Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Flights of Fancy – by Ruth Hatfield

I can count the number of thoughts I’ve had about children’s writing this month on the fingers of one finger, as the saying goes – no, two fingers, actually. Well, maybe three, the third one being, why am I not writing more?!… but numbers one and two are probably the only ones worth commenting on here!

One: Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries are absolutely brilliant. I love historical fiction anyway, and mysteries, and books for children, so I don’t know why I hadn’t got round to these before. But I think to tell the truth I was expecting something much less interesting – possibly some kind of formulaic children-solving-mysteries stories transplanted into ancient Rome. Two books in I was thrilled, seven books in and I can’t stop… they have great, consistent, realistic characters, lovely settings, and interesting plot lines. 

What I like most, though, is the insistent realism – life is pretty harsh, even through the lens of children’s fiction. Animals get sacrificed. No-one seems to have an overly modern tone or point of view. People die, unexpectedly and suddenly. Vesuvius – well, ok, no surprises there. But generally I’ve found the books to be a wonderful mixture of domestic accuracy and great adventure. Because the main characters appear in every book, there’s time for nuances and real character development, and underpinning it all is a strong dialogue which tells us that although these people may have been in some respects similar to us, they lived in a completely different world and consequently had very different attitudes to some things. Which in a children’s book is a really important message. And I do love books in which the author’s knowledge shines out so beautifully, yet so unobtrusively.

Writing this makes me realise that thought 2 is actually more linked than I thought – I read a picture book in which a knitting owl flew to the arctic and met polar bears and penguins. It annoyed me so much I broke off reading the story to explain to my baffled daughter that she shouldn’t get the impression that penguins live at the arctic, oh no, that was just plain wrong. I realised later that I didn’t say anything about the fact that an owl wouldn’t be able to fly to the arctic. Or that said owl probably wouldn’t knit either.

I turned the thought over for a while, and came to the conclusion that in my view of the world, fiction is allowed to be as untrue as it likes, as long as it’s not claiming that it’s true (or an 'alternative fact'). I guess I think that as very young children we quickly learn to read between the lines of stories and sort out what’s actually real (as in real life) from what isn’t. It’s why some historical fiction really rankles – when I find characters with very strongly modern views on things it feels like too much of a fiction, even though I know the whole thing is a fiction anyway. And factual errors in stories grate so much, again even though the whole thing is already a fiction. It’s not because the author hasn’t done their research (I’m certainly guilty of that myself), it’s because, I think, there are two kinds of truth – there’s factual truth and fictional truth, and I don’t like the latter pretending to be the former.

Well, that’s about as far as my thinking got on the matter. Caroline Lawrence, an absolute gem. And penguins don’t live at the arctic. I fail to see why if an owl can fly to one pole, it can’t go to both...

1 comment:

Helen Larder said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful, interesting post, Ruth xxxx