When is a Young Adult not a Young Adult?

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Newnham College, Cambridge, library

Weeks later, I’m still chewing over something that came up in the Writing for Children Event I spoke at in Cambridge recently. A quotation was put to me and fellow panellists Mary Hoffman and Sue Limb, from an article written by children’s literature critics, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig:

‘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.’

Tracy BeakerI tackled the moral obligation assumption bit already, plus the truly weird idea that anyone would strive to create anodyne stories for any audience, let alone children.  As 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, Kim), to the present day realism of divorce and single parenthood.  KimHer 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 Sarah 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.Houghton_AC85_B9345_911s_-_Secret_Garden,_1911_-_cover

I’d have had more sympathy with Cadogan and Craig if their quotation 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 7 years, 5 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. maze-runner-trailer-2-11Topics 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. 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 world where you can just fight your way out of the endless pressure of SATS tests and GCSEs.

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Fighting their way out of SATS tests

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.

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How to write for children: be anodyne. Apparently.

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Mary Hoffman, Anne Rooney, me, Sue Limb

Last Saturday I was invited back to my university college to take part in a fascinating Literary Archive Day discussing children’s literature, inspired by the Rogers Collection, a wonderful treasure trove of children’s books donated to Newnham College in the late nineteenth century. No other college library in Cambridge – or Oxford, I believe, though someone will probably put me right – has anything to match this. What better reason to gather together a bunch of Newnhamite children’s authors?

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The Rogers Collection

Christina Hardyment and Caroline Lawrence gave superb talks on Arthur Ransome and Mythic Tropes in Children’s Fiction respectively, while I made up a panel with Mary Hoffman and Sue Limb to discuss how children’s writing has changed over the last few decades. An excellent opening speech from Dr Gill Sutherland (‘A child who does not feel wonder is merely an inlet for apple pie’) gave us plenty to, um, chew over, but one phrase in particular bothered me so much I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Dr Sutherland quoted those authorities on children’s literature, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig, who talk about ‘the sense of moral obligation, which governs all writing for children’.

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Apple pie awaiting an inlet.

Now, I have no problem with children’s books having a moral framework, indeed it’s quite hard to write one without. The main characters should feel like real people with strengths and weaknesses; for the story to be satisfying, they need to develop, to be affected by the things that happen to them, just as they would be in real life. They learn from their mistakes, they come through trials and are stronger for it. This works for much adult fiction too. But – a sense of moral obligation governing all writing for children?

No. The moment the message is put above everything else – plot, character, structure, credibility – any hope of a decent story is lost. Preaching about current moral issues – discrimination, inclusiveness, immigration – is no more appealing to present day children than such ‘improving’ books as Eric, or Little by Little, can have been to Victorian ones (though perhaps brought up with less choice and more rules, Victorian children endured such works with greater stoicism).  If you want to extend your readers’ understanding and sympathy, bind themes you care about tightly into your story. But the story must come first.

Nor was that all. Cadogan and Craig went on to lament that this sense of moral obligation ‘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.’

This statement opens up so many issues I scarcely know where to begin. First, did writers really seek to keep their stories anodyne, eschewing all painful topics? Not E Nesbit, who has one of the Wouldbegoods become dangerously ill when his siblings make him catch cold so they can try out their homemade medicine on him.
Not F Hodgson Burnett, whose Little Princess suffers cruelty and deprivation at the hands of the mercenary adults entrusted with her care. Not C S Lewis, portraying the sick mother in The Magician’s Nephew, or the heroes of The Last Battle being overwhelmed by tyranny and treachery.

In fact, something much more interesting has happened. Themes that were judged acceptable in the works of earlier children’s writers would cause outrage now. What exactly is ‘anodyne’ about Jo March’s pet bird being allowed to starve to death – with her mother’s knowledge – in order for all the Little Women to learn a lesson about responsibility?
Or take one of my all time favourite children’s books, The Log of the Ark by Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey: a delightfully warm, hilarious account of the Great Flood in which, unbeknownst to Noah, an evil animal slinks on board, corrupting the gentleness of the other beasts and ensuring the weaker ones go to the wall. I can’t see this great classic being reprinted in today’s climate – or ever. Much too painful for 9 year-olds to read.

In other words, good writing for children has never been anodyne. The books that have endured and become classics didn’t shirk difficult topics, indeed only by presenting moral conflict realistically at the heart of a gripping story can authors engage the reader, allowing him or her to absorb any ‘lessons’ without realising it. No adult wants to read an anodyne novel; why on earth should a child?

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The library of Newnham College, Cambridge

Of course there was no time to say all this on Saturday. Instead, Sue, Mary, our skilful chairman, Anne Rooney and I thunderously agreed to disagree with Cadogan and Craig, using their views as a jumping off point for much fascinating discussion of subject matter, structures of myth and traditional tales, the rise of Young Adult books and who reads them – all of which will have to wait for another post.

And speaking of YA, did you, like me, assume that the offending statement came in the last year or so, in the wake of so many children’s book awards given to stories whose themes number war, dystopia, terminal illness, cruelty, incarceration, torture and violence, all graphically described?

Nope. They were talking about the 1970s.

Sigh.

The People’s Book Prize – Spring Collection – Children – “The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst” By Griselda Heppel

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst By Griselda Heppel

Published by Matador ISBN 9781784623043   The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVERSpring 2016

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst has reached the FINALS of the People’s Book Prize. Follow the link below to read more and VOTE!  The winner of each category is decided entirely by public vote so it’s up to you. Closing date: 10 July.

Thank you!

Synopsis:  In the shadows of Walton Hall a demon lurks. His name: Mephistopheles. In 1586,…

Source: The People’s Book Prize – Spring Collection – Children – “The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst” By Griselda Heppel

10 things I want my readers to know about me…

… as told to Female First.  This wonderful website invited me to make a list and after some scratching of head and counting of fingers (I have ten, which helps the arithmetical aspect no end), I got there.

If you want to know (course you do) what made me become a writer instead of a giraffe

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The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVER

 

 

 

 

and find out about the inspiration behind my books, go to http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/books/the-tragickall-history-of-henry-fowst-griselda-heppel-902169.html

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3 schools, 2 hundred miles, 1 tired author

But a very happy one.

Last week I drove the many-roundabouted way from Oxford to Cambridgeshire, visiting first Stretham Primary, a lovely village school near Ely. The Year 5/6 teacher had bought a dozen copies of Ante’s Inferno for her class – would I come and talk to the children about it?

Stretham Primary School

Stretham Primary School

You bet I would. I love sharing the backgrounds to my books, in this case Dante’s Inferno, Greek mythology and the First World War. And don’t let anyone tell you that those subjects are beyond the understanding of the average 10 year-old. With the aid of some dark, atmospheric illustrations by Botticelli, Blake and Dore projected on a screen, the children at Stretham easily grasped the idea of Dante’s Hell being based on the Ante thumbnailclassical Underworld, complete with Styx, Charon, Cerberus, Minotaur etc.  I asked them lots of questions as I went along and – as happens every time – the children were delighted to find they know more than they think they do, both about classical mythology and how to write a story. Some had already read Ante’s Inferno but most hadn’t, which is what I normally expect – much more fun to leave them desperate to read the book once I’m gone.

From one extreme to another – the mixed 5/6 Year group at Stretham Primary numbered 30 children. The next day I found myself in a hall at the King’s School, Ely, watching 160 students file in: the whole of Years 7 and 8, come to hear me talk about my new book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst. OK, I’ve talked to large groups before but this was definitely the largest; a challenge to the lungs on my side and to concentration on theirs. Luckily both held up. Sinister Faustian pacts and Elizabethan magic intrigued the students, and while I am (fairly) certain that none of them will be tempted to call up a demon, it was very exciting to find a long line of 12 and 13 year-olds waiting for me in the library afterwards, eager to buy a copy.

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The King’s School, Ely

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVER

 

 

Third visit was on Monday, back in Oxford, to Year 7 at Leckford Place – a school I have a particularly soft spot for, as it hosted one of my first Ante’s Inferno talks. Here the teacher had prepared the students beforehand. While not strictly necessary, it does mean they get even more out of the talk; for the first time, everyone in the room knew what a Faustian pact was.  Lots of hands went up to answer my questions and even more to quiz me afterwards – and at least two thirds of the group clustered round me at the end for copies of the book.

And all without recourse to any charms, incantations, spells, astrological forecasts or even the tinsy-winsiest Faustian pact. Honest.

We Need New Pigeon Holes

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I’m delighted to be asked by Writers’ and Artists’ Year book to write an article for their website.  Here it is: WANTED: A New Category in Children’s Books

My chance to air a subject close to my heart: the problem presented to children’s writers by pigeon holes imposed by the book trade (don’t say that with your mouth full).

Picture: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5c/TooManyPigeons.jpg/1024px-TooManyPigeons.jpg

5 top pacts with the devil in literature

The Faustian pact – we all know what it means. The idea of selling your soul to the devil in return for great wealth and power holds a powerful grip on the imagination; it can be applied to all kinds of dubious bargains, the whiff of danger adding excitement to the fantastic amount of money/power/enjoyment you expect to get out of the deal. How can that not make a good story?

To celebrate the imminent publication of The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, here are five top devilish pacts in literature:

  1. To begin at the beginning… the Bible. You expected Marlowe, didn’t you? Nope. God got there first.  The Book of Job is the story of a good, faithful, man being put through terrible suffering, and all because God
    Copyright the State Library of NSW

    Copyright the State Library of NSW

    has a bet with Satan (seriously) over Job’s soul. Pointing out that Job is only good because he has an easy life, Satan gets God to agree that Satan can test Job’s faith by piling calamities on him. ‘ “All right, the Lord said to Satan, “everything he has is in your power, but you must not hurt Job himself.”’ (Job 1, v 12, Good News Bible). Job comes through with flying colours (all the more amazing since Satan interprets ‘not hurting Job himself’ pretty loosely, killing his whole family and covering him with boils) and God wins the bet.

  1. Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. For the English-speaking world at least, this is the great setting of the myth that grew round Dr Johannes Faust, a sinister alchemist and magician who lived in SLIDE 4          Doctor FaustusGermany in the early 16th Marlowe has Faustus offer the demon, Mephistopheles, his soul in exchange for 24 years in which he might

Live in all voluptuousness;

            Having thee ever to attend on me;

            To give me whatsoever I shall ask

            To tell me whatsoever I demand,

            To slay mine enemies, and aid my friends,

            And always be obedient to my will.

            (Doctor Faustus, Scene III)

Heady stuff – but you’d have to have tapioca for brains not to see that 24 years is hardly a good deal. Faustus fools himself by not really believing in damnation – ‘Come, I think hell’s a fable.’ (Doctor Faustus, Scene IV).  Big mistake.

  1. Goethe, Faust. The great 18th century German poet and dramatist took the Faust story and rooted it firmly in the Book of Job, making Faust’s soul the stake of a wager between God and Mephistopheles. Faust has a thirst for knowledge, a scientific curiosity impossible to satisfy because there are more secrets in the universe than he can ever discover. SLIDE 6 Goethe-Faust-Mephistopheles promises to fulfil his every wish in return for his soul; but just as God bets the demon that Faust will ultimately return to Him, so Faust bets Mephistopheles that the demon can’t win his soul because Faust knows he will never be satisfied:

When, to the moment then, I say:

Ah, stay a while! You are so lovely!

Then you can grasp me.http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/FaustIScene IVtoVI.htm

In league with the devil, Faust now enjoys himself immensely and does some terrible things but his mind remains ever restless, striving to know and experience more. And paradoxically, it is this striving that saves him in the end because ‘Whoever strives,’ say the angels, ‘can be redeemed.’  Faust II, Line 11936

  1. Peter SchlemihlAdalbert von Chamisso, Peter Schlemihl. This children’s story written in 1814 adds a new twist: Peter Schlemihl sells the devil not his soul, but
    his shadow, in return for a bottomless wallet. The loss of his shadow makes Peter an outcast but when the devil offers to return the shadow in exchange for his soul, Peter is wise enough to resist him.
  1. The Devil and Homer Simpson (Treehouse of Horror IV).  OK, not literature as such but how could I not include Homer selling 250px-Glazed-Donuthis soul to the devil in exchange for a doughnut? Fortunately for Homer it turns out that his soul wasn’t his to sell in the first place, having given it away to Marge on their wedding day. Ahhhhhhhh.

From the sublime to the ridiculous – but then folk legend has always been packed with stories of simple people tricking the devil. And what unites Homer Simpson, Faust, Schlemiel and all those colourful literary characters who bargain with the devil is an urgent need they can find no other way of meeting. So when plotting my children’s version of the Faust story, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, the one question I had to answer was, what great need would drive 13 year-old Henry Fowst – and his 16th century counterpart, 12 year-old John Striven – to make a pact with a demon?

Well, I’ll give you a clue.

It isn’t a doughnut.