Analysing their dark ma­te­ri­als

Are graphic sex and vi­o­lence, and dis­tress­ing moral is­sues, go­ing too far in chil­dren’s fic­tion, asks Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.’’

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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