It has been claimed that we are in the midst of a new ‘golden age’ of children’s literature, with books aimed at a young audience more popular than ever before, and a wider variety of books aiming to appeal to every level and interest.
This evening’s talk was partly inspired by the 200th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare, which censored the risqué elements of the Bard’s plays to make them suitable for children according to the morality of the times. Bowdler was incredibly grateful when, returning to the plays as a grown man, he discovered that his own father had censored parts of the play while telling them to his family, and undertook to do the same for young readers whose parents were less judicious than his own.
While this may seem over-prescriptive, if not absurd, to modern sensibilities, a counter-example suggests that there may be value in Bowdler’s project. Earlier this year during a PEN event in South London, part of the Readers & Writers programme, at which panellist Meg Rosoff was present, of a group of 13- and 14-year-olds who had read Meg’s first novel, How I Live Now, many – particularly the boys – were shocked and disgusted by parts of the book, which includes scenes of a sexual nature between cousins.
How far is it possible or desirable for us to protect children from difficult, troubling subject matter, and indeed from the outside world itself? And would they, as those South London boys appear to, like to be lent that kind of protection? Do we need a Bowdler for the 21st century? In order to explore this and other conundrums, we are incredibly lucky to have a panel of four of Britain’s leading writers for children – Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen, Meg Rosoff and Jacqueline Wilson.
As the discussion opened, Meg Rosoff said that in her experience, disadvantaged young people often want to project themselves away from their own troubles, rather than take on the troubles of a fictional protagonist. However, Michael Morpurgo doesn’t believe that children necessarily desire escapism in their books. A former children’s laureate and author of a number of WWII-set novels, he says that he wrote about war “because it concerns everyone – it’s central to the human condition, and it’d be absurd to avoid the topic.” Children are connected to war, they see it on TV and are made aware of it by other media – they know “perfectly well something horrible’s gone on,” so any efforts to ignore such issues – or more importantly, deny children’s interest in them – are largely futile.
The question was posed whether the panelists were conscious of feeling responsible towards children’s sensibilities, which are often deemed more fragile than adults, and about how you should deal with subjects like depression and suicide?
Meg Rosoff “does not buy” the idea that kids can be corrupted by books. Similarly, Jacqueline Wilson believes that kids want to read as widely and in-depth as possible about all subjects; however, there are a small number of exceptionally vulnerable children who can become obsessed by certain aspects of books. The difficulty is that they do tend to take everything in, without having the same critical faculties as adults do. She gave the example of a child suffering from leukaemia who got the impression from one of her books that all children with leukaemia will die. The girl’s mother wrote a vitriolic six-page letter to the author in response.
However, Michael Rosen questioned whether we can take it as given that children are more ‘fragile’ than adults, adding that he’s received mostly positive responses from parents about those of his books which deal with difficult or upsetting topics. Meg Rosoff ventured that children are interested in issues like death in a way that adults are not, because “their shutters aren’t down” – they have a vulnerability to big ideas, a greater openness and interest. The difficulty of negotiating between children’s curiosity about important issues and their vulnerability to those issues, is evidently not one that can be easily resolved.
It was asked whether the authors, as adults writing for kids, perform self-censorship as they think into the mind of a child?
Michael Rosen, the current children’s laureate, said that “when you write you create a code about yourself, you contextualise yourself” – you very quickly get a sense of the audience that the text’s writing itself to, and as such it’s not so much censorship as it is writing to an audience that you know – and kids are an audience that you know: you were one, or you may know some.
As part of knowing that audience, it was asked whether it is important for a children’s author to read other children’s books?
Jacqueline Wilson, said that kids often assume that authors have read other children’s books, but she reads purely according to her interests. She does read a few of prize-winners, as it’s important to keep up, and gets roped into judging awards, but reads adult books for the most part. She doesn’t enjoy reading massively-hyped books, as they’re either not worth it or are better than her own.
With two former and one current children’s laureates in the room, it was asked how the role had developed over the years?
Michael Morpurgo, the sixth laureate, called it a daunting, intimidating role, but described his focus in the job as trying to get kids and teachers to realise the worth of stories e.g. in creating empathy. “The greatest legacy we can give to our children is to tell and to pass on stories,” he said. The joy of stories has been “swallowed up by illiteracy.” While there are many excellent schools, the national curriculum can stifle creativity and enthusiasm, and discourage reading.
Jacqueline Wilson, the fifth laureate, went the length of the country giving talks, and visited many excellent schools. She found that it’s often difficult for classes to finish books within the given timeframe, and thinks it’s important to guide children towards the classics they might not otherwise find. Shortage of resources can also be a problem. The curriculum can chop up classics into chunks for study. She also lamented the fact that kids don’t appear to be read to any longer, by their parents or teachers. “My main thrust [as laureate] was to show that it’s lovely to read aloud to your child,” she said. Ten minutes isn’t much time at all, but if you can do it from a young age they grow up as readers.
Michael Rosen, the current children’s laureate, identified the problem as that the government can prescribe the exact content of lessons. Phonics is the only method of learning to read that is promoted, but they aren’t as prescriptive about what kids should be encouraged to read, and which books they should own. In fact, the government relies on NGOs like Booktrust to make sure kids receive books.
Meg Rosoff described how schools are under pressure to get kids up to a “level of achievement” to “functional literacy.” It was observed that “literature has been dropped in favour of literacy.”
Michael Morpurgo’s opinion was that the government has arranged things to ‘tick the box’ targets, whereas “with storytelling, the target is life-enrichment, and this can’t be measured.” So much, he said, is down to the individual creativity and excellence of the teachers. He spoke of how people, and children in particular, “catch fire” when speakers and teachers hold forth on their subjects with passion.
However, Meg Rosoff pointed out that teachers can’t excel in all areas, and many, especially those who have trained for the primary sector, may be better mathematicians than storytellers. A solution to this problem, suggested by Michael Rosen, was that there should be a school-wide policy where teachers’ individual strengths don’t detract from the kids’ all-round experience. “It’s presented that we “haven’t got time for that froth,” but storytelling is fundamental to culture, and to childrens’ development,” he went on.
It was asked whether children should be more involved with the educational process, in terms of the curriculum and decision making. Michael Rosen suggested that children should be asked, at the beginning of the week, What questions have you got? The class could then choose a few of these questions, and pursue them in the course of the week. Children have lots of questions, and it should be one of the main purposes of education should be to facilitate their finding out. Rosen claimed that we are stuck on a Greek model of education, that works on the assumption that there is a body of knowledge, a canon, that should be ingested. This is completely anachronistic in a democratic information age, where kids have access to an unlimited amount of information.
Jacqueline responded that a lot of teachers would be uncomfortable without the structure that a curriculum provides. But literature is hard to define, to quantify. There should, in education, be some structure, some conventions, but space should be left for unstructured creativity.
It was asked whether literature is stigmatised for children out of school, because the reading of literature is so much linked to school in their minds. It was broadly agreed that more efforts should be made by the government to ensure that children receive books to take home and keep, rather than leaving such initiatives to NGOs such as Booktrust. But should children’s literature therefore be taken out of schools altogether?
Jacqueline Wilson pointed to the bestseller charts for examples of popular children’s literature which has absolutely no links to the school curriculum. Children’s books are better sellers than they’ve ever been. There is an extraordinary variety of books out there, and something for everyone.
The evening’s talk was dedicated to the memory of Siobhan Dowd, co-founder of PEN’s Readers & Writers programme, which places leading authors face-to-face with their readers and non-readers in schools, prisons and young offenders’ centres. Dowd was also an extremely accomplished writer for children – her first book, A Swift, Pure Cry, was published in 2006, followed by The London Eye Mystery. Siobhan had completed two further novels by the time of her premature death due to breast cancer this summer.
As ever, English PEN would like to thank all our panelists for taking part in such a thought-provoking discussion. Many thanks also to Waitrose, for providing the post-event wine.
Report by Ross Fulton
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/anewgoldenage/