Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fairytales: not for children!

Last night I watched the movie of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. Even though I first read this book at school (many years ago!), I hadn't realised until watching the film again last night how much of an influence this story has had on me. As a writer, when I think of the books that draw me to them the most, they are often narrated by a child protagonist and give a child's perspective on a fairly grim world. 'I'm Not Scared' by Niccolo Ammaniti, 'The Book Thief' by Markus Zusak, 'Jasper Jones' by Craig Silvey and 'Carry Me Down' by MJ Hyland are classic examples of these, though if I put my mind to it I could think of at least a dozen more. I am fascinated by the mix of childhood innocence with the bleakest aspects of adult life: the result for me being the most starkly contrasting shades of dark and light possible. (There are movies that do this for me, too: the recent German film 'The White Ribbon' and the 1955 film 'The Night of the Hunter' being two of my favourites.)
There is a scene in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' where a lynch mob arrives in the night to break into the prison where lawyer, Atticus Finch, is guarding Tom Robinson, a black man, who is held in there for supposedly raping a white girl. Atticus' six-year-old daughter, Scout, recognises one of the men in the crowd as the father of a school friend of hers and blithely chats with him about his son, which eventually shames him into calling the mob away. This is such a powerful example of childhood goodness and innocence overcoming adult bigotry and cruelty; light overcoming dark. For me, this is also the essence of so many traditional fairytales: the innocent Red Riding Hood vanquishing the wicked wolf.
Interestingly, when I started to look up some of the details of this book and its author Harper Lee, online, I read an article which finished with the words: 'a book every twelve-year-old should read'. This is another area I feel compelled to explore: why is it that if a book has a young protagonist in it adults immediately assume that it's for children?
Like many teenagers, I read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in high school. I was a 'good reader', I had no trouble absorbing the words, but the story was so far from my comfortable middle-class Australian world that I only realise as an adult how little of it I really understood. As a teenager, I was hungry for Judy Blume: stories of boyfriends and periods and pimples, THAT was my life, not 1930s Alabama. Of course I could feel empathy for Scout, Atticus, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, I wasn't completely heartless, but it is only upon rereading this book as an adult that I can truly understand the whole historical and social context of the story. As a twelve-year-old? I doubt it.
Perhaps I was particularly narrow-minded or naive as a teenager, but having travelled extensively all throughout my childhood, I would be surprised if I was more so than any other teenager of my generation. Perhaps teenagers today, with access to the internet, are more worldly, who knows? All the same, I would hesitate to call 'To Kill a Mockingbird' a children's book. Or any of the other books I've mentioned above.
I recently gave a talk at a seminar for adults who teach extra classes in English to children after school hours. Many of those children and teenagers have English as a second language. One of the tutors put up her hand to ask me how she could get one of her teenage students to read more 'literary' novels. She'd tried him with 'Huckleberry Finn', but he just wasn't interested. I explained that I'd only recently read Huck Finn for my book group. As an adult. Huck Finn was no light read. For a start, the dialect and language, while fascinating to me as an adult, could seem possibly Shakespearean to a young boy. And, while it's true that Huck has many wild adventures, essentially the story is about a black slave trying to escape from his 'owners' to get back to his family and avoid being killed. There are some incredibly adult themes in this book, yet because it is narrated by a child people assume it is a children's book.
I suggested to the woman to perhaps try some contemporary Australian authors: we have some brilliant writers here writing stories for contemporary teenagers. He might find them more relevant to his every day life. Her student would seek out Huck Finn for himself when he was ready for it. As well as all those other brilliant books we are made to study in high school: Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, My Brother Jack. I mean, how as a sixteen-year-old girl was I possibly able to understand the life of a unhappy journalist lusting after his brother's wife when I hadn't even experienced a long term relationship, let alone a marriage?
I'd really be interested to know what other people's thoughts are on this. I notice many of these books are still studied at school in place of contemporary YA fiction, some of which is as well written as any of the 'classics'. Then again, perhaps if we never studied the classics at school we'd never read them at all? Who knows? And, while I acknowledge I could have only understood some of the themes present in these books, I am the first to admit that the stories still stay with me today, gently unfolding in my mind as my collective life experience permits me to understand them at deeper and deeper levels.
So, perhaps in the end to call books 'children's', 'YA' or 'adult's' doesn't mean anything anyway. Adults read Harry Potter and enjoy it and primary school kids read Twilight (gulp!). Perhaps you just find the story that speaks to you. Perhaps you understand as much of it as your life experience and compassion allows you. And perhaps, like 'To Kill a Mockingbird' has done for me, it will continue to influence you long after you've read it, and each time you go back to it you will understand it at a deeper level.
After all, when they were first told around the fireplace, fairytales weren't meant for children either.


  1. I was really surprised at how sad I felt to hear that Ruth Park died yesterday. It reminded me how significant 'Playing Beatie Bow' was for me when I read it, and for years aftewards. It may not have been the great moral tale that some of those books you've mentioned are (although who knows what I might discover if I read it again now!), but it certainly fired my imagination.
    I must read 'Jasper Jones' this summer...

  2. P.S. I love that German cover. Beautiful!

  3. Hi Rach, yes, it is amazing the effect that books from your childhood can have on you. One of my favourite things about teaching Writing For Children is the looks on my students' faces when I pull out books they recognise from when the were young.
    Glad you like the German cover. Me too!
    Happy Christmas! xxx

  4. I also had to read To Kill A Mocking Bird at school and it didn't make much of an impression on me. When I re-read it just a few years ago, I was totally blown away by it, and now consider it one of the very best books I've ever read. No, it's not a children's book and I wouldn't give it to a 12 year-old, though I would give it to an intelligent 15+. I think the best of children's and YA books can be understood at deeper levels and appreciated by adults too, and as with the example you gave of Huckelberry Finn, it's not so much the subject matter that makes a book suitable or unsuitable for kids as the language and the way the subject matter is handled. There is actually no idea that an intelligent eight-year-old can't comprehend if it's couched in age-appropriate language and point of view. eg. There are some great children's books dealing with themes such as war, Holocaust, divorce, etc. What matters is the sensitivity with which those themes are presented.

  5. Hi Robyn, I'm glad you had the same reaction to To Kill a Mockingbird on revisiting it. I am slowly working my way through all the books I read at school and realising how amazing they really are.

  6. Hi Sally,

    Thank you! For articulating so well the very thing I argue so frequently with my literacy co ordinator and other teachers at school.

    I read To Kill A Mockingbird in Year 8 and adored it instantly. Scout felt like a friend to me and I have re read To Kill A Mockingbird every year at Christmas since. To date I have read it 22 times and each and every time I revisit this novel I discover something new. However, I learned very early in my Library career that it is a book that most Young Adults cannot relate to easily and only a few appreciate.

    I would love to see some of our very talented Australian Authors replacing the tired and (apologies) irrelevant texts they are forced to study now. Sadly in the push to get children reading more, the powers that be seem to overlook the fact that with so many other things to distract and engage them, our children and teenagers need to be given texts they can relate to.

    I would love to see books like Six Impossible Things- Fiona Wood, Graffitti Moon- Cath Crowley, Five Parts Dead- Tim Pegler, This Is Shyness- Leanne Hall or YOUR books Chenxi and the Foreigner or Leopard Skin, on these lists and this is barely the few titles that instantly come to mind!

    As for some titles being assumed as children's books owing to the age of the protagonist, well, lest just say, best I don't start here, lest I am unable to stop! :)

    Beautiful post Sally, thank you again!


  7. Hi Tye,
    Thank you for your wonderful response. I love the idea that you read To Kill a Mockingbird every Christmas.
    Your library is very lucky to have you as are we Australian authors to have someone like you championing our cause!
    Best wishes,

  8. This is an interesting post. I saw the movie as a little girl and it frightened me so that I haven't read the book yet- maybe I should. As a little girl I was a veracious reader and as I had read just about every book in the small school library and every book I owned my dad gave me George Orwell's books Animal Farm and nineteen eighty-four. I was in grade 5 (10and a half years old) I found 1984 a little hard going and a bit dry but I thoroughly enjoyed reading Animal Farm although I hated the cover with the angry looking animals and created my own farmyard menagerie with coloured pencils on some brown lunch wrap to recover it in a way that was more to my taste. You are right I didn't really understand the book - the political connections to real events but I was moved by the story of these animals and to this day I do have a strong sense of social justice.
    I teach in a primary school and one thing I think that we are doing better in regard to teaching reading is teaching kids about making connections to a text and having discussions about what a text is saying beyond the literal meaning and the authors intent all things that I never heard of in the 1970's when I was in primary school.
    I think kids will understand a book on different levels to adults and that's fine. I do think it is important that children and young adults get access to books that are relevant to them and engaging for them but I hope that they can be challenged to pursue things beyond that because one of the beautiful things about books is that they can take you beyond your immediate world and experience to enable you to experience different times, places and events vicariously.

  9. Hi Red Hen,
    You are absolutely right. If kids have someone like you to take them through a novel and help them identify with the characters and understand some of the more complex themes, then they are very lucky. It's great to hear your impressions of Animal farm as a child and of the the farmyard you created yourself. That's another book I aim to return to as an adult.
    Thanks for posting!

  10. Animal Farm terrified me; and every book and novella we were set in Year 11 ended in suicide - not exactly ideal for a bunch of neurotic and depressed teenagers! Yet I do still go back to Mockingbird, Huck Finn and other stories I read at school - they were very powerful then, and remain so now. They can be read on so many levels.

    We spent a term in Year 9 reading and studying the Lord of the Rings: insanely long, but absolutely wonderful. I'll never forget that experience, or the fabulous teacher who stepped away from set texts and gave us something to really chew on!

  11. Hi Alison,
    We had a teacher in Grade Six who spent lunchtimes reading The Hobbit aloud to anyone who was interested. I have no idea how long it would have taken him to read the whole thing. What a teacher! I think I must have missed a few lunchtimes though because I can only remember bits and pieces of the story. All the same, the teacher left as great an impression on me as the story did.