More than 50 teenagers have been killed in Britain by knife crime since the start of 2008, 27 of them in London. And according to NHS statistics, the number of children admitted to hospital with stab wounds has doubled in the past years.
This is the real world in which many of our young people, particularly those in urban areas, live and it would be surprising if the realities of teenage gang culture and the threat of violence were not reflected in contemporary teenage fiction – as indeed they are. ‘Violence, knife crime, murderous gangs and a vengeful killing are this year’s themes of choice for the best books for teenagers’ according to the publicity material for the 2008 Booktrust Teenage Prize which includes on its shortlist Kate Thompson’s Creature of the Night (Bodley Head) about a young tearaway who wants to steal a car so he can rejoin his gang and Anthony McGowan’s The Knife That Killed Me (Definitions) about a boy involved in gang warfare who is handed a knife – with tragic consequences.
Such titles about frightening and dangerous aspects of society afford young readers a safe way to explore the pressures and expectations of the contemporary world, to imagine themselves in the protagonists’ shoes and reflect on the choices they make and the situations in which they find themselves. It was ever thus with fiction – an imaginative engagement is on offer that can help the reader to make sense of the world, whether by empathising and identifying or by experiencing horror and anger at what is depicted.
How contradictory and puzzling it is then, that the AQA exam board has dropped Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Education for Leisure’ from its GCSE syllabus. The poem (first published in 1985) begins: ‘Today I am going to kill something. Anything.’ A fly and a goldfish are killed by the protagonist who goes out into the street in the final stanza carrying a bread-knife. AQA board’s Director General has explained* that the poem was dropped because of ‘concerns about the topic of the poem in light of the current climate surrounding knife crime’. This judgement not only fails to understand the purpose of literature (the poem is actually about the impact of deprivation and neglect on a young person and has been successfully taught in classrooms for a more than a decade) but is chilling in its knee jerk response to criticism. What other books might be removed? Whatever happened to freedom of expression?
* TheTimes Educational Supplement 5.9.08