Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Sense and sensibilities - John Dougherty

Imagine pitching the following story, aimed at the pre-teen market, to a publisher:

A girl and her two brothers, left alone while their parents are at a party, are enticed from their home and taken to a faraway island by an amoral and egocentric stranger. No sooner do they arrive than the stranger’s accomplice attempts to have the girl murdered by enticing another child to shoot her.

The girl survives, and she and her brothers join the community there - a community entirely made up of abandoned children (of whom the stranger is the leader), surviving without adult assistance. After many adventures the girl and her brothers decide to return home, but before they can do so the entire community is captured by a band of criminals.

The criminals attempt to murder the children, but the tables are turned, and the children slaughter the entire gang, stabbing most of them to death one by one. The girl and her brothers return home.

If all this isn’t enough to put the publisher off, add in the descriptions of the parents at home, lamenting the loss of their children, and follow it with the eventual death of the kind and beautiful mother. And, just to confuse them, throw in a fairy or two.

Now: is any publishing house in their right mind, in the present day and age, going to publish such a story?

As you might have gathered, I’ve just finished reading Peter Pan to my kids. My goodness, but it’s dark.

Not unremittingly - far from it. There’s a lot of humour: some of it poignant, some of it merely well-observed. But there are enough threads of darkness running through it to terrify any modern editor looking for a potential best-seller for the young reader.

Not only that, but the language is not always easy. On a single page (263, if you’re interested) we encounter a bountiful selection of words including: industrious, essence, commonplace, pathetic, infinitely, fount, unconscious, bulwarks, miasma, prone, mechanically, unfathomable, tabernacle, bellied, elation, gait, sombre, profoundly, dejected.

What’s my point? I’m not entirely sure; except perhaps to say that it’s easy to set rules for what will and will not do in children’s fiction - and that in doing so, you may miss out on a classic.


Miriam Halahmy said...

Very well observed John and we could probably apply this to so many children's books : don't get me started on Alice, which is why there are no rules and our job is just to write the book we want to read. Thanks for a great post.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, and look at Enid Blyton books. I was looking in a bookshop yesterday at books for 5-8 year olds, and there are masses of Enid Bs. I strongly suspect that The Castle of Adventure etc wouldn't be accepted nowadays. You're right, John - rules always need to be questioned!

Charlie Butler said...

I was amazed when I read Peter Pan for the first time a few years ago. It's all you said and more. Who knew that Tinkerbell made a habit of attending orgies? How many children (other than David Cameron's) are going to pick up on the jokes about Eton? And that slippery narrator, changing his mind about the plot and the characters every two seconds! A remarkable book - and, as you say, one that would send contemporary publishers running.

steeleweed said...

I'm not sure A.A. Milne would be published today. Grimm's Fairy Tales are often very dark, too. Then there are novels which do get published, frequently to critical acclaim, but which are not successful until forty years later, if ever.

Katherine Langrish said...

Brilliant stuff, John! I actually didn't see where you were going until the revelation! And how true, and how worth thinking about.

Linda Strachan said...

Interestingly I re read Peter pan a while ago when I was given a lovely hardback edition alongside a copy of Scarlett, as a present.
I realised that I hadn't actually read the story since I was young and I was dismayed by the underlying tone, the voice, it was... not sure how to express it other than that it felt uncomfortable. I felt as though Barrie was angry and miserable underneath it all and I was quite pleased to get to the end.

Rules about writing are usually pretty useless and as soon as someone says there is a RULE about writing someone else comes up with a good reason for doing the absolute opposite. But most of what we know as classics, which were written years ago, would probably never get published today.
I'm not sure if that is because of the way they were written or because the world was a quite different place and so very much less PC!
But is it also because these books might not be quite so commercial or have such a wide appeal if there wasn't the nostalgia surrounding them that makes parents want to buy them for their kids?

Marie-Louise said...

I haven't read Peter Pan since I was a child but it was a huge favourite then, one of the first books I read (and reread) alone. I loved the book but Peter scared me; he was so capricious and downright dangerous. I shouldn't have been so surprised, maybe, to realise the main character in my first novel for kids (I'm a pic book writer/illustrator) is a version of Peter, and I was busy trying to 'fix' him...the book had obviously gone deep into my psyche!

Leila said...

I had the same reaction as Charlie when I read the unabridged Peter Pan for the first time a few years back - I absolutely loved it, though. That ticking crocodile! Best metaphor for death ever.