Saturday, 1 April 2017

Of Bees, Golden Apples and the Uses of YA Fiction by Griselda Heppel

My head. Or, a buzzing of bees
Yes, I know it’s a month ago, but the Literary Archive Writing for Children Event at my old college, Newnham,  set so many ideas buzzing that my head has been a positive bee hive ever since. Or wasps nest, if you prefer.

Certainly that quotation from Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig tossed, like a golden apple from the garden of the Hesperides (heady stuff, these legends), among us children’s authors by Dr Gill Sutherland, contained more than one point to take issue with:

 ‘The sense of moral obligations, which governs all writing for children, has acquired a new bias. It used to entail keeping your stories as anodyne as possible; now if anything, the opposite holds true. Painful topics have become virtually de rigeur.’ 
Not our literary panel
(golden apple of discord arriving at wedding of Thetis and Peleus)

Any discord sewn, I'm glad to say, wasn't among Mary Hoffman, Sue Limb, Anne Rooney and me; in fact, we were united in disagreement with this somewhat dictatorial view of our craft. Last month 
I tackled the moral obligation assumption, together with the truly weird idea that anyone would strive to create anodyne stories for any audience, let alone children.  

Now for the last part of the quotation. Given that these critics were writing about trends since the 1970s, I wondered what had upset them.  The answer? Writers such as Jacqueline Wilson, it turns out, with her realistic portrayal of children from broken homes like The Suitcase Kid and Tracy Beaker.

From a social history point of view, this is fascinating. You could argue that Wilson is actually following her Victorian predecessors in depicting children in difficult, lonely situations; all that has changed is that’s she’s updated the reason for their plight from parental death (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, Kim), to the present day realism of divorce and single parenthood.  Her heroes may go through painful predicaments but they learn to deal with and surmount them, just as the unloved and neglected orphans of the century before. Tracy’s acute sense of abandonment leads her to behave badly; but then so does Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, until she finds friends who actually care about her. Rather than children being disturbed by such realism, fiction can do a valuable job of making those struggling in similar situations feel less alone.
The Secret Garden

I’d have had more sympathy with Cadogan and Craig if their statement referred to the more recent genre of Young Adult fiction. While not strictly intended for children, YA books are allowed to compete against children’s books in literary prizes, with the result that in the last seven years, five of the winners of both Carnegie and Costa Children’s awards have been books whose plots involve dystopia, war, violence, rape, death, torture, incarceration, terminal illness, suicide and other equally cheerful themes. Topics not so much painful as positively agonising. Of eight books on this year's shortlist, all bar one - Frank Cottrell Boyce's Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth - are classed as YA. 

Our author panel at the Newnham Literary Archive Event mused on possible reasons behind this flowering of such depressing literature, much of it wonderfully written by some of the best authors around today.  My theory is that the genre has grown out of computer games, with their linear narratives involving fantasy kingdoms, fast action and blood all over the screen.

Fighting their way out of SATS tests
But I was much taken by an audience suggestion that its roots may lie in the overwhelming bureaucratisation of the education system, allowing teenagers to escape to a simpler - if grimmer - world in which you just fight your way out of the endless pressure of SATS tests and GCSEs.

Whatever the reason, it is unfair that YA is allowed to dominate the children’s book awards, simply because there is no separate category for this genre. And I wonder if publishers realise that their biggest readership – far from being teenagers – is young people in their 20s and 30s. Go to any YA event at a literary festival and you’ll see what I mean. If Patrick Ness is appearing, you’ll probably find my sons there (26 and 29). YA fiction being read by young adults, then.

Or as we used to call them, adults.

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:

and her children's books:

Ante's Inferno 


The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst

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