Analysing their dark materials
Are graphic sex and violence, and distressing moral issues, going too far in children’s fiction, asks Rosemary Neill
THE hate mail started rolling on to Matt Ottley’s website one hour after his newly awarded book, Requiem for a Beast , was pilloried on primetime television. Ottley, a former stockman who has campaigned against the dance party drug culture, found himself accused of being satanic, of warping children’s morals, of polluting a picture book with ‘‘ gutter language’’.
The controversy flared last month after a newspaper journalist found Ottley’s book — which contains swearing, an image suggestive of suicide, a possible murder and cruelty to animals — incorrectly shelved in the children’s section of a Borders store in Brisbane.
Days before, Ottley had been celebrating: Requiem for a Beast , a sophisticated if often desolate multimedia work intended for teenagers, had taken out the picture book of the year prize at the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s annual awards.
Ottley and the CBCA, which has been fielding its own hate mail and complaints about the book from schools, agree the controversy was sparked by confusion over the nature of picture books. Says CBCA president Bronwen Bennett: ‘‘ The picture book is no longer just a category for prereaders. It’s now a genre in its own right and includes the graphic novel ( image- driven novels often aimed at the teen market).’’
The fracas has provoked calls for the CBCA awards, the nation’s most influential for children’s literature, to be overhauled and more clearly defined. It also has elicited complaints that awards judges favour children’s books that are confronting and edgy over more optimistic or humorous titles. The CBCA’s critics also say that the award stickers that now adorn the book’s cover have only added to the confusion, as they feature a stylised image of a young child reading.
Ottley, 46, agrees that placing Requiem for a Beast among books for eight- year- olds is ‘‘ absolutely not right . . . It is about as ridiculous as putting The Happy Hooker in the eight to 12- year- old section.’’ Yet some days after the row erupted, I found Ottley’s book in a Borders store in Sydney, still stocked among the eight to 12- year- old titles. ‘‘ That is distressing to me,’’ responds the author, who agrees his book, a meditation on depression, racism and the Stolen Generations, is ‘‘ very dark’’.
The book is confronting, but if parents think this makes it an exception in young adult literature, they should think again. I have been Review ’ s children’s fiction reviewer for the past 16 months, and in that short time I’ve come across young adult novels, texts aimed at teen readers, that deal with depression, suicide, underage sex, date rape, pack rape, transsexuality, murder, infidelity, self- harm, drug addiction and war atrocities.
Increasingly, it seems the protective membrane that once delineated adult from young adult subject matter is disappearing. Even primary- school children are being exposed to violent stories about the darkest aspects of humanity, such as the Holocaust. Robyn Emerson, who helps judge the Aurealis awards for fantasy writing, says the trend is disturbing: ‘‘ There is such a thing as age appropriateness and I think that in literary terms it’s been lost.’’
Emerson says the proliferation of dark material in children’s literature is an outgrowth of the trauma literature that exploded on to the adult scene in the 1990s. She recently finished an honours thesis at the University of Queensland on trauma literature and children. She discovered American psychologists have identified secondary trauma among counsellors whose clients had been caught up in the 9/ 11 attacks.
‘‘ Secondary trauma is a recognised syndrome,’’ she explains. ‘‘ If adults working in a professional environment become that traumatised from listening to realistic tales of trauma and suffering, I’d argue it’s child abuse to do the same thing to children.’’ Awards judges, she claims, are predisposed to giving prizes to books that are contentious or advance political or social agendas: ‘‘ I think children’s book judges are erring . . . something’s gone wrong with the judgment in the liberal arts community.’’
She says Requiem for a Beast is a fabulous book but that its depiction of violence means it should have been awarded an adult rather than a children’s book award.
Bennett responds that the CBCA awards cater for readers up to the age of 18. She adds that violence has always featured in children’s literature. Take the Grimm brothers’ fairytales. ‘‘ Grimm by name, grim by nature,’’ she says, pointing out that in the original Cinderella, birds peck out the eyes of the ugly sisters at Cinderella’s wedding. ‘‘ Today everybody’s perception of this story is of the Disney Cinderella.’’
Emerson counters that fantasy or fairytales provide children with a filter from reality, while stories grounded in real- life trauma don’t.
‘‘ Children’s literature isn’t just adult literature watered down. Children have a very different way of seeing the world and a very different way of processing trauma,’’ she argues. STORY of a Girl , a novel for teens by American author Sara Zarr, was short- listed last year in the US National Book Awards. It depicts a girl trying to live down her reputation as the school slut after she is sprung having sex with an older boy. She is 13.
In Boy Toy , another recent American title aimed at teens, a 12- year- old boy is seduced and sexually abused by a female teacher. For the most part, this is a superbly incisive portrait of how the victim blames himself and how this distorts his relationships with girls. But for me, author Barry Lyga goes too far when his young protagonist has flashbacks to the abuse: flashbacks that struck me as being more like sex scenes than sexual assaults involving a child.
Local writer John Heffernan’s first young adult novel, Marty’s Shadow, was short- listed in this year’s CBCA awards. It’s not for the timid, as it canvasses murder, parental infidelity, domestic violence and racism, and culminates in a discomfitingly graphic depiction of an attempted teen suicide.
The popular Gossip Girl books ( now a US cable- television series) are aimed at girls 14 and older. The first instalment, Nobody Does It Better , has a sex scene on its first page, along with this observation: ‘‘ They’d been in and out of love pretty much since they were 11 years old, and he’d wanted to get naked with her for even longer.’’ Er, a boy who’s wanted to get naked with his girlfriend since he was 10?
Morris Gleitzman’s latest novel, Then , aimed at primary- school readers, is about two runaway children trying to survive the Holocaust. In the opening chapter, the runaways stumble across a pit of slaughtered children.
Near the end of this story, which attempts to graft childlike humour on to grown- up horror, two of the three main characters, including a child, are hanged by the Nazis.
A picture book finalist in this year’s CBCA awards, The Island by Armin Greder, gives an unremittingly bleak portrait of how refugees are treated. This illustrated book depicts a lone refugee who is kept in an animal pen and fed scraps meant for pigs. The story ends with the refugee being forced on to an unseaworthy raft by pitchfork- wielding villagers.
Interestingly, CBCA president Bennett admits this finalist is well outside her comfort zone. ‘‘ We would have got a lot more flak had The Island won ( the picture book category), rather than Requiem ,’’ she says candidly. Bennett feels the denouement of The Island , which has won literary awards in Europe, is too nihilistic for children, as it offers no hope or optimism.
Nevertheless, the former school librarian says stories for older readers that explore vexed issues such as drug abuse or bullying are valuable, as they allow teenagers to test their values without engaging in risk- taking behaviour. ‘‘ The books ( that) sensationalise the issues are the ones I have real trouble with,’’ she says. Are parents aware of the edgier stuff their children may encounter in young adult novels? ‘‘ Nope, not at all,’’ she says emphatically.
Of course, dirty realism in young adult fiction isn’t new. The ’ 90s spawned heated debate about profanity and bleakness in the works of highly regarded authors John Marsden and Sonya Hartnett, who have tackled themes that include suicide and incest.
Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, author of the YA reading guide Right Book, Right Time , says the question is not how far young adult authors should go but how well they write: ‘‘ I absolutely don’t feel there is any topic that is taboo but, as with any adult book, it has to be done in a positive way and it’s got to be authentic . . . You’ve got to get it right and I think some authors don’t get it right and some publishers don’t get it right.’’
Nieuwenhuizen concedes ‘‘ there was a period in the ’ 90s when there was a whole rash of ( market- driven) single- issue books. And thank goodness that has diminished’’. However, she believes it’s high time the CBCA, which has been untouchable, was reformed. It needs to introduce a recognisable YA fiction award to avoid the sort of confusion that followed Requiem for a Beast ’ s win. Its awards have ‘‘ too many categories, mixed messages and ( cause) confusion all round’’, she says.
Nieuwenhuizen believes boundary- pushing in children’s literature is sensitive because books are the last cultural arena in which parents can exert control: ‘‘ They can’t do it with films any more.’’ But focusing on swear words, as happened with Requiem for a Beast , ‘‘ is just a kind of pathetic, childish way of looking at a book for young people and it diminishes the books, the authors ( and) the readers in a really sad sort of way. We should be looking at quality and intent and artistry, and instead we are looking at a word.’’
Susan Hetherington, associate lecturer in journalism at Queensland University of Technology and a specialist in children’s entertainment, is adamant that if ‘‘ it’s not OK to use the F- word in a newspaper, then it’s not OK in a picture book. It takes it one step too far to normalise it in a picture book.’’
Hetherington says soap operas such as Neighbours and Home and Away have dealt with taboos such as underage sex, and that YA fiction writers are doing the same thing. ‘‘ I think a novel is a good starting point to raise these sorts of issues; I just think there is too much of it.’’
Former children’s publisher Mark Macleod says that underwriting the market in grim and gritty YA books is the realist school of writing, which has a voracious appetite for ‘‘ new and fresh’’ raw material and ‘‘ seeks out subject matter that is increasingly bizarre’’. To attract international sales, Australian publishers sometimes are tempted to ‘‘ ramp up the sex and violence’’ in their YA titles.
On the other hand, Macleod, a past president of the CBCA, says ‘‘ some of the extreme subject matter in books is a response to middle- class niceness and censorship’’, along with a belief, dating back to the ’ 90s, that school and literature are overly feminised and that boys aren’t reading enough. He notes that while adults heatedly debate the merits of sex or swearing in teen novels, the target audience seems unfazed.
‘‘ Young people are exposed to so much of it in film, games and internet pornography that they are desensitised and it does not seem a big deal to them when it appears in books.’’