How to get girls and boys excited about Dante

Griselda HeppelStay me with cups of tea (eh?),my-cup-of-tea comfort me with flagons…  (Ha, that’s more like it.)

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More restorative than tea?

Forgive the euphoria – I’ve just come to the end of the busiest week of school visits ever.  So, OK, four schools in seven days is nothing to the really seasoned children’s author; but with all the organisation involved, the much emailing to and fro between me and teachers who, let’s face it, are already up to their eyes in work and school activities, I count just fixing a day and format as a Major Achievement.  It’s wonderful, then, when a string of visits round a particular theme come together, as they did during this year’s season of Remembrance.

Ante Passchendaele jacketAnte’s Inferno has undergone a special Passchendaele Centenary (1917 – 2017) reprinting, with a redesigned jacket that brings out its WW1 theme more strongly than before. If you’re wondering what connects a children’s version of Dante’s Inferno with this most horrific of all battles, the clue lies in Siegfried Sassoon’s famous lines:

                    I died in Hell –

(They called it Passchendaele).

I’m happy to visit schools at any time, talking to 9 – 13 year-olds about Greek Mythology, Dante, and how I updated his 700 year old poem to create an exciting, scary, and at times amusing murder mystery story in its own right; but my emphasising the Passchendaele theme made it natural for schools to choose this week for my visit. I’ve had a wonderful time, in single sex – both girls’ and boys’ – and co-educational schools, with numbers ranging from a cosy 22 to a thoroughly daunting 300.

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Magnificent hall at Dulwich College, ready for 300 boys. Gulp.  

All of these visits remind me why I love writing for this age – it’s the time when children’s imagination and enthusiasm for books can be at their highest, while their emotional development enables them to take on complex issues and depths of meaning in a way they’re not always given credit for.  CCCS signing 1

My switched on, sparky, and well-informed audiences at Wychwood, Dragon, Christ Church Cathedral Schools and Dulwich College proved this in spades – thank you, all!

Oh, and one final thing – all that stuff about girls reading books with a boy hero but boys refusing to do the same when the hero is a girl… it’s bunkum.  Give boys a chance, people!

 

 

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How not to be boys and girls

No more boys and girls - BBC 2

Dr Javid Abdelmoneim with pupils from Lanesend School, Isle of Wight

If you missed BBC 2’s fascinating class room experiment with 7 year-olds, No More Boys and Girls; can our kids go gender free?, catch it on iPlayer while you can. It’s a revelation, and not in a good way. By challenging some of the silly stereotypes that children of this age have, sadly, already taken on board, the idea was to show all of them, whatever sex, that with regard to what they want to do in life, the sky’s the limit. ‘Everyone can choose to be anything they want,’ cried one boy after discovering that, just as girls can become car mechanics and architects, so can boys go in for ballet and make-up artistry.  Hurrah!

Good news though this is, I can’t help asking – why is it news? How, in the name of our children’s health, did we get to the point where 7 year-olds – interviewed before the experiment – have already decided that ‘girls are good at being pretty’ and ‘boys are better at being in charge’?  Nearly 100 years after women won the vote and with rafts of Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination legislation on the statute book, sexist stereotypes are aliver and weller than they have ever been.  I’m so cross I don’t even care that those aren’t words.

Because while we can all be guilty of following – instead of questioning – traditional lines of thought, the real villains are those creating traditions that were never there before.  Yup, the manufacturing companies. The people who tell us not just that boys wear blue and girls wear pink (yawn, yawn), but that boys’ shoes are Leaders, tough enough to run around in, climb trees and yes, be in charge, whereas girls must wear flimsy Dolly Babes (thank you, Clarkes, who until now I held in high esteem).

The Amazing Boys' Colouring BookThe divide goes further: that great universal building toy, Lego (remember when it was just red and white bricks?) now comes in sets with names like ‘Andrea’s and Stephanie’s Beach Holiday,’ ‘Emma’s Ice Cream Van,’ and ‘Willy’s Butte Speed Training.’ Even such a basic activity as colouring isn’t immune, with The Amazing Boys’ Colouring Book (‘This exciting colouring book contains fantastic illustrations to inspire budding young artists to create their own masterpieces. The Gorgeous Girls' Colouring Book

From wacky robots and machines to exciting space scenes, medieval knights, massive monsters, motor cars and much, much more’)  paired with one for  Gorgeous Girls’ (From dolls’ houses, flowers, cupcakes and quilts, to exotic fruit, feathers and fairytale carriages, there’s something for every girl in this book’).

When challenged, the standard response from toy/clothes/shoes/book/household goods manufacturers is that they are giving customers what they want – an outrageous claim, since by creating gender-based products they are removing all choice of buying universal ones. Sneaky, too, since the real reason is screamingly obvious: profit. Divide the market and you double it.

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The Paw Patrol – but where is Skye?

Buy pink wellies for your daughter and your son will refuse to wear them, so you can’t pass them on and will have to shell out for new blue/black/grey/spiderman etc ones for him. Indeed, when it comes to merchandising, the manufacturers go further: Skye, the only female character from the popular series, Paw Patrol, is inexplicably absent from ‘boys’ wellies and china,

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Skye – just not blue enough.

while with Peppa Pig, Peppa herself is reserved for ‘girls’ items and the poor lads have to make do with George.

As a children’s writer, I find this very depressing.We are told all the time that girls will read stories about boys, while boys won’t read ones about girls. From my talks to boys in all kinds of schools, I’m convinced this needn’t be the case; but if the message feeding through from infancy is that adventure, excitement, climbing trees, fighting monsters, building space rockets and flying to the moon are for boys only, who can blame them for assuming that a book with girl characters won’t have any of this kind of stuff?

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Rocket & dinosaurs for George; beads & mirror for Peppa

Both hero and opponent of my first book, Ante’s Inferno, were girls, with a boy being the other main character. My next title, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, was peopled almost exclusively by boys; while the cast of my current wip, The Call of a Sparrow, is nearly all girls. I don’t do this deliberately, it just happens. In all of the books, much is demanded of the main characters: bravery, quick-thinking, endurance, survival, a willingness to risk injury – even death – in pursuit of their cause. I hope this is what will count when arranging school visits, not the sex of my characters; but I know from bestselling writer Robin Stevens’ experience that I may have a fight on my hands. The author of the brilliant detective series for children beginning with Murder Most Unladylike, in which 12 year-olds Daisy and Hazel solve crimes, has had to stipulate that while she will happily visit single-sex and mixed schools alike, she will not speak to an audience of only girls in a mixed sex school.IMG_0093

Of course boys and girls are different. But not as different, not so divided on strict gender lines as our commercially-based society is teaching them today. Baby boys used to wear dresses, for heaven’s sake. In Elizabethan times, they wore dresses until the age of 7, when they were ‘breached’. By offering our children from babyhood onward this riot of supposed choice, all we are doing is building shades of the prison house around both sexes. Which is incredibly sad.

(From an article first posted on http://www.authorselectric.blogspot.uk)

PS  Some good news: the repercussions are beginning, with John Lewis leading the way. If only all the other manufacturers would follow suit…. John Lewis is removing gender labelling from boys’ and girls’ clothes.

‘I died in Hell (They called it Passchendaele)’

hellfireWhat’s it like to be at the heart of Hell?  Very hot, in most people’s minds. Unbearably hot. The hottest and fieriest part of a mythical world in which the wicked are burnt forever in punishment for their misdeeds.

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Dante Alighieri

Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong, according to Dante Alighieri, whose first part of The Divine Comedy, the Inferno, is an imaginary descent through all the nine circles of Hell. Not about the wicked being punished – that’s non-negotiable – nor about the parts of Hell that do rage with fire (hence the modern use of Inferno to describe such terrible disasters as Grenfell Tower); but about the centre of Hell itself, the lowest circle in which the wickedest souls of all are punished. They are the traitors, betrayers of family, country, guests, benefactors and finally, God himself. There is no heat of passion in their crimes, only cold, ruthless calculation; their punishment is to be frozen forever in a vast, desolate, treeless plain, an outside manifestation of the ice in their own hearts.

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Hell freezing over for Dante and Virgil (Gustav Dore)

The depiction of Dante and Virgil stumbling among these immobile figures, trying not to kick at the heads just poking above ground, in the teeth of a bitter wind, is one of the most chilling episodes of the whole Inferno. Not only that: the Hell created here has an immediacy of detail that brings it horribly close to human experience. Take away the moral judgement aspect, pockmark the plain with craters and jab it with barbed wire fences, scatter millions of cartridge cases and pieces of shrapnel, add bursts of machine gun and shellfire, relieve the darkness sporadically with flares and waterlog the ground with steady, unceasing rain – and you have Siegfried Sassoon’s famous line: I died in Hell – (They called it Passchendaele).

Passchendaele Canadian War Museum

Passchendaele – Hell on earth. (Photo courtesy of IWM)

This is why, when updating Dante’s Hell for my children’s version of his story, Ante’s Inferno, I could think of no better way to try to match the horror of his ninth circle than to follow Sassoon’s lead. An accident at school sends 12 year-old Ante (Antonia) on a journey through the Underworld, accompanied by her worst enemy, Florence, and Gil, a boy who died 100 years before the story begins, on the eve of the First World War. At first, the three of them have to deal merely (!) with creatures and monsters from classical legend – Cerberus, Charon, harpies, the minotaur.

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Charon ferries Dante and Virgil across the Styx. (Gustav Dore)

It’s lower down that man-made instruments of destruction come into their own, culminating in the bottom of Hell consisting of a recreation of the battle of Passchendaele, arguably the most terrible of the whole war. From its beginning on 31 July until the capture of Passchendaele ridge by the Canadian Corps on 10 November, 1917, the casualties on both sides came to well over half a million: shot, blown up, gassed and even drowned, as vast areas of the ground had been churned into liquid mud many feet deep. Siegfried Sassoon wasn’t wrong. Even in light of so many other appalling WW1 battles, Passchendaele stands out.

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Australian troops at Passchendaele. (photo courtesy of IWM)

This year marks 100 years since the battle took place, an anniversary I’ll be bringing out on a number of school visits I have booked around Remembrance Day in November (I have room for more, any Year 5 – 8 teachers out there!). In honour of the Centenary, Ante’s Inferno has undergone a special reprint, the jacket updated by the addition of a haunting photograph from the Imperial War Museum.

Looking at that flat, grey, desolate wasteland of mud and stagnant water, its only features the shorn trunks of trees where once a forest had been, I think Dante would have understood.

Ante Inferno Passchendaele copy

Always assuming he’d forgive my cheek in reimagining his masterpiece in the first place…

(From a blogpost on Authors Electric  )

Three cheers for school visits!

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Demons & magic – essential for curriculum

A few weeks ago, I did one of my favourite things as a writer: visited a school. On the hottest and longest day of the year, I stood in a cool (aahhh, relief) assembly hall and spoke to two lots of 9 – 12 year-old boys, around 150 in all. Together we covered important topics that would be part of any national curriculum I had a hand in – alchemy, magical instruments, demons, Faustian pacts, corruption and abuse of power. Yup, that should equip them for dealing with whatever the world can throw at them in later life. Oh, and the crucial ingredients for what makes a good story: strong, believable characters, powerful motivation and a tight plot structure.

I involved my audience as much as possible, asking questions ranging from easy to more demanding, not because I expected them to know all the answers but because it’s extraordinary how often children can surprise themselves – and their teachers – with knowledge they didn’t know they had.

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How to draw up a Faustian pact

   

This is why I love school visits. Yes, I always hope a good number of my audience will be inspired hearing about my book (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, in this case, as you probably guessed) to queue up afterwards for a signed copy. But sharing with children the things that excite me about books, how they can not only entertain but enrich your imagination and experience with themes and images that link straight to the great classics, gives me the biggest thrill of all. You can enjoy the world of Narnia, for instance, with no idea that fauns, centaurs, dryads and naiads are all rooted in Greek mythology; ditto with the fabulous creatures and themes – hippogriffs, dragons, unicorns, the basilisk and phoenix, alchemy and shape shifting, all well-known tropes of mediaeval literature – in the Harry Potter stories. But if, having read these when young, you later on pick up a copy of Ovid or Vergil or Dante or Milton, it will feel – at least in part – like coming home.

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Hippogriff

Because my books are aimed at Years 5 – 8 (straddling the primary/secondary divide) I visit all kinds of schools, alternating between speaking to the oldest and youngest Year groups. Every school has a different – but, in my experience, always positive – atmosphere, from the most comfortable private school to the most cash-strapped state primary. I am full of admiration for the teachers who organise my visits; with all the pressures they are under already, it can’t be easy to free up several classes across a school day to attend my talk. Yet I often see from their faces – as well as the pupils’ – at the end that it’s been worth while. The experience of meeting a real, live author who takes the children on a journey they wouldn’t normally go on, can be truly exhilarating, inspiring them to take their own reading and creative writing to new levels. And that can only be good.

 Why, then, do I find it so difficult to charge a visit fee?

Initially, I reasoned I was new to this game, the main thing was to spread the word about my books while enthusing my audience with the glories of reading, and with luck, to sell a good number of copies afterwards. A few visits which didn’t quite work out like that soon toughened me up. In some schools I’d sell 60 or 70 books; in others, after talking to 120 children, only a handful. I gained in confidence that what I offer is worth having, therefore charging a fee is perfectly reasonable (I know!). But what really swung it for me was an observation by a fellow author that if we, as speakers, don’t put a value on ourselves, neither will schools. My ‘generosity’ (ok, cowardice) in waiving a fee makes it much harder for another author to charge one, and time spent away from writing needs to pay its way, or how can a writer make a living?

   The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst Cover for MATADORThus chastened, I do now charge for visits, plus expenses. It’s the piece of information I dread giving, even though the modest sum named is well below the rates recommended by the Society of Authors. Thankfully, most schools are fine with it, though I still can’t get over the brazenness of one private school in the wealthiest part of London informing me that on principle, they never pay fees or expenses to outside speakers. Needless to say, plans for my visit stopped right there and I was left hoping that the same principle didn’t extend to the school’s own teachers, administrative and catering staff.

   So if you know of any school who’d like their Years 5, 6, 7, 8 inspired by an author talk ranging from Greek mythology to the First World War (Ante’s Inferno), or from alchemy to demons and Elizabethan magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), taking in the art of creating convincing characters, dialogue and story structure on the way, put them in touch with me here: 

http://www.griseldaheppel.com/contact/4587972230

SLIDE 10 The_Alchemist

Alchemy or chemistry?

I promise their students will go away with a good working knowledge of such useful concepts as the Seven Deadly Sins and what exactly constitutes a Faustian pact.

Knowledge like that… Well, you can’t put a price on it, can you?

 

(Adapted from an article on Authors Electric Blogspot 1.07.17)

How to get rid of the parents

What do these children’s books – or series – have in common?IMG_0097

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1905
The Chalet School by Elinor Brent Dyer, 1925 – 1970
Malory Towers Enid Blyton, 1946 – 1951
Down with Skool by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, 1953
Harry Potter by J K Rowling, 1997 – 2007
The Dragonfly Pool by Eve Ibbotson, 2008
Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke, 2012
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens, 2014

The list isn’t exhaustive. I could have begun with Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and Tom Brown’s Schooldays but that’s going a little too far back and besides, those great classics don’t generally count as children’s books. By now you’ll have got it: these are all stories set in boarding schools, a type of establishment reserved for the pampered offspring of only the very wealthiest in society – or at least, that’s how it’s seen today. IMG_0091
As a children’s author, you’d be mad to use an environment totally alien to the experience of 95% of your audience, with more than a whiff of a bygone age about it. Wouldn’t you? Tell most adults that the plot of your latest book takes place in a boarding school and their eyes glaze over. ‘Oh, that old thing again,’ is the message, sometimes spoken out loud.

Yet that’s not how children feel. Look at that list again. The first four titles do belong to a different era, or even several, dating from 1905 to 1970. But the other four are highly successful works by contemporary authors, who’ve created brilliant stories against backgrounds ranging from a bonkers wartime school deep in the English countryside, to a ghostly cathedral school in Salisbury, to a magical castle in Scotland, to a 1920s finishing school for young ladies. Children reading these books don’t care whether boarding schools are old-fashioned or divisive: what they recognize is the perfect background for a tightly structured, smooth-flowing plot, whether about ghosts or wizards or teachers being bumped off in the night. Parents (who get in the way of adventures and have to be neutralized in some way) are got rid of from the outset. Left to themselves day and night – apart from the teachers of course, who don’t count – your characters have to tackle problems, deal with enemies, fight their battles (often literally, as in the Harry Potter books), uninterrupted by school pickup time and weekends.IMG_0092
It’s the equivalent, I suppose, of sending a group of disparate adults on to an island where they are gradually murdered, one by one, or forming them into a fighting unit in a war zone. Besides, it’s hard to write a children’s adventure that doesn’t involve school in some way, unless you resort to fantasy; school is what children do. Why shouldn’t the action take place in a kind of school they don’t go to? Tuck boxes, eccentric, wild-haired teachers, talking after lights out and braving dark, shadowy corridors at midnight add to the frisson of the story.
IMG_0093So I’ll come clean now and admit it: my wip, The Fall of a Sparrow, takes place in a boarding school. Not only that, I’ve followed Eve Ibbotson’s and Robin Stevens’s example by setting the story in a different era, in this case the 1960s. Cynics may assume this is so I don’t have to bother with mobile phones and social networking but that’s not the reason. Mobiles are easily dealt with: at critical moments there’s bound to be no network, or the battery’s run out, or they’ve been dropped down the loo. For anyone who’s ever tried to get texts from their children this is all too believable.IMG_0094

Much harder to deal with is how different boarding school life is now from how it was 50 years ago, when exeats didn’t exist and school life for most boarders went on uninterrupted until Half Term. This would appal present day parents, who bring their children home at weekends and often visit them during the week as well. Phone calls, texts and emails in between times keep everyone in touch with each other. Placing your characters in predicaments that they must use all their ingenuity, courage and resourcefulness to overcome becomes increasingly challenging when in real life they’ll be home every few days, curled up on the sofa with an xbox and a cup of cocoa. A gentler, more nurturing attitude to children poses problems for the writer (though I know which I’d rather have).

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A good place for talking after lights out

So, no easy way out for my heroine, 11 year-old Ellie Cooke. Lonely, angry, terrified her past will catch up with her, she arrives at Limewood House in 1968 ready to fight her corner; only to be greeted like a long lost friend by a strange 9 year-old boy who appears out of nowhere. Who is he, and why does he think he knows her? Unravelling the dark family secret concealed under the sunny surface of Limewood plunges Ellie into mortal danger, as the house’s tragic history threatens to engulf her too.

And not a cup of cocoa in sight.

 

 

 

Not at Hogwarts on World Book Day

IMG_0011Charms, pacts with demons, magic spells, astrology and crystal balls aren’t normally subjects taught in schools (unless you’re lucky enough to attend Hogwarts). Yet for one hour last week, talking about my book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, I managed to squeeze such dark mysteries into the curriculum of three different schools, in groups ranging from 140 primary school children to smaller classes of Years 7 and 8.

Yup, that’s right, I’m talking World Book Week here, that glorious time of the year when authors are invited to descend on classrooms and school libraries, celebrating with young people the joys of reading, writing and dressing up as dubious literary figures. (Overheard in one school: ‘Sir, sir, can I come as Karl Marx?’ ‘[wearily] Well, Alex, if you can prove to me that Karl Marx’s work is literature….’)

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Books by pupils at SS Philip and James

It’s tiring and by the end of the day my voice needs much tlc (oh all right then, several cups of tea) but I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I write stories about things that excite me and to be able to pass on that excitement to young readers and see their imaginations fired up gives me a huge thrill. Each audience reacts differently: some are bursting with questions the whole way through about magic, alchemy, and how I think up my characters; others wait patiently till the end of my talk and grill me then about my ideas and way of writing. Either way it is heartening to see so much enthusiasm for books and writing among young people: well done to them, and to the teachers and librarians who inspire them!

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.