I stumbled across this article in the Guardian, in answer to a teacher’s query about why gloomy books seem to be chosen for one of the top children’s book awards – the Carnegie Medal. Julia Ecclestone summed up the shortlisted books with this description:
“This year the Carnegie Medal shortlist certainly has been drawn to tough subjects. Patrick Ness’s acclaimed A Monster Calls centres round a boy facing up to his mother’s death, Annabel Pitcher’s touching My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece tells of a young girl dealing with the fractures in her family following the death of her sister, Andy Mulligan’s Trash describes the harsh childhood endured by children sifting through waste to eek out a meagre living, Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Grey is a heart rending story of a endurance and fortitude in a detention camp in Siberia while in Sonia Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo set in a country devastated by war, two brothers carrying a small and very precious bundle come across a zoo filled with animals who are desperate need of hope.”
She did point out that they never assumed a child should read these back to back but intersperse them with other reading material. But I think this raises some interesting questions about why adults – who bizarrely are choosing the winners of the awards, not children – make the choices they do.
Various academics in children’s literature question whether there can really be a category called children’s literature since the vast majority of the content comes from adults writing for children. How can adults really know what children want? There have also been questions about whether adults have an agenda when they write for children – are they trying to teach them a lesson (eg in the case of fables)? Or are they trying to subvert adulthood by writing books that champion children’s rights or naughty behaviour (for example, Roald Dahl)?
Awards like this do very much cast doubt in my mind. Peter Hunt, in his essay Instruction and Delight puts it well when he says: “The role of adults in reading and mediating children’s books has to be examined in terms of motivation, ideology… and the manipulation or idealising or commodification of childhood. Should children’s books be for instruction or pleasure?”
Ecclestone says that “Dark subject matter makes good fiction and for children, and exploring challenging situations, life styles or even acts of inhumanity in a thoughtful and reflective manner is one of the things children’s books do best. Through subtlety written stories children can get close to hard to handle emotions in a safe and manageable way.” I do agree with this but I often wonder if we should only think of books that do this as worthy of prizes. She points out that other prizes exist for humorous stories – such as the Roald Dahl Prize – but by separating comedy from mainstream literature are we making it inferior?
This is certainly what happens in the adult literature world. There are very few authors who can manage light-heartedness in a way that prize-givers deem is worthy of acclaim. It seems the more miserable the story the more it should be praised.
I am not saying gloomy books aren’t good for reading. Some of my favourite stories – particularly aimed at the young adult category – offer quite harrowing reading, such as Julie Hearn’s Rowan the Strange. Quite simply this is one of the best books I have ever read. But I am saying this as an adult. Would I have had the same opinion as a teenager? I’m not sure.
The children I have worked with, certainly up to 12 years of age, enjoy adventure and comedy and a huge slice of escapism. This could be the reason why Enid Blyton enjoys perpetual popularity – the children in her stories go off on adventures away from adult rules, they enjoy moderate peril and everything’s all right in the end. There is no real danger, I guess. Whereas stories about bleak existences where one can only hope there is a glimmer of escape can be more frightening for a child who cannot quite comprehend their place in the world. That said, Jacqueline Wilson is phenomenally well read and loved by children and her stories deal with some pretty traumatic subjects so who knows? It’s probably the same argument for children as well as adults – it depends on the reader what they want in a book. But my point with this piece is: who are we to judge?