Pas Devant Les Enfants

A spat of sorts came and went in the Guardian and places where they tweet last week over A Song for Ella Grey, and Lynne Reid Banks’ reaction to its marketing – or placing it among “children’s books:”

In the first five pages there is lesbian love, swearing, drinking, and enough other indications that, once again, this is not a book for children. Children are people up to the age of 12. They are not grownups of 17. The books are going straight back to Waterstones.

Woe to us who really do write for children! No prizes for us. Publishing is not a children’s world any more.

I can sympathise with her to some extent, in that I feel that better categories and prizes associated with them might actually lead to a celebration of quality that is more discernible.  I am less sure about the tone she adopts, which has an acerbic tone of distaste reminiscent of  Joyce Grenfell‘s “George! Don’t do that!

I have to ask myself if there are stories or parts of stories that I would avoid reading with children. I do find Roald Dahl’s casual racism hard to get round – unacceptable even in the dates of publication, something  that I have always edited out. Even this isn’t perhaps a reason for editing them out of children’s experience completely. C S Lewis is not immune from this either, and his views on how young women grow up strikes a sour note at the end of The Last Battle to say the least. But then we have the Junk shouting match from the 1990s, and a pious Christian asking me if I would “let” my teenager at much the same time read His Dark Materials. There is debate here about childhood, agency and censorship.

However, what it raised for me, in discussion with my colleague Mat Tobin today was something about the transferability of children’s narratives. Is one of the marks of whether a story “holds water” as to whether it might be told to adults or from the adult perspective?

Two brief examples:

  • What might The Children of Green Knowe be like if written for adults and from the perspective of Mrs Oldknow? Mrs Oldknow’s comfortable magical realism is disrupted by the (welcome) intrusion of her great grandson, whose curiosity forces her to come to terms with a series of horrific deaths. I think this could work.
  • Or what of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness? Torak’s path through adolescence (which takes, in its physical form, a few weeks and is described in the present books in terms of a change in his smell) and his struggle with evil might become precisely the kind of literature Lynne Reid Banks would take back to Waterstones.

I wonder whether the complexities of narrative – and particularly the complexities of the unspoken in “children’s books” – are what make good children’s narratives effective. Is it the every coyness that makes for the complexity? And in which case what would we want to have that makes that coyness work for the intelligent, critical reader, whatever age they are? How explicit does the tension between characters have to be? How explicit the violence, the sex, the drinking?

I’m not mocking here, but wanting to point out that these would both be valid stories. So my first thoughts are around whether this is true of all good stories initially envisaged for children – and if that is (or even might be) the case, then what about stories that perhaps are not?  On whose authority do we age-band stories? And what are the markers that show narrative A to be on one side and narrative B to be on the other?

At any rate, the translation of children’s narrative into adult perspective can provide a bit of a parlour game. Anyone for the Moomins from The Groke’s point of view? Or Where the Wild Things Are in the voice of Max’s mother?

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