It’s not often children’s literature lends itself to strongly-held controversy these days, and true to form the public disagreement about Berlie Doherty’s novel Dear Nobody has been conducted very discreetly. But the issues it gives rise to are important. Briefly, in an interview on Channel 4 news, the well-known critic Naomi Lewis rather regretted that this book had won the Library Association’s Carnegie Medal for 1991. In her opinion, it is disturbing that young schoolgirls should regard it as acceptable to become parents at their age. For Lewis, it is a sad fact that one in three children are now born into one-parent families, given that such children always figure more prominently in crime statistics later on in life than do those starting with two parents to their name. Impressionable teenagers reading Dear Nobody may get the idea that love is always enough when considering whether to have a baby, regardless of the age or preparedness of the mother. But real life problems caused by unplanned pregnancies out of wedlock can be considerable, and no teenage novel should encourage immature readers to believe otherwise.
My own feelings are that this deeply felt novel has as much right to win the Carnegie Medal as any other. It is also a fine piece of writing, and I suspect that teenagers will find it as gripping a story as I did myself. But as an overall picture of this particular situation, some qualifications are still in order. This is inevitable; no one novel could cover every aspect of so fraught a topic. The author could also retort that anything like a complete guide to thinking about unplanned pregnancies should come not from a novelist but from a public body like the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. But impressionable young readers do sometimes use fiction as a chart for their own lives. Dear Nobody describes sympathetically the feelings of an unmarried teenager who decides to go through with her pregnancy. Young readers should not be protected from any book written from this point of view. But they also have a right to read other authors who see this sort of situation differently.
Not that Dear Nobody takes a sentimental view of unplanned teenage pregnancies. Its young heroine Helen initially feels negatively about her forthcoming baby. In the letters she writes to it as a way of sorting out her conflicting feelings, she tells the baby early on to ‘Leave me alone . . . I don’t want you. Go away.’ Elsewhere she calls it ‘An alien growth . . . a disease.’ When out riding she lets her horse gallop wildly in an effort to abort her child. But when the baby still sticks with her, Helen’s feelings turn more positive. ‘I can’t wait to meet you,’ she writes. And when little Amy is born, Helen concludes on the last page, ‘I think I’m exactly where I want to be, at this moment of my life.’
Children, including teenagers, cannot usually think ahead with the same knowledge of everyday reality available to adults. Accordingly, and not unconvincingly, Helen is shown refusing to plan for her future. Instead, she is above all concerned with making sense of her current emotions. The fact that she has nowhere to live an independent life and no means of supporting herself does not really intrude. Giggling happily with her friend at the relaxation classes held at the local ante-natal clinic, she does not worry that living at home with an anxious father and a smouldering, resentful mother could lead to grave tensions for all three. Her vision of a future university place supported by a crèche takes no account of the strains of being a single mother when everyone else is free to do their own thing.
Yet because the novel ends with the birth of Amy, any such uncomfortable realities about the future remain unarticulated. Helen says at one point that ‘A baby isn’t the end of everything. It’s the beginning of something else.’ But because this `something else’ is never spelled out, readers are left with a story where the birth of the baby comes over as the culmination of the whole action. The loved and trusted `dear nobody’ – confidante to Helen’s deepest thoughts – never stands as a person in her own right. The baby as ideal companion is therefore never replaced by the baby as a demanding and occasionally disruptive presence, whose needs will often be opposed to those of her young mother.
Thinking ahead about unwelcome realities is never a popular thing to do, least of all when writing for younger readers. But in life, what happens after is very important. In Margaret Drabble’s adult novel about an illegitimate birth, The Millstone, the baby is born half way through the action, leaving the narrator plenty of time to conclude that ‘It was a bad investment… this affection, and one that would leave me in the dark and cold in the years to come.’ Concluding a book written for the young with main characters still on the brink of discovering some painful truths is not uncommon; think of the fairy stories that end with a wedding and the bland hope of living happily ever after. But while there are some indications in Dear Nobody that major difficulties are bound to come, the overwhelming feeling is that because Helen has made the right decision for herself, all future problems will always ultimately count for less.
Most young readers will be more than happy to go along with this view. When they read about a sympathetic young character, not much more than a child herself, who conceives a baby she wants to keep whatever the opposition, they will generally want to side with both young mother and her child. Many older readers, however, will bring a different perspective to this situation, sometimes won from bitter experience. They know that while every baby wants to be born, there are good, not so good and frankly disastrous times for a parent to have a baby. The clash of interests that can result is often very painful; sometimes the child is sacrificed, sometimes the adult… and the teenager, soon to become an adult, may sacrifice her own expectations from life. It is harder, when writing for younger readers, to win as much understanding for the adult’s needs here as it is for those of the unborn child when both are in conflict. But even so, both types of need must be taken into account, if young readers are ever going to try to make sense of and take control of their own lives, both as they exist at present and how they might develop in the future.
Deciding whether to go ahead with a pregnancy is now an option open to British teenagers. But in the adult literature and films surrounding them, images of abortion are still regularly outweighed by images of birth itself. The decision to abort is usually depicted as selfish in origin and hideous in execution. Now that terminations are medically available, there is less stress on the physical pain or danger involved, but still a great deal about mental scarring. This is not a balanced picture. While some women are deeply disturbed by the whole process of abortion, others come through it unscathed. This lack of concern or guilt would not come over as sensitive or heroic if transposed into fiction, and most writers would want to avoid any suggestion that abortion is a trivial matter that can simply be used as a belated form of contraception. Yet some literary recognition that abortion may not always be a terrible thing for those requesting it is surely in order so as to provide all readers, especially young ones, with a more balanced view.
Yet while there are plenty of novels for young readers describing first sexual experiences, the number that deal with unwanted pregnancies up to now are few. With the exception of Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room, the only children’s story I can think of that has addressed this problem recently is Anne Bailey’s Israel’s Babe. Here again, the unplanned child is kept by its mother. But for the most part, children’s literature in Britain and elsewhere prefers to ignore this whole problem altogether. There may be particular reason for this cowardly response in America, where, as Dan Quayle might have it, abortion is now a hot political potatoe (sic). But opting for silence on this issue is to let down young readers. Children do after all sometimes conceive their own children. They should be told about the consequences of going ahead or not with their pregnancies. As the principal of a British school for teenage mothers put it recently, `Thirty-six hours in labour, which is common, changed them dramatically.’ Literature could also play a role here. More writers could and should tackle this difficult subject, so enabling young readers to experience some of these situations for themselves at least in the imagination.
Berlie Doherty must be congratulated for opening up this problematic area so memorably. But I would also like to recommend a novel by another fine author taking a different attitude. In Rosa Guy’s Edith Jackson, first published in 1979 but still in print, its seventeen-year-old black heroine is struggling to hold her disintegrating family together in a Harlem slum. Her mother is dead and her father has walked out. Befriended by a dynamic lady charity worker, Edith experiences some rare moments of happiness, including a whirlwind affair with a depraved but smooth-talking young man. When she discovers she is pregnant she hopes to marry her lover and keep the baby. But she is cruelly let down, and on a visit to a Welfare Centre packed with unmarried mothers she thinks, `God, what a shame folks having babies and not knowing how to care for them.’ Helping a harassed mother younger than herself with her baby, Edith goes on: ‘What are you doing here, 1’l girl? Why are so many of you here, hanging around the Welfare, orphan homes, foster homes? The Institutions? What did you do to rate it?’ Deciding to have an abortion instead, the novel ends with Edith making the ‘arrangements with her former benefactor by phone.
Like Berlie Doherty, the author puts both sides of the argument. One sympathetic character advises Edith that ‘The worse’ part’s in the tellin’. But by the time the l’l one comes, lovin’ it’s gonna make that part long forgot.’ Yet finally Rosa Guy sides with Edith’s ambition to better herself rather than get pulled down into the mire inhabited by all the other poor, unmarried mothers living on welfare arrangements in her neighbourhood. Her friend Ruby, now aged twenty, has also just had an abortion, so that she and her lover can both complete their college studies. Like Edith, she is shown as a survivor, tough enough to make difficult decisions now in order to provide for a better long-term future. Once again, this novel ends with both girls making important decisions, the consequences of which are left to the reader’s imagination. Some will still agree with their choice; others may prefer the way an unplanned pregnancy is handled in Dear Nobody. The important thing is that both attitudes get more of an airing, so helping all young readers to make up their own minds about which decision they ultimately prefer.
Details of books mentioned:
Dear Nobody, Berlie Doherty, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13056 5, £8.99
The Millstone, Margaret Drabble, Penguin, 0 14 002842 0, £5.99 pbk
The L-Shaped Room, Lynne Reid Banks, Penguin, 0 14 001913 8, £4.99 pbk
Israel‘s Babe, Anne Bailey, Faber, 0 571 16243 6, £8.99
Edith Jackson, Rosa Guy, Puffin, 0 14 032628 6, £2.99 pbk
Nicholas Tuckeris a psychologist, critic and broadcaster. He teaches courses in psychology and children’s literature at the University of Sussex. He’s the author of The Child and the Book (CUP), a standard text on the development of children’s reading interests.