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.