There was one of those flurries in the Children’s Book world recently – this time, over the award of the Carnegie, the UK’s most prestigious children’s book award, to the hard-hitting The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. I’m not planning to write much about the controversy (I’ve included some links below) which I’d sum up by saying that some people feel that the Carnegie is forgetting its roots as a children’s book prize by so frequently rewarding the bleaker, and older, end of Young Adult fiction. But the debates that followed did make me think about what exactly we mean when we talk about realism in children’s books.
Because the number one point made by Brooks’ supporters, as it usually is when people complain about bleak children’s books, was the “real life is tough” argument.
“[Children] want to be immersed in all aspects of life, not just the easy stuff. They’re not babies, they don’t need to be told not to worry, that everything will be all right in the end, because they’re perfectly aware that in real life things aren’t always all right in the end.” Kevin Brooks
“the real world is so complex that unambiguously happy endings hardly exist” – author Robert Muchamore
“Children and teenagers live in the real world; a world where militia can kidnap an entire school full of girls, and where bullying has reached endemic proportions on social media” Carnegie Chair of Judges, Helen Thompson
We certainly do live in a grim world. Reading the newspaper can be more heart-breaking than any children’s book. But I’d question whether this explains the preponderance of bleak fiction (and am I being cynical to feel, that if teenagers were truly deeply interested in the worlds’ troubles, there might be more translated foreign fiction available for UK children, instead of, as is actually the case, virtually none?)
For most British children, for all the challenges they face, being imprisoned by a psychopath probably isn’t one of them. (Amazingly the 2014 short list featured two books on the “imprisoned by psychopath” theme – the other by Anne Fine.) Terrorist attack, extreme violence, heroin addiction...these are also very small (though terrifying) risks to most under eighteens, living in a Western world where (though it’s sometimes hard to remember) violence is actually in long-term decline.
Or take childhood cancer. John Green’s The Fault In My Stars is just one the latest of many books where children or teenagers die of terminal cancer. By contrast, I CAN’T THINK OF A SINGLE BOOK WHERE THE CHILD HAS CANCER AND GETS BETTER. And yet, the reality is that about 75% of children do get better. Wouldn't it be great – not least for those children with the disease – if some of the award-winning fiction out there also reflected that reality?
In short, you don’t need to think that children’s books should be all fluffy bunny rabbits and happy ever after to wonder if some so-called “realistic” children’s fiction is...well, actually not that realistic.
Myself, I’ve always thought of “realism” not in association with YA grit but with certain twentieth century American authors: from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, through Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, to Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing or Katherine Patterson’s Gilly Hopkins the Great.
Perhaps the supreme example would be Beverley Cleary’s Ramona books. Following the adventures of Ramona Quimby and her family and friends over a number of years, and set in Portland Oregon, these books are breathtaking in their ability to distil the ordinary and humdrum into entertaining fiction.
Beverley Cleary never relies on dramatic events. (She even avoids dramatic titles, with such understated gems as “Ramona and her Mother” and “Ramona Quimby , age 8”.) There are problems for sure – Ramona’s dad loses his job, for example – but as we see things always through Ramona’s eyes, this is on a par with such problems as her class teacher not liking her very much. There is humour (the teacher told me to sit there “for the present” – but I didn’t get any present, Ramona complains). But it’s a gentle, observational humour. There is death (Picky Picky the cat) but no truck with sentimentality (Ramona and Beezus set to work to bury Picky Picky before their parents find out). There are fears to be overcome – confronting a mean dog – and temptations – how can Ramona resist pulling the blonde curls of Susan who sits in front of her in class, however many times she is told off by her teacher? But it is all grounded in a child’s everyday experience.
Beverley Cleary recalled in her memoir,“I longed for funny stories about the sort of children who lived in my neighbourhood.” And she could see that the children she met while working as a librarian felt the same.
Then, as now, this kind of “realism” was often ignored by critics and award-givers. Cleary has been showered with honours and prizes – but that was after her books had proved themselves enduringly popular with young readers. And they still are. I know British children today who ADORE them – because that small town, domestic American life, however distant it is in time and place, still feels absolutely real.
It’s easy to overlook the skill and imagination involved in creating something small scale. As the great mistress of domestic realism, Jane Austen, long ago said of her work, it is “ the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour". It look easy – but
Take out the big emotional tear-jerking scenes, the drama of life and death, good vs evil, and what do you have left? The common-place. The everyday. The mundane. And creating something entertaining and captivating out of the mundane is challenging – maybe more challenging than “the big stuff”.
Yet it’s always been an important aim of fiction. Cleary said that she always remembered her college lecturer's advice that a novel should seek to explore universal themes through the minutiae of everyday life. I also like this quote from another writer, Susan Patron, about Cleary. “She showed me that the inner life of any child, the dynamics of family and pets, can be captured as rich, comic, fascinating, poignant, and meaningful."
I’m not sure this type of “realism” has ever been as celebrated in British children’s books, although it is an important part of the appeal of writers such as Jacqueline Wilson and Anne Fine (although their prize-winning books are more “issues” led) or Hilary McKay. With the humour ratcheted up, it’s also the bedrock of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole or Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicolson (I confess the near-death of Georgia’s cat Angus moved me more than any gritty YA novel) and much other comic fiction. It’s even been recognised by the Carnegie in the past, in such books as the groundbreaking The Family From One End Street (one of the first children’s books to feature the everyday life of a working-class family) and The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler.
There are lots of joys to be had from fiction, and realism is only one of them. I love fantasy and adventure as much as I love the fiction of the everyday. But I’ve also found that it is often the grounded, “real life” books that are the ones that, as child and adult, I have returned to again and again. There is a particular and lasting joy in reading something “real” and recognising the settings and characters.
Let's celebrate it!
CJ Busby's ABBA post on Carnegie criteria
Bunker Diaries storm in Guardian
Bunker Diaries storm in Telegraph
Bunker Diaries storm: Amanda Craig vs Robert Muchamore
Emma's new series for 8+ Wild Thing about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways) is out now from Scholastic.
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