There's a book for every reader, and a time for every book. Mandy Hager explains why sometimes Great Literature isn't what we need.
In 1992 I went to the public library in hope that I might find some picture books that would help to facilitate the ongoing conversations needed with my three-year-old and six-year-old after their father’s sudden death.
Trying to explain the permanence of death and the tsunami of feelings that were sweeping us all was overwhelming. Back then, there were very few choices — and what was available was either couched in euphemistic terms and metaphors (trees grow leaves, leaves turn orange, fall off, rot and then recycle, yay the life-cycle!) or based on Christian tropes of Heaven, fluffy clouds and God calling His loved ones home.
Neither of these options sat well with me. What I wanted was an honest book not scared to use the ‘D’ word; a book that directly acknowledged the hard days, while still giving hope that at some stage equilibrium could be restored.
What I wanted was an honest book not scared to use the 'D' word ...
In the end, I wrote the book I wished my children had had access to. Tom’s Story went on to win an Honour Award in the 1996 Aim Children’s Book Awards. Letters started pouring in: people sharing their life/loss stories and telling me how useful they had found the book.
I heard from a woman in her 70s, whose mother had died when she was three, who wished she’d had such a book to help her process the death at a time when children were not spoken to about death at all and the prevailing wisdom was that children didn’t grieve. (Incidentally, her point was that this unacknowledged and unresolved grief had hampered all her subsequent relationships, too scared to form long-term commitments.) I heard from an intellectually challenged young man who was so moved by the book he asked his reading tutor to help him write to me (an ongoing correspondence that lasted over three years). Even today, when I talk about my writing in schools, I am amazed how many kids (including teens) sidle up afterwards and surreptitiously flick through the pages.
At that dreadful time, I also sought out books for my own comfort; memoirs of loss that helped me feel less alone and gave me hope. It seemed to me most natural to turn to books to help process how I felt. Today I read up on politics and history, trying to figure out how the hell we’ve got ourselves into such a mess, in the hope of finding answers to help stop the rot. And in my own writing I continue to explore the issues that young people may find themselves embroiled in.
To my mind, fiction is the most powerful tool for exploring complex ideas while at the same time giving insight that can build empathy, compassion and a sense of self. I strongly believe that the greatest gift we can give young people is the opportunity to interrogate issues of right and wrong, power and control, love and loss, cruelty and kindness, in order to help them negotiate our complicated and inequitable world. Through such interrogations, life-long values can be formed and passions ignited.
Therefore, I find some of the recent commentaries within the local YA/children’s writers’ community slightly troubling.
As readers, we choose a host of different books for a host of different reasons ...
There has been criticism of late (some tacit and some direct) that those books written with some underlying purpose other than to merely stimulate the reader’s imagination are inherently of lesser value. I concede that sometimes message is elevated over ‘good’ writing (something I am no doubt guilty of myself) and that a book can be exquisitely beautiful and moving solely for its writing’s sake. But I think it sad that we can’t celebrate all books, and acknowledge that, as readers, we choose a host of different books for a host of different reasons, and that sometimes what we, as writers, might deem as less-than-elegantly written may contain the very thing a certain reader needs at that moment in time. One only has to go to Goodreads and check out the reviews of the latest publishing sensation to realise that no book is ever universally loved — or hated, for that matter; that, as readers, we bring our own baggage, expectations, maturity and intellectual capacity to the reading experience at that time.
Remember when comics were seen as the first indicator of a child’s road to Hell? Now those writing graphic novels are the rising stars! Remember when the Harry Potter phenomenon first started and people slammed it as poor writing? Those books brought through a whole new generation of readers, readers who now continue to read and will do so for the rest of their lives. How can this be bad?
I read all sorts of pap in amongst the literature when I was young, one week reading Steinbeck or Graham Greene and the next Jonathan Livingston's Seagull. I even sneaked True Confession magazines into the house and devoured their tales of early sexual encounters — certainly not great literature, but an excellent way to experience at a safe distance the dangers and pitfalls of teenage sex! Would I read them now? Hell, no! In fact, that phase lasted only a few short months. But they served a purpose at the time, just as those memoirs of surviving loss helped me all those years ago. I don’t need to read them now ... I’ve moved on. That’s my point.
I remember being at a book awards event several years ago, where a writer won the Children’s Choice for a series of books that the children’s literature community universally panned as second-rate. The poor guy was made to feel like a pariah.
But kids loved his work — and isn’t this what parents want? For their children to have a positive interaction with a book? One successful reading encounter leads on to others, and when kids begin to realise they can find pleasure in the written word — or discover something they are burning to know, or which expresses something they have churning in their head— this opens up their worlds. And, for many, this means that eventually they discover books that provide both the experience they want and exposes them to inspirational writing. Being subjected to Janet and John in my early school readers hasn’t made me a life-long, apron-wearing reader of sexist, mono-cultural, compliant coloniser tripe!
Of course, I think it’s important to cherish masterful works of language and imagination, and to hold up those books as examples of exceptional merit. But, just as I love eating gourmet food, it doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally enjoy a feed of fish and chips, or a good healthy vegan meal that I know will do me good (and still tastes great!).
At last year’s IBBY World Congress in Auckland, writers from all over the world were celebrated for having written books that helped reflect the lives of children in their homelands. On the merits of the writing alone, some of these books were fairly mundane and others (god forbid!) even a little didactic, yet their words and images held special meaning for those who lived there. They helped the readers to identify themselves within both a local and global context, and shone a light onto the issues that were specific to them, to give them agency and help them figure out the complexities of their worlds. They also gave a window into each of these specific worlds for those on the outside, a chance to peer inside, connect, and find the common ground. If we can appreciate these good intentions in the books written for other cultures, why are we so ready to pour scorn on our well-intentioned homegrown crop?
Any book that brings a child to print and holds them there is worthy of some applause.
I’d love to see a more inclusive attitude to all writers’ work, and an acknowledgement that any book that brings a child to print and holds them there is worthy of some applause. Writing books is hard work, even those we might not think worthy of praise! The sky won’t fall down if we open up our arms and allow a full range of reading experiences to fill young and questing minds. Yes, it would be wonderful if every book a child read pushed the boundaries of their creative imagination, but I’d rather see a child reading something well-intentioned, if not high art, that gives them insight into their world and helps to shape them as human beings, than something badly written and pointless, or to read nothing at all.
Editors' note: The Reckoning is a regular column where children's literature experts air their thoughts, views and grievances. They're not necessarily the views of the editors or our readers. We would love to hear your response to any of The Reckonings - join in the discussion over on Facebook.
Mandy Hager is a multi-award winning writer of fiction, predominantly for young adults. In 2015 her novel Singing Home the Whale was awarded the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year award, and the Best Young Adult fiction Award from the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
May 2017 sees the publication of her historical novel for adults, Heloise, published by Penguin NZ. It tells the life story of Heloise D'Argenteuil, famed lover of 12th century French philosopher Peter Abelard.
(Photo by David Hamilton 2017.)