By Kira Taylor @kirataylor15
It was the age-old question – how much explicit content should there be in children’s literature?
David Almond pointed out that he had never had a child complain to him about explicit content. It may be that it is parents who are gatekeeping, scared of awkward conversations which at some point need to be had.
Books for me have always been a way to understand the world. My parents were always very concerned about the amount of death in Michael Morpurgo books, but for me, the hurt was something containable. As soon as I shut the book, it didn’t hurt. It’s that talent of children to be sad one moment and happy the next.
More than this, Morpurgo’s books explained a foreign concept of death to me, so that when it did occur in my life, although destructive, I was aware that I wasn’t the only person in the world who had felt this.
Similarly, Zoe Marriot’s book Shadows On The Moon gave me an understanding of depression and being out of control. The more we understand these feelings, the more capable we are of understanding them and overcoming them ourselves.
It’s why I was so shocked that the panel discussed how Charlotte’s Web had been removed from some American schools because it contained elements of sadness. David Almond said that he had been asked not to talk about Kit’s Wilderness, a book that explores death to soothe it, in a school suffering from a massacre.
David Fickling added to this, pointing out that children will simply grow bored with a book and put it down if they don’t understand. In effect, they self-censor. He said for books such as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, the content grows worse as we grow older because we understand it more.
For me, controversial topics are good, but rather than romanticising themes such as death, we should show the humanity within the gritty situation. We should not simply make them “okay”.
But there has to be a balance between controversial topics and plot. For me, books can overstep the line and become too controversial. I’ve read books that I simply don’t want to read, but have to because they are set texts for class.
Covering controversial topics works better if it is subtly weaved into the book and not blaring out. If it overshadows the narrative too much, it just becomes a focus on the unpleasant scenes and I forget what the real meaning is.
For instance, The Handmaid’s Tale contained so many sex scenes and unpleasant content that those scenes became the plot and it was hard for me to see the message, especially when I didn’t want to read it.
The discussion also looked at prejudices we hold about books. I was challenged by the thought of reading a book with pictures in. For me, pictures would imply a much younger child’s book, but should this be the case? David Almond talked about fluidity between art forms.
Pictures can work to emphasise the words, not lower the reading age.
I was also challenged on my view of age restrictions on books. Meg Rosoff talked about needing a “horizontal band of good quality writing”, but in libraries and bookstores, there’s so much emphasis on age and what’s appropriate; if it’s a good novel and has a point, is there any reason why people who’ll understand it can’t read it?
The most poignant point for me that seemed to sum up the discussion was David Almond’s comment about how writing for children is about looking to the future. It’s not about creating a “rose glow”, but it is a chance for change. Books open doors into unexplored worlds, but if someone else holds the key, people can’t access them. We should allow anyone to read anything they want and not categorise books.