Bucking the trend in children’s books at the Buckingham Literary Festival

St John & St James, Chackmore 1

Happy festivalling! With Year 6 teacher Mr Davidson

Two days ago I drove to Stowe for a school visit. No, not that school, the famous one set in the fabulous 18th century neoclassical Stowe House; rather, the delightful St James & St John Church of England Primary School at Chackmore, a small village nestling on land that slopes up to the glorious Stowe Landscape Gardens (owned by the National Trust). Now in its third year, the Buckingham Literary Festival is going from strength to strength and I was thrilled to be invited to be part of its schools outreach programme, enthusing young people with the joys of reading and writing.

St John & James 5

Presenting the original Doctor Faustus, or Joannes Faustus

If I have a bee in my bonnet, it’s about how often children are underestimated in the pleasure they can derive from complex ideas in books. I write stories inspired by great classical and historical themes, subjects often deemed ‘too difficult’ for children. But in my experience, as long as the story is clearly written, fast-paced and gripping, and the characters sympathetic and well-rounded, young readers can easily absorb ideas from the adult literary world and often grasp them more instinctively than people many years older.

Year 6 at St James & St John knew nothing about Elizabethan magic or the legend of Doctor Faustus but they listened attentively as I told them about my book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, and had no trouble understanding the dangers of a Faustian pact. Which will hopefully serve them well in their future lives, if ever they feel under pressure – like poor Henry – to enter into the Wrong Sort of Agreement….

St John & St James, Chackmore 4

And now for the book signing!

They were a super audience, enthusiastically taking part in my 7 Ingredients Every Story Needs workshop and coming up with some really interesting questions at the end. The one that struck me most was from a girl who asked, ‘Why did you choose writing?’ Almost the same question as the more usual, ‘What made you become a writer?’ except that the answer leapt out in a way that surprised even me.

St John & St James, Chackmore 2Because you don’t choose writing, do you? It chooses you.

Thank you, St James and St John and Buckingham Literary Festival, for inviting me and for your splendid organisation.  The festival proper begins TONIGHT with a fun Quiz, followed by 3 days of events featuring top authors, Friday 15th – Sunday 17th June.

Advertisements

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.

golden-apple-300x2861

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.)