Category Archives: Children’s books

Beyond ‘Juvenile’ and ‘Young Adult’ Books

IMG_4003The quantity of books marketed as ‘Juvenile’ or ‘Young Adult’ (YA) Fiction seems larger than ever, but do these categories cater adequately for teenage readers? It’s a question worth posing in the light of three things I’ve just been reading: an accomplished novel, a remark by a champion of books for the young, and a reminiscence by Charles Dickens.

Duncan Mackay’s Storm Callers (Fremantle Press) appealed to me when it came out in 2007 and still seems a fine example of what a skilled writer can achieve within the framework of Juvenile or YA fiction. Its two main characters, on the brink of high school, meet in a beachside caravan park during their summer holidays, and make some discoveries together – including discoveries about themselves.

Picking up my copy of the book again after a few years, I found tucked inside it a printout of my email exchange with the author, in which I’d tried to convey what particular qualities I appreciated. As a re-reading hasn’t changed my mind, I’ll summarise here some of the things I said to Duncan about those first impressions – and then I want to step back from this particular book and reflect generally on the kinds of reading that I regard as valuable for teenage readers.

The structure of Storm Callers creates a strong momentum: it begins in an engaging way and moves to a satisfying ending. (More about the ending shortly.) The characters are convincing, too. They evoke memories (distant in my case!) of what it’s like to be pubescent – the surge and ebb of enthusiasms, all the social awkwardness, the impulsive fabrications, the flaring and fading of friendships. The language is entirely appropriate, successfully managing the considerable stylistic challenge of filtering everything through the consciousness of a not-very-articulate boy.

What I found especially impressive was the tactful manner in which the story’s implications are lifted to a level above the prosaic. Mythological allusions are introduced without strain. It’s risky for the author of a realistic tale about adolescents in our time and place to refer not only to classical deities but also to biblical motifs, but Storm Callers does so quite convincingly, gesturing towards an archetypal theme – attaining knowledge of good and evil. This culminates in a movingly understated conclusion, with the final sentence faintly echoing phrases in the final lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

While revisiting Duncan Mackay’s book I was also prompted to think about the broad category of fiction for adolescents and mature children because I came across a not-very-recent online interview in which Monica Edinger discusses a book called A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature. She asks one of its editors, Roger Sutton, about his own early reading.

He says that from the age of about nine he read voraciously both adult books and children’s books, the great and the trashy alike. (That was true for me too, and probably for many who are reading this blog.) Sutton adds the following comment, which chimes with my own view:

I hope that today’s teen readers aren’t pushed away from adult books. While it is true that YA literature is wider and richer than ever before, it is largely restricted to coming-of-age themes, and sometimes you want to read about someone who has been there, done that, and moved on.

It’s illuminating, I suggest, to put that comment beside an eloquent reminiscence recorded by Charles Dickens. Dickens grew up as a sickly and neglected child in an impoverished family, but books enriched his imagination. His father had acquired a set of cheap reprints of prose-fiction classics, and young Charles read them avidly, as recorded in an autobiographical fragment on which he drew directly for a memorable passage in David Copperfield. David, exactly like his creator, devoured at a tender age the stories of Don Quixote, of the Arabian Nights, of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Fielding’s Tom Jones, and (in his words) ‘a glorious host’ of other writings. He goes on to describe how he went around his house impersonating his favourite characters and embarking with them on voyages to exotic destinations. What he says about the value of those imaginary excursions is simple and eloquent:

They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.

Often in the world of present-day pubescent and adolescent readers there is too much that confines them narrowly within the preoccupations, ideas and idioms of their own here-and-now milieu. Certainly some stories that reflect everyday experiences and topical tribulations in which their teenage readers are already immersed may help to clarify what they feel, alleviate their worries, free their imaginations. But surely it’s at least equally important for those readers to encounter grown-up fiction that is not set in their own place and time, not holding up a mirror to what and where they are but opening a doorway into richly imagined worlds elsewhere.

Blytonians come out!

Dead for nearly half a century, yet her books still sell eight million copies a year in more than 90 languages! You’d think that such a writer deserves to be hugely admired by literary commentators and educators. On the contrary, her work often encounters stern censure – and even censorship: some public and school libraries refuse to hold copies of any of her books.

9781444908664

Yes, I’m referring to Enid Blyton. Her stories for children continue to come under fire, and in some respects the target is an easy one. Their language is generally formulaic and they tend to represent gender, class and race stereotypically. One critique describes her writing style as ‘colourless, dead and totally undemanding’ and scorns her main theme as ‘an insistence on conformity.’

Then why is Enid Blyton remembered gratefully (albeit with a touch of embarrassment) by a large number of grown-ups? I’ll come to my own confession soon, but I’m far from alone in acknowledging that her books beguiled me. Six years ago, in a survey of 2000 adults, Blyton was voted Britain’s best-loved writer, ahead of (in descending order), Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling, Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Beatrix Potter.

If that surprises you, consider the surge of recent tributes from respected Australian writers. A few weeks ago Robert Drewe began one of his columns in the West Weekend with these words: ‘Like millions of other 20th century kids, I grew up in the literary worlds of Captain W.E. Johns, Richmal Crompton and, most of all, Enid Blyton.’ The main attraction of Blyton’s books, he says, ‘was that the children were much cleverer than the adults, especially the police, at solving crimes (which often involved smugglers), and very much in charge of their lives.’

Robert Dessaix’s latest book, What Days Are For, includes this declaration: ‘Enid Blyton, and Five on Kirrin Island Again in particular, shaped me in a way no other writer or book ever did, with the possible exception of Richmal Crompton and her William stories.’ Why? Dessaix puts his finger on what it was in those stories that moulded his imagination: ‘the subtext: the idea of loyalty to your close friends no matter what, the sharing of secrets with them (an important part of growing up), and also the unusual gendering…’ There was something more, too: ‘Exploration in Blyton’s world is…at the heart of any adventure.’

Is this just a boy thing? Not so. Amanda Curtin mentions in an interview that as a young reader she ‘was always keen on series books, like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven and Malory Towers sets.’ And Kate Forsyth’s voice joins the chorus: ‘For quite a few years, nothing gave me such a thrill as being given a new Famous Five book…I daydreamed about exploring secret passages, thwarting smugglers, discovering buried treasure and having a dog called Timmy. My sister and I used to fight over who would get to be George, the girl-who-was-as-good-as-a-boy.’ She adds: ‘confessing to all this is actually quite hard’ because ‘Blyton has been sneered at for so many years…If one wants to be taken seriously, one does not admit to a childish love of Enid Blyton.’

Well, I want to be taken seriously too – and my own experience was much the same. Although there weren’t many books at home during my primary school years, the local shopping precinct included a small commercial lending library, and I went there often with the same query: ‘Any new Enid Blyton or William books?’ (My Biggles phase came a bit later.) There always seemed to be something new from Blyton’s pen; the Famous Five series alone ran to over a score of titles. In those pre-decimal days the price was just fourpence a loan. The library was next door to the barber shop where I’d get a short-back-and-sides haircut for ninepence while staring –‘Keep your head still, lad’ – at the mysterious inscription on the adjustable chair’s metal footrest: REG US PAT OFF. It took me years to decipher that message, despite being trained in code-reading by Blyton’s books.

4 go off 2 camp

I had two Blyton phases. The later one, in my pubescent years, focused predictably on the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, and it generated feeble pastiche stories. (I still have a copy of the exercise book in which I wrote Four Go Off to Camp – not an enduring masterpiece, though probably no worse than the efforts of an average 9-year-old imitator. Ah, if only I’d been alert at that age to the sensational narrative potential of a camp adventure on Shag Island!)

But I think the earlier phase, my kiddy phase, revealed something deeper and more surprising: Blyton’s seldom-noticed capacity to produce unforgettable images that could haunt a young mind. When I was seven years old my parents bought me a subscription to Blyton’s magazine Sunny Stories, and I remember the thrill when issues arrived in our letter-box. (Those were the days when an ‘issue’ was just an instalment of a publication, not a ubiquitous fuzzy euphemism for a big personal problem, as in ‘Yet another AFL footballer has an anger management issue.’)

One scene from one story in one issue of Sunny Stories still lingers behind my eyes. This wasn’t actually a ‘sunny’ story; it disturbed me. A Freudian analyst could probably explain why. It was about a boy who found that when he looked through a magic knothole in the wooden fence in his backyard he could see all the bad things he had done. I don’t remember anything else from the story, but that guilt-laden discovery was enough. No wonder I turned out to be a writer instead of leading a normal well-adjusted life. Looking through that scary knothole, I saw things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Spufford

In his fascinating memoir of youthful reading, The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford remarks that ‘books did for us on the scale of our childhoods what the propagandists of the Enlightenment promised that all books could do for everyone, everywhere. They freed us from the limitations of having just one life with one point of view; they let us see beyond the horizons of our own circumstances.’

After quoting Hazlitt on the great value of reading in providing ‘a knowledge of things at a distance from us’, Spufford goes on to say:

Adjust for the fact that the book in question will be Blyton’s The Island of Adventure instead of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, and Hazlitt’s manifesto applies. The books you read as a child brought you sights you hadn’t seen yourself, scents you hadn’t smelled, sounds you hadn’t heard. They introduced you to people you hadn’t met, and helped you to sample ways of being that would never have occurred to you.

So let’s crack open a bottle of ginger pop and drink to Enid Blyton!