Thursday, 17 July 2014

In Defense of “Real” Realism in Children’s Books (With Special Mention of Ramona Quimby) by Emma Barnes

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 mediaCarnegie 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
it isn’t.

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. 
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is published by Strident.   Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf. 
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps

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Stroppy Author said...

There's space for both kinds of book, surely. All the 'really real' ones you cite, though, are for the younger age group, so perhaps not a fair comparison with the darker YA titles. I'm surprised, though, that the defence of the darker books is based on 'realism'. I would have expected at least someone to cite Aristotle's principle of learning/experiencing fear and pity in the safe environment of fiction as a release and, in the case of child reader, training for dealing with those inevitable feelings in whatever form they come later (for come they surely will). People didn't watch Oedipus or Hamlet because they might one day kill their father or not kill their uncle. They watched them because the emotional essence of the crisis is something universal. Young readers like to imagine how they would feel in all kinds of terrible situations, and can do so safely through stories, in whatever medium. It's psychological training for life, and so the harsher books are as important as the 'I got a pony and had a fight at school' books.

Stroppy Author said...

(By the way, I am not defending that particular Carnegie winner in any way.)

Sue Purkiss said...

I think this is an excellent post. And I'm always a bit suspicious of statements along the lines of 'Children need...' this, that, or the other type of book. 1) there are as many different kinds of children as there are different kinds of adults - they don't necessarily want, or need, the same things. 2) Are the stories writers write REALLY determined by what they think children need? Don't they really write just what, for whatever reason, they're moved to write? (Other than when they're writing to a specific brief, of course.)

There. Grumpy rant over now.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Nice post. I very much like very dark books, as it happens, but I obviously agree that there is much to celebrate in terms of realism - of feelings, of situations, of language - in funnier, less racy, less violent books which might also provide tender de-dramatisation of everyday life.

I agree with Stroppy, though, that the cathartic dimension of the grittier books is important (more so than the 'reality' argument which is indeed a fairly silly one). There is an important function to the unease, the pain the repulsion, etc. that accompanies the reading of such books, and it doesn't matter so much if they don't portray realistic situations.

Also, there is one (amazing) (fabulous) book where the kid recovers from cancer: Oh, Boy! by French author Marie-Aude Murail. No wonder you haven't heard of it, since I don't believe it's translated, but it's an absolute classic in France, and I'm sure you'd love it. Very funny, completely politically incorrect, touching, 'realistic' but not mundane, beautifully written.

Sue Purkiss said...

It is unfortunate that so few books are published in translation. Is there an economic reason for this, or is it just part of our 'Hey, we're an island (or possibly soon half an island) - we don't need anyone else' mentality? (Sorry, more grumpiness, after listening to Radio 4 on how much closer we are to shrugging off the European Court of Human Rights after the reshuffle.)

Lily said...

Great post, Emma. I also don't really understand how 'realism' got associated with 'dark'. I'd like to second your point about how few books are translated. My agent tells me books set in other cultures (real other cultures, as opposed to fantasy ones) don't sell well and publishers do not want to take them on. I don't really believe this is because young people aren't interested in world affairs. I think it is more publishers' short- sightedness. But that, sadly, encourages lack of interest.

Second your grumpiness, Sue...

Heather Dyer said...

Hear! Hear! Beverley Cleary is my hero - she can still make me laugh and cry at the same time. They're real, and they deal with real (and common) problems, but they are ultimately uplifting. Surely we all - and especially children - need to be uplifted, and shown how to cross to the sunny side of the street. I can't help thinking of that Extras skit in which Kate Winslet says she's never going to win an Oscar until she plays a holocaust film. Ironically, in real life, that's exactly what happens. Why do the 'hard hitting' books get all the accolades. I'd argue that many of them are less 'realistic' than the optimistic ones. How realistic can a book about being locked up by a psychopath be - unless you have actually experienced it yourself?

Lydia Syson said...

20That 'sit there for the present' idea is indelible - thanks for the reminder. (I was a huge Ramona fan as a child.) I'd add to the list of classic 'realism' of that era Elizabeth Enright (strangely unremembered) and Helen Cresswell (though I was sad that none of my children liked the Bagthorpes as much as I had…maybe hasn't worn so well as Enright.)

Really agree with Stroppy Author on this one, and also Sue, and others. We need ALL kinds of books, including translations.

And I'm a bit fed up with this YA isn't children 's lit argument. YA isn't just a marketing tool - it's a really important area of transition, and I think one reason it's been so successful is because the thresholds of 'adult' books have changed in the last 30 years too. I'd much rather my younger teens were reading 'dark' YA than many contemporary adult thrillers which used to be the natural progression… compare Stieg Larsson or Jo Nesbo with Dick Francis or Frederick Forsyth.

Emma Barnes said...

Thank you so much for all your comments. Stroppy and Clementine, I completely agree that dark subject matter is important, and I think you make a good argument for why that is so. I don't agree with Amanda Craig, for example, in her debate with Robert Muchamore (it's in one of the links) that children's fiction should always have happy endings or invariably offer "hope". I do think though that what I consider more "realistic" everyday fiction is very important and should be valued more (and actually I think for children and teenagers it's often the everyday disappointments and humiliations that hit hardest).

As Sue says, children and teenagers need all kinds of books, and they need a range at all stages of their life. I must say I'd love to hear some examples of good, realistic, everyday, fairly upbeat YA.

As for translations, my understanding is there's not much available in adult fiction either, and I think it's a function of there being such a big English language market that publishers don't want or need to take on those additional translation costs. And maybe readers also aren't very adventurous when they've got so much home-grown stuff available to them.

Clementine - sadly Oh Boy! isn't available, as you guessed. My Brother Simple is though - would you recommend that title too?

Peaceful Reader said...

I do love all the Ramona books but couldn't get my daughter to read them. She did love The Fault in our stars though. All young readers are different and we need a wide variety. We used to joke about our state book award that what ever book won it would surely be the saddest book on the list.

Thanks for this article.

Odette said...

A great post. I found it encouraging,as I am currently working on a story that reflects a young child's daily life. Sometimes I feel that I should be more 'extreme'/funny/ etc. but it is probably best to write what one likes oneself. (I always liked the Roman stories.)

Odette said...

Obviously I meant "Ramona" stories. . . Odette

Stroppy Author said...

Regarding translation...a publisher might leap in and correct this, but my guess would be that to buy English translation rights is quite expensive as the English-speaingmarket is vast. I know that when foreign rights of my books are sold, those for languages with relatively few speakers, such as Danish, go for not much. It's likely that publishers find it a risk they don't need to take.

C.J.Busby said...

Timely reminder of the delights of small town everyday life - I loved Elizabeth Enright too ('Thimble Summer' is one I remember from childhood) but sadly missed out on the Ramona stories. I agree that readers like to explore the dark side within the safe limits of a book - a book that leaves you streaming with tears (by all accounts The Fault in our Stars does exactly this), can be an amazing and important experience. But it's true that because such books hit the reader harder they often seem more significant/worthy of prizes, and the gentler, more realistic, books can get overlooked. I guess, like Sue says, in the end we write what we have in us to write, and our reward is the readers who connect with those books and love and remember them, whatever happens to be flavour of the month in the prize-giving realm!

Nicola Morgan said...

Sorry, I've come to this a bit late and a bit rushed. Stroppy, I agree with your first comment entirely. And re the Bunker Diary issue, I blogged at the time and am reposting it on ABBA tomorrow. (I'd scheduled it a while ago, before reading this post.) I study the research into the psychology and neuroscience of reading and story, and the exploration and pushing of boundaries can't be underestimated as a part of what story gives us.

Nicola Morgan said...

Oops, hadn't finished that comment but was called away and then forgot what I was going to say next. Wahhh. Interesting post, Emma. But the "real life is tough" argument is not one I've used. It's an argument, but it's very far from being my point.

Lots of young people want to read tough stories and push boundaries, and we need books for them. And gentle books for those who want them. All sorts for all sorts of readers. That sounds very trite, but I'm rushing again...