This splendid win, together perhaps with the sight of adults on trains and buses engrossed in a Pullman novel or a Harry Potter, has even led to excited claims that such books blur the edges between publishing for adults and publishing for children. But do they really?
Pullman is quoted in The Independent (23 Jan. ’02) just after his Whitbread triumph as saying: ‘We don’t know how to view children. For example, there was a terrible fuss when Melvin Burgess brought out a book about a teenage girl who turns into a dog that has sex*. He also wrote a book in which – horror of horrors – teenage kids take heroin and suffer the consequences of addiction**. The fuss arises because we believe this is something that children ought not to know about and be protected from. There is no realistic view of children which encompasses the fact that they don’t know very much about the world and the fact that they’re beset by all kinds of temptations and they’re no better or worse than us… I know that they think deeply about things that they don’t have the experience to cope with yet.’
Certainly literature provides us all with opportunities to place our individual experience into a wider social or emotional context. For children in particular, books can be safely distanced ways of learning about and/or reflecting on all kinds of experiences or feelings, whether difficult, worrying, painful or exciting. But should warnings be given about a possibly contentious content or approach when a book published on a children’s list is under discussion? Can a blurring sometimes be inappropriate?
In BfK No.131 I reviewed Benjamin Lebert’s Crazy, an autobiographical novel written when the author was 16. As I wrote about this gripping and melancholic book it did not occur to me to mention, so integral a part of the story did it seem, that the schoolboy hero has sex with a girl. I was then, reading this ‘children’s book’ as though it were for adults. The edges were very much blurred.
But BfK is, of course, a children’s literature review journal and its readership is largely made up of those powerful gatekeepers and arbitrators of ‘suitable’ reading matter for the young – librarians, teachers and parents. Three readers, who use our recommendations as a buying guide, have written to complain that I did not alert them to the sexual content in this book (see Letters to the Editor, page 15). I think I should have done and I apologise – BfK does aim to provide the information that our readership needs about the books discussed in our pages. I do not, however, agree at all with their view that the sexual content of the book is pornographic – I find the passage in question full of anguish and confusion in which peer pressure clearly plays a part. This is very far from titillation.
To my mind, if there is a difference between books for adults and books for children, it lies in the possibility/probability of an experience being conveyed for the first time to a young reader who may not have the cultural, emotional and other reference points that are part of what an adult reader can bring to text. An additional complication lies in what Philip Pullman describes as a ‘realistic view’ of children. There is no one child reader to whom we can refer and this is where the experience of the adult ‘gatekeepers’ is much needed in relation to the children they work with, as well as their respect for a ‘realistic view’.
As Father Stephen Darlington points out in his helpful letter, the issue of ‘suitability’ versus censorship must be part of our concern about what is available to children. The easy way out for writers, not to speak of teachers, librarians and reviewers, is to avoid anything that might cause trouble. Young readers would not thank us for such fearfulness.
* Lady, My Life as a Bitch