Wednesday 26 August 2009

Where is the hope in children's books?

Someone mischievous organised the Compelling Novels, Vulnerable Children panel for the Edinburgh Festival.

On the panel were children's authors Melvin Burgess and Anne Fine.

Melvin Burgess Anne Fine
Fine, who was children's laureate from 2001 to 2003, famously lambasted Burgess in 2003 when his book Doing It was published, denouncing his publishers for -
... peddling this grubby book, which demeans both young women and young men? It will prove as effective a form of sexual bullying as any hardcore porno mag passed round. Read Anne Fine's 2003 Review of Doing It
I remember the review created a vociferous debate in the then nascent children's book blogosphere, with bloggers divided between supporting and resisting Fine's points of issue.
At the Edinburgh event, Anne Fine (Madame Doubtfire, Eating Things on Sticks) is reported to have deplored the gritty realism of modern children's books. I wasn't there so I can only point you to the reports in the Times, the Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday. And here is a discussion amongst a small group of authors on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure, after a post by Anne Cassidy (Looking for JJ).
This is what Anne Fine is quoted as saying:
Books for children became much more concerned with realism, or what we see as realism. But where is the hope? How do we offer them hope within that? It may be that realism has gone too far in literature for children ...
Update (29 August 2009): there was a lot of vehement reaction to this quote - Anne Fine sent out the following correction via some writer's message boards (emphasis mine):
Contrary to press headlines, I neither 'deplored' the lack of happy endings, nor asked for a return to Blytonish books. In a wide-ranging discussion with social workers and carers in a session about Fiction for Children in Care that was chaired by Children in Scotland, I simply wondered aloud what the effect of the new wave of grimly realistic books without those old-fashioned happy endings might be on those of our children whose lives they often mirror so closely, and asked the very experienced audience what they thought - and indeed whether their clients ever read the books. As someone who has myself written some quite tough books I would not ever do anything so simplistic as 'call for happy endings'. I recognise as well as anyone what a broad church children's literature is and must be.
Many thanks to Teri Terry who passed this on. And many thanks too to Anne for the clarification. I hope she's happy to have sparked a lively conversation amongst people who care about children's book. It certainly is a conversation worth having and I will always, always as a result ask myself when I'm writing - where is the hope?

To be fair, I have read a number of children's books, especially for teens, that made me wonder at the bleak, hopeless vision of the author. There are some books I would not recommend to my teenage friends. So I can see where Fine is coming from.
But I have read far more books that, while set in the grit and pebbledash of realism, radiate with a shining something that resists the generalisation.

The fact is, thanks to the New Media revolution, our child readers are far more aware of the darker side of life than their predecessors in Enid Blyton-reading times. And while there are still plenty of us who write the fantasy and adventure that can remove them from reality, we are still beholden to create stories that tap into our readers' experience and world view.

But it's a tough world out there. And I agree with Anne Fine: for children, books must be a haven, a place where there is hope.

So what is this shining something that can lift us authors out of the temptation to mirror the world in all its relentless hopelessness?

Funnily enough, it was something Fine's old adversary Melvin Burgess said that gave me an answer.

As you may know I recently attended a writing for teenagers week with Arvon, with Melvin Burgess and Malorie Blackman as tutors.
One of the most resonant pieces of advice I came away with was actually given to a colleague who had written a gritty novel about a deprived, self-harming teenager. I think my colleague had a conversation with Melvin about how you couldn't just dish out a relentlessly grim story. You had to temper it with something.

Melvin told her (and I paraphrase here inaccurately) that the important thing in such a piece of writing is to make sure the human spirit shines through.

Human Spirit.

Driving back from the course for three and a half hours on the M1, we were so inspired by the idea, we couldn't stop discussing it. What is human spirit? Does our writing have it? Where does it come from? How do we make sure it shines through in our stories?

Human Spirit. That's where the hope is.

Update: the third author on the panel was Rachel Ward (Numbers). She has since commented about the event on Keren David's blog post about the event. See her comment here. I just found out that Melvin Burgess has a new blog. Here is his bird's eye view.
Some "realistic" books I have read that for me strongly evoke the human spirit (in no particular order).

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd
Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine
Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd
Ways To Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

... do add your own books in comments - i can think of more but I'd love to hear yours.


  1. Interesting. I do agree that should be a degree of hope in books and I like the idea of the human spirit in writing. For me, that means that whatever life throws at your characters, they carry on fighting, carry on believing that there can be a sense of optimism in every situation. I suppose that out of every bad experience comes a degree of learning. Off to make my own list now!

  2. Anne was misquoted by The Times. She did not 'call for happier endings', but simply asked an audience of social workers, at a discussion about fiction and children in care, what effect, if any, they thought these grimly realistic books had on their young clients, if indeed they read them at all. After all, Road of Bones and The Tulip Touch are not known for their happy endings.

    I should perhaps add that I am Anne's webmaster.

  3. I heard Fine and Burgess on a panel several years ago in Bath on the same topic. This was pre-Doing It, but Fine still said that she thought Burgess was walking a fine line when it came to offering hope to his readers. And Burgess said, for him he wanted to inspire righteous indignation in the reader, and that the hope was IN the reader. I liked that idea, as someone who can be quite drawn to dark books. I appreciate that Cormier ends on bleak notes, and I thought it was quite rebellious for Burgess to end Lady My Life as a Bitch the way he did. There's a place for all sorts of books, as there are all sorts of readers. And as a teenager, I was drawn to all sorts of gory books like Stephen King's novels or In Cold Blood. Teens are exploring the boundaries of their world, and books exploring darkness and hopelessness can play an important role, I think.

  4. I've been pondering the Anne Fine article since I read it a couple of days ago...
    I'd have to add Killing God to your list - which is relentlessly gritty - but in which the human spirit does shine. Although it's one of those books that "just ends" ie no happy or necessarily sand ending, it does end with hope. So yes, I totally echo the point about human spirit being and offering the hope.
    Brilliant post, Candy.

  5. I probably shouldn't plug my own book, Candy, but I'm going to send you a copy of Crossing The Line (if you'll let me have your earthly address!) and I'd be interested to hear your reactions to that. I hope there's plenty of human spirit in it, as that's what I was aiming for. This is a great post, thanks.

  6. I guess by the very nature of drama, story arc, conflict and the fact that some of us are writing for teenagers, it is hard to avoid the dark side.

    thanks to all for your thoughts, i think anne fine raises an issue that should always preoccupy us authors.

    at the same time, the fact that melvin urges writers to put the human spirit first shows us that he doesn't tread that fine line lightly.

  7. I'd also just add that possibly publishers like 'hope' in realistic books and are looking out for it, perhaps rather more than their readers are. I was interested to see that Rachel Ward who wrote Numbers was on the panel with Anne Fine and Melvin Burgess - I thought her book was rather stunningly bleak and without hope.

  8. Such a debatable topic...
    I believe children are very aware of the harshness of modern life and don't need it reinforced with gritty, realistic books. The popularity of Harry Potter and the Twilight saga is the best way to show this. These books are, in the most part, wonderfully unrealistic and completely great reading.
    Maureen Hume

  9. SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson is a terrifying book, but has a ray of hope at the end.

    A very thought-provoking post, Candy, thank you. To tie into Tockla's post, I do wonder if some teen readers need gritty books with endings that aren't too hopeful or full of resolution, otherwise they might ring false to the teen's experience and therefore fail to be meaningful.

  10. I think the key here should be balance. When publishers hop on a trend it can leave an impression that books are heading only in one direction. Personally I'm happy to see grittiness and realism out there. The problem I have is when it becomes bleak - for me that's when a novel loses heart. Or human spirit.

    What we look for in a novel comes down to taste and mood. As long as publishers continue to offer a range of books for every taste - from fluffy kittens and happy ever after to abuse and surviving it, I feel they act responsibly toward their readership.

  11. i so agree, janey.

    i can imagine anne fine seeing all the fuss and the misquoting in newspapers and thinking, oh no not again. but actually it's good we're all thinking about it.

    some good stuff is going to happen as a result.

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