Saturday, 12 May 2018

The Monsters on the Page – by Ruth Hatfield

A couple of weeks ago I went to the annual Philippa Pearce lecture in Cambridge. This year’s lecture was given by Frances Hardinge, who I’ve had on the must-read radar for a while now, with the title ‘Peopling the Dark’.

She began by talking about the question of whether her books, or any books, were ‘too scary’ for children, and what that idea of ‘too scary’ might actually mean. Some details of her lecture are online here, and the lecture itself will be available online at some point - it's well worth a listen, incredibly detailed, considered and illuminating. But what really leapt out for me was Frances Hardinge’s point that by writing scary characters and situations, we’re effectively giving children words to describe fears that they mainly already have.

Books might well be scary, she said, but not because they put new, terrifying ideas into children’s heads, more because they illustrate things that children already know are waiting out there. And the beauty of ‘scary’ books is that they make the reader understand that they aren’t alone in their fears – if they read about something they are scared of in a book, they then know that at the very least, the author must have felt those fears too.

I’ve been throwing this thought around for a while, because I like how it explains what books can do for us – how they allow us to shine a torch onto the walls of the dark tunnels in our minds which we often find ourselves scrambling blindly along. I also like this idea that scary books aren’t the problem, they’re just reflecting a scary world that we (and children) already know we live in.

I’m slightly dubious about the idea that books aren’t in themselves sometimes the creators of fears – there are plenty of books that tell us about things we might never dream of otherwise, and some of those images do really burn us – wasps are annoying, for instance, but the Hunger Games sent them to a pretty undeserved place in the scariness Hall of Fame. But I do agree that it’s impossible to brand a particular book as ‘too scary’. The basic things that scare us, such as pain and abandonment, might be fundamentally the same for all of us, but the way we understand how and why those monsters might come to visit, isn’t. For some, it’s knife-wielding maniacs or dark seething swamps. For others, it’s conspiracies, and for others it’s (merely?) the thought of having to bear sad things.

For me, the monsters on the pages of books also tend to spend some time looking at themselves in the mirror. If I read of something awful in a book, I have a tendency to think, perhaps with not quite enough conviction, well at least that’s not true, because this book is fiction. This lets me pretend that the real world might not be so full of monsters after all.

And that last thought is perhaps the one I landed on most happily at the end of Frances Hardinge’s lecture – while it’s a hugely valuable thing to have books that reflect real terrors and give people ways of pinning down their own nebulous fears, one of the things I love best about reading is that the whole world of fiction is, well, fiction. I can choose which parts to believe in, and which not to. Apart from when real life comes and truly swipes me round the face, I can make my own world broad and wide and full only of those monsters I choose to allow in. Which might sound glib, but I don’t think it really is – to give me control over the horrors that exist in my world, when I know that reality allows me very little, is a great gift indeed.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Ruth - both you and Frances are saying important things.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you, Ruth, for your thoughts about "scariness", and for the link to the Hardinge lecture too. Valued, as I was very interested but it was too far to go from here for an evening.

Helen Larder said...

Thanks, Ruth. Really interesting xxxx

Moira Butterfield said...

And beautifully written, too. Thank you.

catdownunder said...

I remember years ago there was a debate about whether to put Jill Paton Walsh's book, "The Dolphin Crossing" on school library shelves. When I did some parents actually thanked me for it - for precisely the reasons you are now giving. Thanks!