Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Sunday 12 June 2011

Poor kids

Three "cultural" events recently have chimed with my research (take THAT, government funding bodies only interested in PhDs in Science and Technology!), which is in social class and social capital in children's fantasy fiction. The first one was at Stoke Newington Literary festival, where The Independent's Johann Hari and The Guardian's Suzanne Moore were on a panel discussing Chavs by Owen Jones. For non-British readers, Chav is a term that has come into use in the last 10 years to describe what might also be termed the proletariat. It is in my opinion, a highly objectionable term; used sneeringly to describe people who do not share middle class values, in a way that would, if directed to non-white people, be racist.

Jones' contention (and I haven't read the book) is that Britain has become so separated in social class that many people using this term are so totally divorced from working class people that (usually young) people have become demonised. Traditional working class jobs have gone, and people who would formerly have worked in ship building, car manufacturing or mining are now in retail or service industries, which do not pay the same wages and do not provide the same sense of identity, since these jobs are not easily identifiable as "working class". Hari stated that he frequently asks senior journalists what the average salary is; the editor of a national newspaper believed it to be £80 000 (Hari says it is £22 000). Yet many of our images of feckless, scrounging, criminal and stupid working class people come from these journalists, who are with some notable exceptions (Moore and Hari being two) privately educated Oxford or Cambridge graduates.

A few days before the literary festival, the Literacy Trust released research indicating that book ownership and its relationhip to success, attainment and social mobility. It was reported that three in ten children in the UK do not own their own books. Then yesterday I watched the BBC documentary Poor Kids. Watching these bright, articulate children struggling to attend school (poor housing leads to health problems; 85% of children living in poor housing suffer from asthma; school uniforms are too expensive for some parents) was heartbreaking. One small girl was trying to complete her homework standing up in a cold bedroom while her sister was shivering in bed. In contrast to some of my students' assertions that parents "don't care" about their children's education, her mum ran up the stairs to help her with her Maths.

I was thinking about class in children's literature. It is my assertion that not only has it largly disappeared as an overt theme in children's fantasy (for example, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, written in the 1960s, is notable for it's treatment of class in high fantasy) but also that protagonists are increasingly middle class and priviledged children. An exception is the work of Eoin Colfer. His book Half Moon Investigations is the story of a 12 year old detective solving what begins as the theft of a lock of a pop star's hair, but develops to assault, arson and kidnapping. The theft is originally blamed on Red Starkey, bully and scion of the local "no good" family. However, as Fletcher joins up with the Starkeys to clear Red's name, he discovers that they don't deserve their reputation. By contrast, the local goody good middle class girl gang are much more sinister than their Barbie-fixated appearance would suggest. The portrayal of the Starkey family is particularly nuanced; they are clearly working class and not always on the right side of the law, but on the other hand, Fletcher sees how being constantly accused of everything that goes wrong in his town has affected the Starkeys.

If you wanted to do something about the appalling levels of child poverty and associated social exclusion and lack of educational attainment in the UK (we are ranked as 18th out of 22 industrialised countries for child poverty by Unicef, and children born poor here are far less likely to escape from poverty than most other countries) you may like to donate to Save the Children or The Literacy Trust. Or if you're one of those people who buy far more books than you can ever hope to read, or if you have a child who has grown out of a big pile of books, you may like to donate them. The wonderful Book Elf Leeds has links to a Primary school in Birmingham you can send books to- they will be given to the children to take home. Of course they should be in a decent condition and appropriate for 3-11 year olds. You may like to donate books to a local community centre or homeless organisation. My children's books are in constant use, but I have a pile to take to the Homeless mobile library run by Quaker Homeless Action. I will find out if they need children's books as well.

Edit: I read this yesterday saying that charity is not enough to deal with this issue. I agree. You may like to contact your MP via They Work For You and urge them to think again about closing libraries and benefits caps which affect the poorest and most vulnerable in society the most.


  1. Keren David's When I Was Joe has an interesting protagonist, a teen from a relatively poor background but who has had a hard time at a fairly posh school

  2. I keep seeing this book and meaning to read it. Thank you!

  3. It's very good! I finished it during a bout of insomnia!