The awarding of the Carnegie Medal to Kevin Brooks, provoked much debate about the importance, or not, of happy endings in books for young people. Sophie Hallam considers what might be behind these judgements, by adults, on what is ‘right and good’ for young people.
I sat down to read The Bunker Diary with some dread. I’m not a horror person – even the front cover made me nervous. I watched the film Saw through closed fingers and generally avoid scenes of torture, blood and guts. But I wanted to know what the fuss was all about and I was on a mission to read all six of the Carnegie Medal short list. From the beginning, I wanted to put it down. It made me feel tense, nervous and sickened…yet I was enthralled and it took me no time to steam through to the end. Whether this was the fast-paced narrative or a desire just to stop the torment, I don’t know. But I came away from the book feeling strangely satisfied – I had got through it, I had survived. And, for me, despite the media outcry, there was hope in the novel. The relationships between Linus, Jenny, Russell and Fred are full of hope. The human potential to care, nourish, protect, support and, even, philosophise in the most dire of circumstances is surely evidence of our basic human survival. Of course, there are a few baddies – Bird and Anja – not to mention…well we don’t know his/her name…but that’s life. Sometimes we don’t survive. And the book left me wondering…which can’t be a bad thing.
So, why all the upset? Some children’s book critics have condemned the book – and indeed the Carnegie judging panel – for awarding the medal to Brooks. Literary critic Lorna Bradbury questioned whether the novel was ‘good for our teenagers’ calling it a ‘vile and dangerous story’, others have said it is devoid of hope. The Carnegie judges have attracted criticism over the years, for choosing books that are too depressing, too serious, too YA…
Our construction of ‘childhood’ is deeply influenced by time and culture
Simple fact is adults place their own value judgments on what is ‘right or good’ for young people and our construction of ‘childhood’ is deeply influenced by time and culture. From early puritanical texts such as Mary Martha Sherwood’s The History of the Fairchild Family, or, the Child’s Manual: being a Collection of Stories Calculated to Shew the Importance and Effects of a Religious Education, to Mary Whitehouse’s attack on Doctor Who to Michael Gove’s ‘focus on tradition’; there has always been concern on what children and young people are reading, watching or playing on the Xbox.
In fairy tales, evil is always lurking behind the corner
Agreed, the novel is no fairy tale but it brought to my mind Bruno Bettelheim’s texts on what children read and why. For Bettelheim, fairy tales stimulate the child’s imagination, develop intellect and allow children to become attuned to their anxieties about the world – bringing unconscious fears into ‘conscious fantasies, which then enable him [or her] to deal with that content’. He bemoans ‘the dominant culture [that] wishes to pretend, particularly where children are concerned, that the dark side of man does not exist’. In fairy tales, evil is always lurking behind the corner. It is this struggle against evil that allows the child to overcome all odds and emerge victorious. And this is where, supposedly, The Bunker Diary falls short – there is no ‘happily ever after’ and no one emerges victorious. Even Tolkien says that fairy tales need happy endings. Interestingly, Brooks’ tale does share one major and common theme – I’m thinking of Hansel and Gretel in particular – of being rejected by family, deserted, manipulated and starved (or fattened up for the kill). So are we actually looking at a modern day fairy tale? And how important is a happy ending?
I recently attended the inaugural Young Adult Literature Convention, part of London Film and Comic Con at Earl’s Court. Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, Patrick Ness, Sarah Crossan and James Smythe came together to discuss the ongoing appeal of dystopian fiction aka ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it.’ For Sarah Crossan, dystopia, like the fairy tale, is based on the idea of fear – and our biggest fear of not being able to handle horrific circumstances when they come along. Films and books that address this fear allow us to hope that we will be able to cope should the worst happen.
One audience member asked the panel, with no uncertain reference to the ongoing debate surrounding Brooks’ book, whether books needed to end on a note of hope. The consensus from the panel was a resounding no. Indeed, Patrick Ness made the point that many of the stories that teenagers write for themselves are ‘way darker and much more hopeless than anything we would be allowed to publish’ and that ‘if you don’t address that then you are abandoning a teenager to face that themselves… that’s the immoral choice rather than false hope and fake hope.’ Of course, on the flip side of dystopia is utopia which all of the authors agreed would be, quite frankly, boring to write about.
JA Appleyard is known for his developmental perspective on reading attitudes and how the different ways we experience fiction changes according to our age. In adolescence (from about 13-17), Appleyard argues that teenagers demand stories that ‘reflect the darker parts of life and the new found limits on their idealism’. Malorie Blackman talked about the appeal of ‘moving on’ from happy endings as a child: ‘When I was 11-12 or even younger I stopped reading children’s books…because I didn’t believe in that happy ever after anymore and I was fed up with reading it and I started reading adult books – some of which were totally inappropriate – but I wanted to read something that reflected life as I thought I knew it.’
A lot of teenagers, and many pre-teens, want stories that deliver an emotional punch with fast-paced plots, full of suspense and dramatic power. They often want to deal with subjects that are not openly discussed or that are taboo – stories that allow them to identify with complex ideas, which deliver both an emotional and cerebral response. They don’t always want, or need, a happy ending.
The Carnegie Medal is judged by librarians for a reason. An experienced librarian will know what stands out from the crowd, what will create interesting discussion and, more importantly, they will know when and how to recommend a book to the right child. Librarians are there to support young people’s reading choices, to talk to them, and to find out the genres they like. Teachers, parents or critics who dismiss the idea of challenging YA books may be missing an opportunity to create and encourage reading for pleasure. A controversial book creates a buzz around reading and can provide an excellent starting point for talking about books – which can’t be a bad thing. Louise Rosenblatt describes the special mark of a literary work of art – that it is ‘…“burned through”, lived through by the reader….[which] would leave him renewed for actual life’. I think The Bunker Diary does this, and for the doubters out there, go and read the reviews by the children themselves.
Sophie Hallam is on the executive committee of IBBY UK.