Wednesday 25 March 2020

Stories for troubled times

Stories of hope in troubled times by Chris Vick

The 2020 CILIP Carnegie shortlist has just been announced. I am thrilled that my book, Girl. Boy. Sea is on it.

It may seem to some, that in troubled times, books, and fairy stories, may not be that important; or relevant, given what we are going through; the age of coronavirus, Brexit, global warming and uncertain politics.

But I am going to argue the opposite; that young people need stories right now,  perhaps more than ever.

When the longlist was announced, it was noted by Chair of judges, Julia Hale, that the books were about: ‘the way children and young people navigate the sort of challenges that they face … stories of hope, discovery.’ The Guardian noted many of the books gave ‘classics a fresh spin.’

I think that sums it up: Fresh versions of old tales, crafted for our times, to help young people.

I hope Girl.Boy.Sea fits with these themes. It’s a tale of navigation, physical and metaphorical; a boy, and girl, adrift on the merciless sea under the burning sun, work together to find home. To fill the hours, the girl, Aya, tells Bill stories. The first is of Pandora, whose curiousity, released all the evils of the world, leaving nothing, but for one thing.  Hope.   Then like Shahrazad, Aya, spins tales of her own, because she knows that she and Bill need them, just as as they need food and water.

Books for young people, offer hope and stars to navigate by. But – if they are any good - neither easily nor directly. They provide instead ways to deal with the questions, rather than ‘answers.’

 If young people want answers, should they look to politicians, to the news, Twitter? In my view, the non-fiction narratives are the ones that over simplify, play on fear and find blame. You won’t find that much in the books young people read and value. For all the important themes explored in this year’s lists: e.g. homeless, dementia, and poverty, there are themes rather than messages, sympathy and complexity rather than wagging fingers, preaching and solutions.  And in all cases the way the characters navigate a troubled world is, to quote Julia Hale again: ‘through relationships with families and friends and from learning more about themselves.’

I suspect it has always been this way. So, if you think that reading stories may be an trivial activity when times are not merely troubled, but seemingly apocalyptic, bear this in mind: Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, books of all colours and stripes, are full of troubles. Which hardly surprises, for most of our history, we have had to deal with war, famine and plague.  Or all of them. Shakespeare’s plays were delayed more than once due to theatres being closed by the plague.

The paradox is that books for young people offer both a welcome escape from the real world and a range of different windows through which to see it.

 So right now, if we all have to spend more time at home, we could use some of the time to read more.

The CILIP mission is; ‘to inspire and empower the next generation to shape a better world through books and reading.’

I’ll sign up to that. It speaks to the power of stories.

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.’

Neil Gaiman


Sue Purkiss said...

Very true. It was interesting to read your comment that books for children have always contained lots of troubles; I was thinking just that earlier in relation to a classic - this could well be an idea for my next post! And congratulationms again on your shortlisting - it's a terrific book.

Chris Vick said...

Thank you, Sue.