The Terrifying World of Children’s Fiction

Should we really be concerned about “scary” children’s fiction? (Image c/o ‘smil on Flickr.)

Jess Haigh wrote the following post in response to author GP Taylor’s recent suggestion that children’s books need age certification. It was originally posted on the Leeds Book Club blog and is reproduced here with permission.

GP Taylor, Cloughton’s Famous Son, has been blathering on the radio creating mounds of self publicity drumming up awareness of the horror that is children’s fiction. It Has Gone Too Far, he says, There Is No Innocence Any More. The Children, it would seem, Are Not Being Thought Of.

This from a man whose books, set around my home town, include evil sorcerers, vampires, and close encounters with death. A man who also, in his former life as an Anglican vicar, represented a religion that teaches children the story of a man who was born in a stable, as a five week old infant chased out of the place of his birth because of mass infanticide, regularly encountered deprivation and disease and was tortured to death, as a lifestyle choice.

Children’s books are often derided for being ‘too’ scary, depressing, or dis-heartening. They encounter too much loss and heartache too young and there is far too much violence. To a point, I would agree. I’ve been reading Michael Grant’s Gone series along with a 12 year old mate of mine, and there are some parts when I think ‘should she really be reading about this teenager having his arms burnt off and replaced with whip-like tentacles? Should she really be reading about teenagers seeing their siblings die in horrible, horrible ways?’. Then I, you know, talk to her about what she is reading and she absolutly loves it. She refuses to read books that aren’t massively violent-these books reflect for her an exciting world. And she knows violence is wrong, she doesn’t get into fights, we TALK about how the books make us feel and we learn from the emotions that come up.

Children need the darkness, just like adults do. There is reason we used to sneak-watch scary movies when we were kids, because we enjoy them. Controlled fear is good for us*, in moderation, it allows us to express emotions we otherwise would have no outlet to. And there is a massive difference anyway between gore and fear-a teenager bashing the heads of Zombies in with ski poles like the heroine of the excellent Undead by Kirsty McKay is a lot different to the chills up the spine of The Yellow Wallpaper.

It is the ‘there is too many troubled children with absent parents’ line that worries me, because this is segregating differently parented children and families into Universal vs Adults only. Josie Smith, one of my favourite series as a very young child, doesn’t have a dad, a fact that is made clear from the start. Is GP Taylor going to have an excellent series of books that shows a functioning single parent family many of the younger readers could either emphasise with, or learn to have empathy for, struck off because it doesn’t fit in with his ascribed lifestyle? There are books about kids being abandoned, stuck in poverty, and troubled because kids are abandoned, stuck in poverty and troubled. Something which the various religious institutions, for all their good works, have completely failed to deal with. There is a reason misereographies are so popular- 1 in 3 children will have suffered from neglect or abuse in their life time. 1.6 million children in the UK live in poverty- almost half of the children in Hyde Park in Leeds do. Why should these children’s lives, albeit fictional accounts, be repressed as not suitable for a wider audience? Why should a child, living on their own or in care, or as a carer, or with parents who don’t care, why should that child not be able to find relatable characters in fiction books because some one whose life is OK thinks it not suitable for them?

What needs to happen, what really needs to happen, is for the ludicrousy of this scheme to get more publicity, but also for library campaigners to jump on it. THIS is why you need qualified, motivated people in the schools who read and love and know the books, who can recommend accordingly, who know how to sensitively and not patronisingly steer away from the triggers, who will not compromise on freedom of speech but will recommend and lend wisely. Also know as, you guessed it, LIBRARIANS. Not ONE single political party supports A Librarian For Every School. This is the sort of thing that shows that they are needed and, if allowed to be so, could be incredibly valued.

Children are always going to like fictionalised violence, because adults like fictionalised violence. The Orange Prize received a lot of slack for being too depressing a couple of years ago. Until the world is made of sunshine and rainbows, though, we need our fiction to be relatable, not boring, and we need, more than anything, to be able to trust our children to make choices for themselves, be able to talk to them about what they read and deal with what it brings up accordingly.

That’s what I think, anyway.

*Read Bettelheim’s the Uses of Enchantment, it is excellent, and says all this stuff far more eloquently

One thought on “The Terrifying World of Children’s Fiction

  1. Pam Riley

    I’ve been picking up on this debate over the last few days on BBC breakfast. We had the excellent Patrick Ness and G.P. Taylor talking about this issue and today we had Eowyn Colfer (promoting the final Artemis Fowl Book) adding his comments. I also had the very vocal and well informed input of my two teenage daughters. Censorhip does not work, that is clear. If parents are worried about what their kids are watching and reading, they should get engaged, read the blurb and the first chapter a Eoin Colfer suggested. My daughter got me into Patrick Ness. She lent me her copy of the Knife of Never Letting Go when I was going on a conference and I now raid her bookshelf on a regular basis. Apart from being a Librarian in a 6th form college, I am involved with a charity working with 9 – 13 year olds and constantly amazed by their imagination and resiliance. G.P.Taylor is obviously responsible for his own creative output and if he felt he oversteped the mark himself in his writing(as he felt he had in the Vampire Labyrinth) then that is clearly a matter for his own self regulation, but we cannot impose an censorship/classification standard on children’s books. Who would decide what was suitable? Patrick Ness made the point that it is honesty which important and if you are not honest in your writing, no discerning young person is going to read your books anyway.

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