So, yesterday morning, authors G.P. Taylor and Patrick Ness appeared on BBC Breakfast to debate the idea that children’s literature has “gone too far” when it comes to horror, violence, and themes which some viewers may find distressing. This sparked an online debate, becoming the top trending subjects on Twitter all morning, and allowing other authors to weigh in on the matter, most notably the awesome Charlie Higson. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the debate, since I was at work when it was on, but I followed the aftermath on Twitter with eagerness and after reading this article on the Guardian website to catch up, I felt it necessary to add my own little opinion from a bookseller in the North of England. Because, y’know, that’s what the internet is for. For those who aren’t familiar with the argument, it seems G.P. Taylor is in favour of introducing a rating system for books for kids, similar to the one’s imposed on films and video games, after he was informed that his new novels had “crossed a line” when it came to scaring youngsters. Ness stood in the opposite corner, seeing this as a fruitless exercise that would only serve to push children away from reading.
One of my earliest memories of really enjoying a book, I mean one that I would read over and over, usually under the covers by torchlight (allegedly a practice bad for the eyes, but oh so good for atmosphere!), was of a fantastic little horror book for kids around six or seven called Scare Yourself To Sleep by Rose Impey. I loved this book, and while it may be the sole reason (or at least a large factor) for my absolute terror of moths, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Children do enjoy being scared, and it’s an important part of developing an emotional maturity by experiencing both positive and negative scenarios. Where better to do that than through fiction? Better that than they encounter a giant blood sucking moth-cat hybrid themselves! *Shudder*
When I was growing up, it was firmly the age of Goosebumps, R.L. Stine’s cherished horror novels for kids, and global phenomenon as they were at the time. Sure, they weren’t exactly much more than silly tension, and an introduction to how suspense works in an everyday setting, how normal events can become weird and unsettling. No kid’s who grew up in the nineties where scarred for life by these books, and I doubt they ever will be. Of course, I understand this is NOT what the debate was about, and that books for young adults can themselves be quite violent (either Department 19 or The Hunger Games), or deal with some quite strong themes (see Junk or A Monster Calls), but they’re dealing with themes relative to their genre. Adults dislike horror, and many would be reading a horror book and think “Oh, no, that’s a bit much for me, I’ll have nightmares”, and children are exactly the same, they have genres that they get on with, and others which they will never quite stomach, and whilst ratings on films are there to protect children from experiencing inappropriate content, it’s much more visual, and I think this leaves a much more long-lasting impression. Ratings on books wouldn’t work in the same way. Would we say The Shining was an 18, as per the film? Whereas, I Am Number Four is a 15, as it has the odd swear word? I don’t think that would work at all, and as with many horror staples for films, the rating only makes it more desirable (I remember how much of a buzz there was when Texas Chainsaw Massacre was gotten hold of!). I remember moving on to Stephen King novels at around fourteen or so, thanks to my Mum’s love of the horror genre in general, and the books never gave me a nightmare, ‘nor have they ever effected me psychologically growing up. It’s perfectly natural for children to be curious about the macabre, and they should be encouraged to try new things, and if they don’t like them, then they know not to try anything similar to that again. It’s learning, and it’s very natural. After King, I moved on Ghost stories, Woman In Black, M.R. James, Edgar Allen, and these contained much less in the way of strong language and graphic horror, but these left much more of a lasting chill on me. I don’t see this as a reason not to let teenagers not to read these titles, but more as a testament to the superb storytelling of the writers in question, which younger readers should absolutely get to experience. Of course, after this I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, which opened my imagination to all the wonderful things horror could be with only the barest of actual horrific descriptive sections, and he remains to this day my favourite writer in the horror bracket.
Outside of horror, the debate also raised the idea of strong themes within children’s literature, from racism, bullying and even death. Personally, I think it’s irresponsible of authors to even think about censoring these themes. Let’s take for an example, Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls (a beautiful book which everyone should read. RIGHT NOW.), which deals with a boy coping with his mother’s death from cancer. This is a vital concept that teenagers and young adults will come across in their lives at one stage or another, and knowing that there are authors out there who have been through the same situation, and who are writing about it, makes it easier to cope when it happens. Children and teenagers can’t be sheltered from the things which might upset them, not forever, so is it not better that they can come across it early, in an environment that inspires understanding and acceptance of such difficult things later in life? I know we all want to keep our children safe from the things which might upset them, but we can’t, not forever. I’m not a parent, but I think I would rather my child read a book about racial bullying, and how it was an awful behaviour, than me have to explain it to them when the school rings me and I find out they’re the ones dealing it out. My colleague Helen once told me her headmaster was horrified at her reading Melvin Burgess’ Junk at what was deemed too young an age, to which Helen’s mum responded with the perfectly fantastic reasoning: “Well, she’s not going to do drugs now she’s read about how badly it can go”. Exactly. Forewarned is Forearmed, and I’d rather my child learnt from their books than by having to find it out in the real world, which can be much less forgiving.
I’m all for rating systems. As a gamer, nothing frustrates me more than the thirteen year old granny mugger who did it because he’d played Grand Theft Auto. No, that game is an Eighteen certificate, and as such should be sold and played to people of that age and over. Why? Simple, your child will be acting out these things on the screen, and that can be an issue, that’s why they’re rated. Books are different, and I personally don’t think a rating system would work in the same way at all. I’ve read books that have left a huge impact with me, but contain nothing very inappropriate, and also read some pretty violent horror but been left pretty cold by it. I think every child and teenager is different, just like an adult, and just like an adults, some eat up horror, and the more grizzly the better, and others will faint at the concept of a severed jugular. Rating systems won’t help solve that, but what will help is expert booksellers who know their children’s stock, supportive teachers and parents who take an interest in what their children are reading before they wake up at three am from a nightmare.