice. As always, censorship is more about fearing that people will realise they have a choice than anything else. Perhaps if there is didacticism in the best children's books, it's in that form - opening up possibilities and endorsing the variety of individual experience.

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Catherine Butler said...

I agree to an extent, Stroppy. I think didacticism tends to be more diffuse these days; but also, it's more invisible when it runs with the grain of one's own values - which, for many children's authors, are by default Western liberal ones. So, a book that shows a protagonist learning tolerance and empathy may seem less didactic to us than it would look to someone for whom those ideas are less central.

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Catherine Butler said...

Is there any way to disable anonymous comments for this post, I wonder?

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