Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Where even IS 'here'? - by Anne Rooney

Two days ago, Dawn Finch started a fascinating thread, picked up yesterday by Keren David, on where we (writers) go from here ('here' being pandemic-land). I'd like to turn this around and look at 'here' and 'where' from the point of view of young readers. Dawn and Keren are writing fiction for older readers. I'm writing fiction and non-fiction for much younger readers. The fiction, currently, is entirely animal-based so the pandemic is not an issue overtly. But the lack of interaction with anyone outside the immediate family translates easily into animal behaviour. It perhaps won't look at all alien (even be qute comforting, perhaps) to the current generation of pre-schoolers and early years readers.

For young readers, picture-book scenes in playgrounds and other crowded spaces, people without masks, these are quite alien. My grand-daughter, MB, is seven. She looks at a playground and judges if it's too crowded to feel safe and will ask to go home if she thinks it is. She's not the most cautious of her cohort. I saw one of her friends yesterday, a girl MB is with every day now school is open, and who I know well. She hid behind her grandmother because she's now scared of other adults. By the start of Year 3 in September, more than half of MB's schooling will have been during the pandemic. 

The regular depictions in picture books of children visiting friends' houses and playing close together, casually touching each other, look odd. They even look a bit exotic, and 'other', like all those books set in boarding schools and large houses did in my childhood. There's an obvious comparison to make with small readers from under-represented groups who don't see their lives reflected in books, but now it applies to everyone. We need to work, as an industry, to get into the minds of those children as they grow and make sure that even if our books don't feature the pandemic, they acknowledge its impact on them. They have 'lost' (a lazy word, they experienced differently) a large chunk of their young lives. It's rather like, perhaps, the impact of evacuation on my parents' generation. My father's entire adult life is in some ways defined by his experiences of being a small child in the Second World War. He was evacuated for a year and a half — about as long as (with luck) the pandemic will affect this generation of children. Perhaps some of those evacauation and war novels, like Goodnight Mr Tom, will have special resonance for today's seven-year-olds. I've already noticed more interest in The Secret Garden, though not with any explicit link to illness and isolation, but it feels a bit zeitgeisty. 


As adults we can put the pandemic behind us if we want to. I'm not sure that's healthy, but we probably will, at least until the next one. Historically, we haven't dealt with widespread devastating illness in books. You can count the great pandemic literature on the fingers of one hand: Procopius's Secret History, Boccaccio's Decameron, Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, Mann's Death in Venice (borderline — epidemic rather than pandemic), Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider. (I'm excluding AIDS because most of the population didn't feel threatened or change how they lived.) The early flu epidemics don't feature in literature, smallpox is barely there except as a reference to scars or people who have died. Syphillis gets a lot of coverage in the 1700s, but as a background threat, which is quite possibly what covid-19 will become. It will be interesting to see if it disappears from public consciousness as thoroughly as 1918 flu did. And it will be interesting to see what the current generation of small children grow up to write. Because for them it's not just a year or two out of action, but a significant chunk of their formative years remodelled. MB and the friend-who-hid both tell me they want to be writers. I wonder what they will write?


Anne Rooney


Salariya, 2020


Susan Price said...

Very thought provoking.

Paul May said...

I listened to a radio programme a while back about pandemic fiction where an academic whose name I never registered said that very little is written in immediate response to the events. There are nearly sixty years between the 'plague year' of 1665 and the publication of Defoe's book. I don't especially want to read about mask-wearing and social distancing and I suspect it is possible to write about all kinds of things without mentioning them. War is different. Children's authors started writing about WW2 almost as soon as it started and don't seem to have stopped since.

Stroppy Author said...

This is true, Paul, though Defoe's book was quite possibly prompted by the 1720-22 plague of Marseille. I don't think there would be another reason for suddenly writing about a long-ago plague unless it were the fear engendered by a similar occurrence just across the channel that might have become another plague in England. And, of course, plague never went awant — it just didn't roar through the country at epidemic levels every year. People would have been familiar with plague even in inter-plague years. The crucial difference between plandemic and war is, of course, agency. It's quite hard to make a compelling narrative out of a natural disaster (which is why disaster movies always need a hero struggling against desperate odds to save his family, or whatever — a sequence of disempowered victims makes does not a story make). Signficantly, the most memorable (and probably invented) parts of Defoe's narrative are those where he talks about deliberate plague-spreading — seizing a demonic kind of agency from the jaws of impotence. Procopius focuses on the Johnsonian ineptitude of Justinian to deal competently with the plague (though it's hard to see he could do much under the circumstances). And Boccaccio uses it as a meta-narrative to throw the refugees' tales into a gloomy mortality-relief. Of course, this is the first pandemic when there has been a children's book publishing industry — it will be interesting to see what happens

Lynne Benton said...

All very true, Anne. A friend's 1 year-old granddaughter has only ever seen people wearing masks, except for her mother and her father. She has never met anyone else. She has never played with other children. Unsurprisingly she is now very nervous of everyone, and I do wonder how these very little ones will cope when things start opening up again. How long will it take them to get used to "normal" life? Your story of the young child who is now scared of all adults makes perfect sense, but hardly anyone seems to have taken into account how the after-effects of the pandemic precautions during their early, formative years will affect their future. An excellent, thought-provoking post!