George Hunt on the temptation to ‘protect’ children from reading about issues that they have a right to know about.
When I first read Two Weeks with the Queen some years ago, I knew that this was a book whose humour and humanity I was duty bound to share with the children I taught, yet I did not have the courage to do it. Teaching was hard enough, I reasoned, without having to deal with complaints from parents resentful of their eight-year-olds being pulled through such spiny territory as childhood cancer, gay-bashing and Aids. I agonised over this for some time, and in the end I borrowed a backbone from close friends whose daughters were enduring the same ordeal as the Mudford brothers: the younger one desperately ill, the older racked with anxiety and resentment.
It was the heartfelt enthusiasm for the book expressed by both these parents and their children that convinced me that my initial conviction was worth carrying through.
In the meantime, I had interviewed Morris Gleitzman for Books for Keeps, and he had pointed out the irony of such avoidance behaviour: in the book, Colin’s parents pack him off to England because they want to ‘protect’ him from the sight of his brother’s terminal decline; in real life classrooms, adults strive to ‘protect’ children from reading about issues that they have a right to know about. In both cases, he suggested, the motivation might be more to do with shielding the sensitivities of adults.
One of the things that children find most appealing about Gleitzman’s books is the refusal of his young characters to flinch from harsh realities. These eleven- and twelve-year-olds face their tribulations with a defiant creativity that underlies the frequent eruptions of hilarity in the stories. One of the funniest and saddest chapters of a book to read aloud with a class is the opening scene in Misery Guts, where Keith Shipley paints his parents’ dismal failing chippy in a lurid Tropical Mango Hi-Gloss as a birthday present to cheer up his depressed father. Listeners will probably consider this pure slapstick at first, but in a single poignant sentence towards the end of the chapter – Keith realised that his father was staring down at the pavement – the genuine misery of the scene is exposed. From then on it becomes clear that that firestorm of pigment that Keith detonates in greyest Lewisham represents his determination to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ on behalf of his defeated and defeatist parents.
Classroom audiences sympathise with the relentless, courageous attempts of Gleitzman’s young heroes and heroines to spark hope and laughter from the everyday flinty realities of disappointment and family agony. They also appreciate his celebration of sheer bloody cheek.