How children's books have changed...?
Over the last few days I've been looking at my next distance learning university course for Creative Writing. I chose to study writing for children, because I often produce plays for children and teenagers and prefer to write for young adult fiction.
One of the first things I've been asked to do is create a timeline of the books and writers I consider to be important after 1950 and this was an interesting, if slightly more challenging exercise than I had anticipated and it made me question the change in writing over the last few decades.
I was asked to think back to my childhood and my favourite books and authors and I realised that although I read a lot, I don't remember many of the books that well. It took me quite a while to recall authors I had really enjoyed and the types of stories I had read, if they weren't still on my book shelf.
I realised I read a lot of the more classic literature and books that had been written before 1950, such as the entire 'Famous Five' collection, 'Little Women' and lots of fairytales, as well as other individual books and stories. I also, of course read some of the more popular works, such as 'James and the Giant Peach' by Roald Dahl, but I confess that was the only one by this famous author. Many of these books were from eras of innocence and although there might be a little mystery or danger, you knew everyone would be ok in the end.
I loved fantasy and read many books about quests and adventures, but very few still stick out in my mind except for 'Fleabag and the Ring Fire' by Beth Webb, which was a story about a servant girl on a journey to find the ring her mistress the Queen used to wear. The ring has inside it a magic fire. The girl was of course aided on her journey by a talking cat, Fleabag.
I began trying to remember which other books of series of books I had enjoyed and I'm sure there are ones I've forgotten. I did read most of the 'Redwall' books by Brian Jacques and the 'Deptford Mice' by Robin Jarvis and that's when I realised that a lot of the books I had read at the age of 8 or 9 were often about animals.
When I was that old, the cartoon that dominated our week was 'The Animals of Farthing Wood' and I remember it being a particularly horrible series if you really liked animals, because so many of them died one way or another. I'll admit I didn't want to watch it much, but I started to wonder if there was a specific style in the themes of the 90's books? Animals, but no just ordinary ones, ones that spoke to each other and had their own societies. Some of these books were often quite dark and death of a creature we grew to like was often included and upsetting, but in a way I think it removed us from the reality of the situation because we all knew deep down animals couldn't talk. That isn't to say it wasn't very upsetting and I couldn't bring myself to read 'Watership Down' by Richard Adams until I was in my late teens, simply because I'd been told it was a sad book and I didn't want to read about bad things happening to rabbits.
As I was looking at more contemporary books it became clear that prize winners were often authors who had tacked a difficult situation for younger readers, such as being different due to race or traditions, living in tough situations and dealing with death. When I analyse it, there isn't actually much difference between the themes of these books and the ones I read as a child, except that the difficult issues I read about were given to these animals, whereas contemporary writers began to explore the issues using people and often telling the stories in the first person narrative.
I personally don't like reading stories written in the first person, because to me it always feel slightly false. It's a personal opinion, but you know it isn't the voice of the writer, they're trying to make it the voice of the character, and yet somehow I don't find it works. This is my opinion, but reading 'I did this,' and 'I did that' reminds me a little of book reports or the presentations of 'what I did on my holiday' we would be forced to do as children. The supposed logic is that first person is easier for people to connect with and helps them feel immersed in the story.... many writer's swear by it as an effective tool for engaging with your reader.
I still don't enjoy it and I don't find I connect with it more. In comparison I spend most of my time thinking about how the writer didn't do any of this and their attempts to be the voice of the character don't always work.
Maybe that comes from reading so much in the third person when I was younger, but I have always been able to feel like part of the story when I am seeing everything from outside, rather than inside. That isn't to say that focusing on one character only isn't good - it can be very effective at hiding information and keeping twists in the plot concealed until the perfect moment - I just like being outside of it, not in some forced monologue. First person works better for me if I am writing as myself, such as this blog, but as a story I don't always feel it is successful. There are books in which I find the first person works very well, such as 'Private Peaceful' by Michael Morpurgo, and this is in the skill of the writer's ability to make the voice connect to their reader, not just assume it will.
Anyway, back to my original point; books are exploring tough themes with children and teenagers in, I think, a far more human way than they perhaps did years ago.
I always preferred to read as a form of escape. I loved fantasy and magic and other worlds and hated having to read books set in real life, but I had friends that were the complete opposite. Everyone has different tastes. There is however one book which stood out to me and that I never forgot and that was 'Bridge to Terabithia' by Katherine Paterson. This book had moments all about imagination, but it was set in a real world with real people and, spoiler alert, one of the main characters dies. I remember sobbing when I read the chapters following her death and how her best friend struggled to cope. It was one of the few books I read as a teenager that impacted on me in that way.
I'm two days in and I'm already questioning what changed in society for children and teenagers to be no longer shielded and given books about innocent times and adventure, but instead face some of the gritty realities in the world. Some parents would undoubtedly be horrified to think their children were so interested in death, and I hate to break it to them, but they are. Children are grim sometimes. If I set a drama scene exercise in my younger class at the theatre group I can guarantee that even on the topic of 'a holiday' there will be murder and death from at least two of the groups of 7-11 year olds. Whether this has come from the change in literature and entertainment, or if the children were always interested in these topics I can't be sure. If we consider the fairytales written by the Grimm brothers, many were very dark and horrible and children loved that, so I could conclude this isn't a new thing at all.
Has death become something played down because it is so openly written and spoken about with younger people now?
My play 'Heroes' was by far more popular than the play I wrote for the summer workshop group the year before. 'The Collector' is, in my own opinion, a far more imaginative and creative piece of writing, however at the end of the play the main character is killed defending magical creatures but then brought back to life by a dragon. The kids hated the fact I brought him back. I wrote it that way, perhaps more to appeal to the parents, and because I didn't think they would like it if a young man died in the story. In comparison, 'Heroes' I took onboard the reaction from the children and so when I wrote this piece a year after 'The Collector' I let one of the main characters die and had my characters deal with their responses to it. I think this truth may be what has the children still talking about the play several years later. They weren't shielded and the theatre was more powerful. The writing is far more cliche (admittedly it is supposed to be because the stories within the play are intended to be written by the young boy) in 'Heroes' and I felt less thrilled with my own writing, however the messages in that play have made it stay in the memories of those young people far more than the imaginative tale.
It's going to be an interesting few months working on this course and on my future writing, because I may have to be willing to embrace the darker elements more in order to appeal to the 21st century audience. Reality will have to become part of my fantasy if I want to become a better writer, but that might not be a bad thing.