Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Parables or Propaganda? The role of the Children's writer.

I went to an online book launch this week, of a book by Philip Reeves, a children's writer whose work I really admire, and whose imagination astounds me.  I bought and read the book, 'Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep' and frequently had to stop and read bits out loud, as I just love the way he uses words. It's a great story. Philip says he wants to write Art which is accessible to children, and I think he does just that. The way he uses language is amazing, and I highly recommend it. 

Here is the recording of the books launch. It's really worth watching,  for the readings by Philip and also the introduction by Liz Cross and the interview with Nikki Gamble. There were also questions from people there, and someone asked him whether he would ever write for adults.


In the interview, at 48.51 Philip replied to a question about whether he would ever write for adults,  saying something which really interested me and made me think. He mentioned a trend in children's' books that he didn't like, called 'The Water Babies tendency', a tendency to be didactic and use stories for children to impart lessons for readers. He said that he didn't want to write parables, and that he wanted to write Art, and as long as he could do that he would continue to write for children.

I think that's fascinating, and his mention of 'The Water Babies' really made me want to explore this more.

I totally 'get' what Philip says about didacticism in Children's Literature. Back in 1993-95, I studied for an MA in the History and Development of Children's Literature, and am very interested in Victorian books for children, and have a small collection of them. Anyone who ever reads the incredibly popular  'The Fairchild Family',  (pub in three volumes 1818, 1842, 1847) by Mary Martha Sherwood  - will understand Hilaire Belloc's   'Matilda' and others of his 'Cautionary Tales', which I am sure directly reacted to books like 'The Fairchild Family'. The dire consequences of a lie told by a child in The Fairchild Family' are jaw-droppingly awful! The fascinating thing is that it was seen as delightfully realistic at the time! 



As a child, and as an adult, I have read my fair share of  stories for children which are just not very good, and which are being used to impose some sort of value system, religious or political. The most extreme examples of this which leaps to mind, which influenced my book 'Girl with a White Dog'  can be seen here:


I am in no doubt that didacticism and worthiness is fatal for good Art, but I confess that as an adult writing for children I did have a message I wanted to convey in all my MG books - I did want to use story to tell children something about History, and I know I have more stories I want to tell like that. I realise that if I know I have a message, I have to also make extra sure that the quality of my story telling and writing isn't damaged by any existing desire to use story to inform/warn and, I hope, empower children. Luckily, I am not alone, as I have an agent and publishers and editors etc to make sure that the story takes precedence, but it's an important consideration for me, and a real challenge. In the end, the story has to come first.

I have ambivalent feelings about 'The Water Babies' and its author. My mum and dad were Irish,  and I have read some appallingly anti-Irish things written by Charles Kingsley. Reading it now, the actual book is full of moralising. At the same time, I can't help admiring it - I think it is amazing that one children's book could have such power to change the fate of real life children - 'The Water Babies' got through to public consciousness, and had immense influence, helping to bring about the end of the use of climbing boys. 

"Black Beauty' by Anna Sewell was written primarily to draw attention to the cruel treatment of horses, but I think the reason why it is so loved is that it is beautifully written, and a wonderful story. 

I come from a very religious, Christian background, so I am very used to the idea of parables, and the idea of stories being told to impart some truth about life. I love, for example, the parable of the good shepherd, or the Good Samaritan.  I suppose I wrote a sort of a parable about the power of loving attention when I wrote 'Bloom', illustrated by Robyn Wilson-Owen. However, thinking about Art and the power of the unconscious, I realise that I discovered the parable after I had written it. I didn't set out to write a parable - I wasn't even sure what I was writing when I started - I just started to write a story about a little girl who loved a flower, and the words just came.

So I don't have any answers, just that attending this launch and reading this book has reminded me to look out for any clunky didacticism which might damage story, whilst remembering that I am an adult writing for children, and that does affect what I do. I would love my writing to help change the world for the better in however small a way, but that is a desire full of pitfalls. I want primarily to make Art, to be a story-teller, and I am inspired by amazing books which tell great stories. I think as writers we are all inevitably  influenced by our own personal values and belief systems when we write, and that will be communicated, overtly or not. I end with some inspiring words by David Almond from his website:

'To create and to pass on a story is a fundamental, human act. We’ve been sharing stories with each other since the beginning of human time. We’ll be sharing them until the end.'

DAVID ALMOND https://davidalmond.com/on-writing/

Every story that we write or read or act or sing or dance is an act of optimism, a move against the destructive forces that want to stifle us. 


1 comment:

Moira Butterfield said...

This is is very much what I've been thinking about, too, Anne. It seems to me that many modern children's books are what I call 'New Victorian'. I think that clunky moralising is going to put buyers right off. I think you see your work in just the right way. I think Philip Reeve is absolutely right to stand against this kind of thing and put the quality of words first.