Leading your characters into temptation

On the subject of food (can you tell it’s a favourite with me?), there’s another role it can play in books, very different from the nurturing, life-enhancing way I looked at last month. Just the opposite, in fact. And while this works as a literary and moral device, it can be pretty cruel to your characters.

Serpent-goddess-eve

And so it begins…

To begin at the beginning… How does the serpent corrupt Eve in the Garden of Eden? With a crisp, juicy apple, thus setting in motion 2,000 years of imagery in which the poor apple takes the brunt of all the evil in the world. Interestingly the idea of fruit being a catalyst for trouble isn’t just a Judeo-Christian one: think of the six pomegranate seeds swallowed by Persephone when kidnapped by Hades, which bind her to the Underworld for half the year. Or the golden apple thrown by Eris, Greek goddess of discord, into the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, which reappears at the judgement of Paris, only for him to assign it to the wrong goddess and kickstart the Trojan War.

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Golden Apple of Discord

With such powerful religious and classical antecedents, no wonder the idea of Forbidden Fruit took such hold on the western imagination, a vein of wicked temptation running from the Garden of Earthly Delights of mediaeval literature to the yearning for apricots that betrays the Duchess of Malfi to the clandestine plum pudding Edmund Gosse nibbles, in Father and Son.

Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

This last example is especially poignant, since it comes from a memoir, not fiction. A member of the puritan Plymouth Brethren, Gosse’s father believed the pleasures associated with celebrating Christmas – singing, dancing, fine clothes and feasting – to be the work of the devil. Aghast that his little son should be so deprived, the maids feed him a slice of the plum pudding they’ve secretly made for themselves; his father, discovering the crime, ‘flung the idolatrous confectionery on to the middle of the [dust heap], and then raked it deep down into the mass.’

plum pudding

Idolatrous Confectionary

I find this scene heartbreaking to read. As Gosse himself writes, ‘The suddenness, the violence, the velocity of this extraordinary act made an impression on my memory which nothing will ever efface’ – all arising from a fear that what is enjoyable to the senses must by definition be sinful. Here is the exact opposite of the ‘speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy,’ that cheers the table of the hard-up Cratchit family in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Oliver TwistIndeed, while Dickens makes brilliant metaphorical use of natural phenomena (the fog in Bleak House, for instance, confusing and entrapping as the legal system; or the predatory Carker’s white teeth in Dombey and Son) he is the last writer to endow an apple, a pudding, or anything else with evil characteristics. There’s nothing like a poverty-stricken childhood to teach you the true value of food. It is hunger, not greed, that prompts Oliver to ask for more (Oliver Twist). Pip quakes in terror that his theft of a pie will be discovered; yet he stole not for himself, but to feed a starving runaway convict (Great Expectations).

Great Expectations

Once food is seen for what it is – nourishing, tasty, a source of pleasure and celebration with friends – treating any part of it as somehow inherently wicked becomes both impossible and heartless.

The Lion the Witch and the WardrobeNot for some of the great children’s writers though. It’s hard on Edmund, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, that while his sister Lucy can safely be treated to tea and toast by a faun, he unwittingly seals his pact with the White Witch by accepting the treats she offers. (‘He had the look of one who had been with the Witch and eaten her food,’ says Mr Beaver.) The drink – ‘very sweet and foamy and creamy’ – is enchanted, of course, so no ordinary food; yet there’s a sense in which Edmund is being punished for enjoying it so much.

The Magician's nephew

And in The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis actually recreates the Garden of Eden, with poor Digory being tempted by the Witch to eat the apple from the Tree of Life (‘A terrible thirst and hunger came over him and a longing to taste that fruit’) rather than bring it, as instructed, to Aslan.

Do modern children’s books put their heroes through this kind of Food As Temptation ordeal? My impression is no, and a good thing too. Far better for the smells and tastes of delicious things to be celebrated, so encouraging a healthy relationship with eating, rather than treated as a test for your characters to fail, as some of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory do, or the ever-hungry Dick in The Faraway Tree. Surely in our more secular age we can dispense with this biblical sense of guilt surrounding food. 

Not as simple as that. The popular culture young readers are growing into lays a heavy burden of blame on delectable goodies, from Salman Rushdie’s famous Naughty But Nice advertising slogan for cream cakes to Slimming World’s use of the term ‘syns’ for treats (short for ‘synergy’, I know, but that fools nobody).

Naughty but Nice

Naughty… but nice

We may no longer believe literally in the idea of Forbidden Fruit; but we are a long way from being free of its power. Cake, anyone?

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

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How books can save your life. Literally.

The Reading CureThere’s something about people all around me forgoing delicious things – like chocolate and wine – that has me thinking of food like never before. (I gave up giving anything up for New Year/Lent a long time ago. Life in winter is miserable enough.) How apt then, that Laura Freeman’s publishers, W & N, should have chosen mid-February to launch her memoir, The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, in which she describes how the mouth-watering descriptions of food in the great classics saved her from the worst ravages of anorexia.  Siegfried Sassoon fortifying himself with boiled eggs and cocoa before a dawn hunt (Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man);

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Siegfried Sassoon

Mrs Cratchit’s plum pudding – ‘a speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy’ (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens) – these glorious images tempted her back to the warmth, nourishment and companionship of good things. For most of us, books are food for the soul; for Freeman, they turned out to be food for the body, too.

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Plum Pudding in A Christmas Carol

Reading her article in the Sunday Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/books-saved-me-from-starving-myself-to-death-ls2cd8c75, I wanted to punch the air. Anorexia is a terrible, relentless illness. Freeman describes the mental state it induces in terms of a library full of smashed book cases, in which the calm and order the sufferer longs for are reduced to splinters of glass and wood and rain spattered paper. The fact that books saved her, gave her ‘reasons to eat, share, live, to want to be well,’ shows how much the senses are involved in the pleasure of reading, not just the mind.

For proof, I challenge you to read this list of provisions from St Agnes’s Eve by John Keats and not a) drool, or b) feel sick (depending on your sweetness of tooth).

‘…a heap

Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd

With jellies, soother than the creamy curd…’

Trifle

Not exactly Keats.

No prizes for guessing my reaction to these glorious lines. But then I always did like fruit jellies and cream, and my enjoyment of this poem harks back to some very early reading indeed. Aged 5, my favourite of the My Naughty Little Sister stories by Dorothy Edwards was the one where she and Bad Harry sneak into the larder and demolish a splendid trifle planned for his birthday party, beginning with the silver balls and jelly sweets on the top before diving into whipped cream, custard and sponge below. Ok, so it’s not exactly Keats… but it’s a fine example of the importance of food in children’s books.

Wind in the Willows picnicLaura Freeman cites glorious picnics in The Wind in the Willows, a theme also popular with Enid Blyton, whose Famous Five, Adventurous Four, Secret Seven – whatever – are sustained by freshly baked bread, new-laid eggs, delicious ham and – unforgettably – lashings of ginger beer.Famous Five

Delightful as these interludes are, their role in the plot shouldn’t be underrated, especially in adventure stories. If you’re going to thrust your characters into hair-raising situations, making them perform superhuman tasks, you’d better make sure you feed them. You’re already asking your readers to suspend a lot of disbelief; rendering your heroes immune to normal human needs is pushing it.

Ante Passchendaele jacketSending Ante with her companions, Gil and Florence, on a journey through Hell in Ante’s Inferno, I knew I had to allow them to stock up on energy and supplies to keep them going through all that heat and darkness. A break in Elysium, where Hector and Aeneas invite them to join in their cricket tea (er, you have to read the book) and Odysseus gives them water skins, did the trick:

‘Taking a strawberry, Ante allowed it to burst in her mouth, rolling its warmth and            sweetness on her tongue.’

My inspiration for calling up the sensuous pleasure of food was the scene in The Last Battle, where C S Lewis allows his characters a rest from all the fighting:

wild-strawberry‘Not far away from them rose a grove of trees, thickly leaved, but under every leaf there peeped out the gold or faint yellow or purple or glowing red of fruits such as no one has seen in our world… All I can say is that, compared with those fruits, the freshest grape-fruit you’ve ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry, and the most melting pear was hard and woody, and the sweetest wild strawberry was sour.’

 

Just reading that again after all these years makes my mouth water.

How wonderful, then, that Laura Freeman’s delight in words has altered the balance of power between herself and her anorexia. It’s not a magic cure – she acknowledges the anorexia may never go away altogether – but it’s books that have brought her back to the idea of food and feasting with friends being something to enjoy, not dread.  Books can literally save your life.

But we knew that.

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

 

 

 

 

Santa in Scarlet – or Green – or Blue?

Father Christmas in Holborn

A scarlet Father Christmas in Holborn

Three days left of the Christmas season: plenty of time to squeeze in a few thoughts about a well-known, well-nourished figure with a jolly laugh who chooses the narrowest and most uncomfortable route into our houses to stuff a bunch of outsize stockings with toy engines, teddy bears and easy peelers.  Now, I don’t know about you, but while I’ve had to accept, for some time, a certain existential ambivalence about the dear old fellow, of one thing I was certain: what Father Christmas wears.

Until, that is, a few years ago, when my teenage children shattered my illusions. That traditional suit – you know, the scarlet one with white cuffs that match Santa’s snowy beard, huge belt buckle across his tremendous tum – is apparently not traditional at all, but the result of a cynical advertising campaign by Coca Cola in the 1930s, forever associating the plump, jolly, big-hearted Santa Claus with the fizzy drink. Until then, Santa had boasted a lean, trim figure, clothed in a long, green robe.

Well, there was only one answer to that. Utter nonsense. Teenagers think they know everything. Father Christmas/Santa Claus is depicted wearing red because he’s always worn red. Look at Christmas cards, films, book illustrations, department stores (all post 1930s, I admit). My mind flew back to my German childhood in the 1960s … and uncovered a memory till then suppressed.

Nikolaus

St Nick in Winter Blue

On 6th December every year, Nikolaus, accompanied by his servant, Knecht Ruprecht, visited my primary school. While Ruprecht, lugging a sack bursting with goodies, wore brown or black, I forget which, his tall, thin master had on a long robe of dark – green. At the time I was far too excited by his distribution of sweets and Lebkuchen to wonder at the colour. Perhaps also, the (sadly, rather poorly printed) illustration of Nikolaus (right) in my reading book, Mein erstes Buch, had prepared me for just about any other colour than the one expected.

Mein erstes Buch

My first reading book; scarlet, incidentally

My children, it seemed, were right. Germany in the 1960s would have been relatively unaffected by Coca Cola advertising; here was Santa Claus (or St Nikolaus) as he had probably been portrayed for hundreds of years. Green may have pagan connotations, linking the 4th century St Nicholas with the ancient midwinter Yule festival, celebrated throughout Europe. 

In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), the ghost of Christmas Present has much in common with the figure of Father Christmas: a jovial, generous spirit, surrounded by delicious food and drink.

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The Green Ghost of Christmas Present

Yet John Leech’s famous illustration shows him not in scarlet and white, but in a green robe, crowned with a holly wreath. And as for the blue-clad Nikolaus in my reading book…  in 19th century Germany, a tradition of the Weihnachtsmann grew up, with the ‘Christmas man’ wearing the colour most associated with the coldness of winter. Santa’s coat could be many colours, it seemed. Just not red.

And yet…

Ha,  I didn’t give up that easily. A trawl of the internet revealed the following:

1. In 1821, William B Gilley published The Children’s Friend: A New-Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve. Containing an anonymous poem, Old Santeclaus with Much Delightthis small paperback was illustrated with eight coloured lithographs, in which one can almost see Santa evolving into today’s familiar figure, since while one illustration shows him dressed in green, two others have him in bright red, trimmed with white fur (below).

  1.  In 1823, the far more famous Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore portrays Santa Claus as the cheery, red-cheeked, well-rounded figure instantly recognisable today: ‘He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…’
  1. In 1843, the Cornish Quaker and diarist Barclay Fox described a family party which included the ‘venerable effigy of Father Christmas, with scarlet coat & cocked hat, stuck all over with presents for the guests.’

So while Coca Cola may have done much to spread this particular image of Santa, we should cut the multinational company some slack (not a sentiment one sees often these days). Father Christmas had been steadily reddening on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly a century before their advertising campaign began.

The tubby, rosy-cheeked gentleman in scarlet and white robe and black boots, driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer, is the Real Thing after all.

Phew. I’m glad that’s sorted. Happy New Year!

 

(Adapted from a post first published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

All the davenports we cannot see

Twenty years ago the tragic death of a baby in the USA by what was thought to be ‘shaken baby syndrome’ made headlines all over the world.  On trial for the little boy’s murder, the British nanny unwittingly sealed her fate by describing how she’d ‘popped the baby on the bed to change his nappy.’  What Louise Woodward didn’t realise was that an expression used in the UK to describe an action taken with lightness and dexterity doesn’t translate at all that way in the USA; there, ‘pop’ can only mean something explosive.  No amount of explanation could erase the image in the jury’s mind that she had hurled the 8 month-old on to the bed with all the force of a rocket launcher.

Oscar Wilde

*Quip by Oscar Wilde… probably

Misunderstandings between our ‘two nations divided by a common language’* aren’t usually so dangerous.  Nor should any English people loftily assume our words are the ‘original’ ones; in many cases it’s the other way round.  ‘Garbage’, ‘trash’ and ‘sidewalk’ date back at least to Elizabethan times, whereas ‘rubbish’ and ‘pavement’ are much more recent.  Usually even if the word is unfamiliar, the context reveals the meaning; though this assumption falls down hilariously when it comes to clothing, as any American who has sent their child to English boarding school can testify.  Presented with a uniform list, US mums are baffled by the requirement of 8 pairs of trousers (pants), 4 sleeveless padded jackets (vests) and no underwear whatsoever except for 2 pairs of toddler pull-up nappies (trainers).

School uniform Moyles Court

British school uniform

Coming from the UK side of the pond, I thought I could spot all Americanisms and easily work them out. Not so. Recently, reading the wonderful, Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, I was brought up short by what looked like a genuine mistake. (If you haven’t read this beautifully written story of two young people – a blind French girl and a German boy – growing up on opposite sides of World War Two, then do.)  All the Light We Cannot SeeEntering her great-uncle’s room, Marie-Laure sits down on ‘the davenport’. Since a davenport is a very English piece of furniture, being a small, compact writing desk with shelves, designed by Captain Davenport in the 18th century, it seemed an odd thing to find in a house in St Malo, and even odder for Marie-Laure to sit on it. When, a few lines later, Great-uncle Etienne sits down beside her on the davenport, I realised some kind of sofa must be meant, and thought Doerr had got the wrong word.

Davenport desk

A Davenport (UK) : small writing desk with shelves or drawers

Not so. Davenport & Co turns out to be a company in Massachusetts that made a series of sofas in the late 19th century, whose popularity led to davenport becoming – in the USA – a genericised trademark, i.e. a word for sofas in general. So Doerr is right after all.

By Pearson Scott Foresman - Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation

A davenport (US): large sofa. No shelves or drawers.

But… is he?  To use a particular American company term for a piece of furniture found all over the world feels eccentric in a novel set in Europe in the 1940s. For readers outside the USA, it’s like calling all pianos Steinways, with children sent for Steinway lessons, and being put in for their Grade 1 Steinway exam.

More than eccentric: later on in the book, Sergeant Major Von Rumpel muses on the fifteenth century davenport he’s shipping from Paris to Germany. This presents the reader with the rather marvellous but wholly impossible image of a company making sofas in Massachusetts in the 1400s.

Curly Davenport sofa

Mediaeval davenport?

I know, I know, I’m making a Kilimanjaro out of a, er, molehill here. But from a writer whose power to evoke all kinds of environments and emotions –  from the dreary, choking coke factories of 1930s Germany to the brutal elite school for Nazi youth, to the dry, dusty Museum of Natural History in Paris with its collections of delicate molluscs and insects to the briny, wind-scoured towers of Saint-Malo – is nothing short of astonishing, this one false, historically tone-deaf note – jars.

(Article first printed on Author’s Electric Blogspot.)

 

Recusant, ostler, wetnurse, bard… How to untangle William Shakespeare.

Mansfield Park 2Some years ago, a friend defended a film version of Mansfield Park that portrayed sexual abuse within Fanny Price’s birth family by saying, ‘Oh come on, don’t think that kind of thing didn’t go on in the nineteenth century just as much as today.’ It didn’t matter that the film showed something that never appeared in the book; according to her, if Jane Austen could have written it in, she would have done, and that was good enough for my friend.

 

While this made no sense at all to me, what I found shocking was that my friend was by profession a historian; someone who deals in fact, not fiction. Yet here she was, happy to discard the integrity of a classic novel because it didn’t fit her historical view. Perhaps that was her point: Mansfield Park is fiction, not history, so it really doesn’t matter what you do with it. For her, ‘would have,’ in Jane Austen’s case, glided easily into ‘did’.

Jane Austen - 03

Jane Austen – gagged by her time

It is difficult for historians. Novelists can make up anything they like, but where evidence is missing, historians have to piece together what clues they have to build a credible picture. For no one is this truer than William Shakespeare, whose life I’m researching at the moment for a book idea (what else?). Between his birth in 1564 and his growing fame as a playwright and poet in 1590s London, only a few certain dates stand out, among which are his marriage, in 1582, to Anne Hathaway, and the baptism of his children in 1583 and 1585. It’s only fair that biographers should follow any lead that might account for his ‘lost’ years, including one that has him employed as schoolmaster in a leading Catholic recusant family in Lancashire; or the legend that a spot of deer-poaching caused him to fly Stratford to escape the wrath of landowner Sir Thomas Lucy.

William-Shakespeare

No oil painting. William Shakespeare

But reading Anthony Holden’s biography William Shakespeare (1999) has brought the Mansfield Park conversation straight back to me. Not because of any suggestion of abusive family relationships here (phew), but because of Holden’s attitude towards his material. While he builds a good case for the 15 year-old Shakespeare’s being employed as tutor in the Hoghton family, he can’t prove it; yet after a few pages, ‘would have’ and ‘highly likely’ melt imperceptibly into ‘Shakespeare had clearly impressed his first employer.’ Guesses that begin ‘probably’ are asserted as facts a few pages later, while legends such as the deer-poaching one are discounted in one place and upheld in another. Lacking other evidence, Holden falls into the trap of taking clues from the works: Shakespeare shows knowledge of horses, so he must have earned his keep as an ostler; he writes tellingly about ‘the green-eyed monster’, therefore he, like Othello, must have suffered terrible jealousy. All of which shows a blithe misunderstanding of how the creative mind works. By this token, Lady Macbeth’s

                           I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me

arises from direct personal experience.  Er….

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Horse and Ostler (Morland)

Worst of all – and Holden isn’t alone here – comes the treatment of poor Anne Hathaway. We know nothing about her looks or her character, but the simple fact that she’d reached the advanced old age of 26 when 18 year-old Shakespeare impregnated her has branded her ‘on the shelf’, a desperate, ‘homely’ woman who may have set out deliberately to trap a young man into marriage.

Homely. Ye gods. Why is a 26 year-old woman automatically homely, while an 18 year-old boy isn’t spotty, sweaty and frankly, not much of an oil painting himself? Shakespeare can’t have loved Anne, runs the general opinion among biographers, or he’d have stayed in Stratford and never lived all those years in London. Yet there must have been attraction, at least to begin with, and the arrival of two more children some years later doesn’t speak of total aversion to this much, much older woman. And where else could an ambitious young actor and playwright earn a living if not in London? For all we know, he may have hot-footed it home to Stratford whenever time and funds permitted.

Anne Hathaway

Hardly homely Hathaway

Untangling fact from fiction in this biography, trying to work out what is certain and what conjecture in Holden’s impressively rounded portrait of his subject, while dealing with the somewhat dated attitude to women displayed above, I have to keep reminding myself that I am a historical fiction writer reading the work of a historian.
Not the other way round.
Funny, that. Maybe the two disciplines are not so far apart after all.

(From an article first published on Authors Electric BlogSpot)

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.

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.