Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Hopefully not

On Halloween evening I took part in a Reading Agency panel event at Swiss Cottage library with Susan Cooper, Sally Gardner and Geraldine McCaughrean, chaired by Clive Barnes of IBBY UK. I had been looking forward to this event for a long time as I am a great admirer of all three writers and Susan Cooper rarely visits the UK. All three turned out to be very good company.

I read Susan Cooper's THE DARK IS RISING to my son years ago. I hadn't read it until then, but had had it recommended to me by a friend and fellow writer. It is wonderful, magical book – beautifully written and dreamlike in the way it moves between the various worlds of her story. My son loved it and I was full of awe whilst reading it.

Susan's new book is GHOST HAWK, a handsomely packaged book, that tells the story of the Mayflower landing in America, but from the point of view of a native American.  The early passages of the boy going hunting are beautifully observed and I have a fascination with the woodland tribes, going back to THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS.

Geraldine McCaughrean has also featured strongly in my son's childhood reading because he owns several of her retellings of myths. In fact, she was in many ways the first and main point of contact for him, particularly when it came to Greek myths. Retelling is difficult – particularly when you are retelling complex material for a younger audience. Geraldine makes it look easy.

I recently read Sally Gardner's MAGGOT MOON.

(and here I am giving up on Nuance DragonDictate for Mac because it has decided to take off the last letter of the last word when I type a new word.  Very, very annoying....)

MAGGOT MOON unnerved me a little because it was a little like a thing I'd been working on, although it became less and less so as the story moved on.  I was seeing it as Kafkaesque but I realised quite quickly that this wasn't so.  Sally's points of reference are very different.  The great thing about reading it was that despite winning the Costa and the Carnegie I had somehow managed to come to it without the faintest notion of what the book was about - or more to the point, what it was like.  It is a really beautifully written, strange and thought-provoking book and I can see why it won the Carnegie.

It is always a pleasure to meet other writers and with the rise in popularity of panel events, it is becoming more common.  I like panel events - there is less preparation needed and less pressure.  The responsibility is shared and they tend to throw up genuinely surprising angles on things.

Having said all that, I'm not sure we quite rose to the occasion on this occasion.  I think it should - given the quality of the panel - been better.  I'm not sure why that was.  It was OK and I think the audience enjoyed it, but it just did not seem to ever really take off in the way it hoped.  Geraldine carried us a bit.  I particularly liked her rants about the BBC's ATLANTIS and the editorial censoring when it came to retelling folk tales.  She has a very dry delivery.  Very funny.

One thing that came up was the issue of responsibility when it came to writing for children.  Did we feel a sense of obligation to provide a happy ending - or at least, as Geraldine put it - a hopeful ending. It's an interesting question…

I've heard it said on more than one occasion, by people connected to children's publishing, that books for children should have a happy ending. As Geraldine was setting out the case for providing hope at the end of the story I found myself nodding in agreement, and yet I'm all too aware that this is hardly a feature of much of my work. So why do I write stories that don't have a happy or hopeful ending?

Partly I think this has to do with the age of the reader. I think I agree with Geraldine when it comes to younger readers – particularly very young readers. But I don't write for very young readers. In the main, I am writing for 10+ and often my readers are in their teens.  So do I have a duty of care towards my teenage readers?

I think the important thing with all writing – with all art – is that it should be honest. It should feel true to the writer and to the reader. As children grow older they see that the world is not a place where good always triumphs or where everything is neatly resolved. It is a function of fiction to look into the dark as well as the light. It always has been, even in folk tales and myths.

This is not to say that I think teenagers have no need for books with happy endings, or books that inspire hope. Far from it. I think there are far too few genuinely funny books for teenage boys, for instance. Teenagers have as much need for happiness and hope as anyone else – maybe more so. But, they also need choice.

Books for teenagers need to reflect the huge diversity of teenagers. No two teenagers are alike, and yet in discussions about teenagers, adults do have a tendency to talk as though they were specific templates for a teenage boy and a teenage girl. Teenagers vary hugely – not just from each other, but from hour to hour.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, there weren't really books for teenagers as such. Once we had exhausted the libraries supply of books for older children, we moved onto short adult fiction, led by the exploration of adult fiction (with child protagonists) at school. We dived into the world of adult fiction pretty much without guidance or restraint. Mostly, we were reading genre fiction – crime, sci-fi, fantasy. I read John Wyndham, Robert E Howard, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and others. I read a lot of short stories in compilations like the Pan Book of Horror. I read a lot of comics too - and non-fiction.

Because these books were not intended for my age group, there was no concession made to it – neither in terms of content, nor of language level. Nor for that matter, in concept level. The writers took the stories where the stories needed to go. And so should we.  Within limits of course - but it's the publisher, and to some extent the reader, who decides those.

Does 1984 have a happy ending? Does FRANKENSTEIN? Does LORD OF THE FLIES have a hopeful ending? I'm sure we would be happy to see any teenager reading any of these books, so why worry about the supposedly dark content of teen fiction today?

I think hope comes in many forms; not just in the resolution of the story, but in the act of reading itself. Reading is an essentially hopeful activity, I think. And sometimes – I think this was true for me when I was a teenager – it is the discovery that those strange notions and weird ideas you've been having are not yours alone, but have been dreamed before, by others. That crushing sense of estrangement and isolation that many teenagers feel can be eased by finding a kindred spirit in the pages of a book, or a feeling part of a community of other readers of a particular book, series or genre.

After all, isn't that the most hopeful message of all – to realise that you are not alone?

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