Many thanks to Victoria Eveleigh, who stepped in at very late notice to do this guest post. Enjoy!
“Joe really has things far too easy. He has good parents and no money worries.”
This comment was made by Claire who runs the Pony Mad Book Lovers website http://www.ponymadbooklovers.co.uk. She was talking about the first book in my latest trilogy, which is about a boy called Joe who moves from Birmingham to a smallholding in the countryside because his dad, who’s a teacher, gets a new job. Joe hates the change to begin with, but then he digs up a horseshoe and his life starts to take a different course.
It’s true his problems (a new home that seems to be in the middle of nowhere, an annoying little sister and being cut off from his friends, with no phone or internet connection) aren’t monumental, but I felt they were realistic and that most teenagers faced with such things would be grumpy.
Some readers agree. They say moving house is a big deal, especially when you don’t want to, and Joe is refreshingly believable compared with some of the impossibly nice protagonists in children’s books.
A few say he’s a brat who doesn’t know how lucky he is.
A quick glance at Facebook this morning (okay, not that quick, but it was research!) turned up various grumbles, from having to light the fire because it was getting colder to the dog being sick on a new carpet. One friend said she was dreading winter because she’d be back to the routine of looking after her horse in the dark before and after work. Yes, in the big scheme of things these people are lucky to have a fire, a new carpet and a dog to be sick on it, a horse and a job, but we usually don’t see the bigger picture, do we? Little problems get to us, even if we know they shouldn’t.
It’s incredibly tempting to heap adversity onto the hero or heroine of a story. It guarantees instant sympathy from the reader, which is always useful, but the bar of misfortune seems to be getting higher and higher. Poverty, bullying and the death of at least one parent seem to be the norm nowadays. I know there are children who experience these things, and they should feature in stories, but there are others living in all sorts of different circumstances. Shouldn’t they be represented too?
There’s been a lot of talk about diversity in children’s literature recently (hurray for Malorie Blackman). The focus seems to have been on ethnic diversity and the inclusion of more characters with disabilities to reflect the society we live in. I agree with this, of course. I also feel we should be careful to avoid classic stereotypes that mirror our prejudices in different ways, like the poor-but-noble protagonist, the rich bitch and the fat bully.
Life is filled with complex characters from a variety of backgrounds who can’t be defined by how much money they have or what they look like. People are full of surprises.
One day I’d like to be brave enough to create a fat, rich, heroic protagonist with a large, happy family. Well, publishers are always looking for originality, aren’t they?