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 5 June 2011

Won't somebody think of the children?

I woke up, ridiculously early considering that my neighbours were drinking in the garden until 2am, to a Twitter maelstrom in the US due to this Wall Street Journal article. My initial feeling about this article was "Why is a mother still choosing books for her teenage daughter?", given my own unpoliced reading at a similar age, and then disappointment that in the 21st Century books are still being divided into "for boys" and "for girls". I disagree profoundly with the premise that 40 years ago there were no "young adult" books.

The first book written specifically for "young adults" is generally considered to be Teens by Louise Mack (1897), but a case could be made for Six to Sixteen by Juliana Horatia Ewing (1875), one of the fascinating Gatty family of South Yorkshire. Of course for most of the 19th century, when publishing really took off commercially, most young people were economically active in some way from a very early age, and only middle and upper classes had a prolonged period before adult life, however Sunday school books and family reading was what was considered appropriate for young adults. These were not simply "goody goody" reading, and I think it is a big mistake to presume that there was a period of cosy problem free reading- simply that the problems described within the books were different.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of those books that many of us "know", but have not read. Many people will know it as a film vehicle for the current gap toothed charm of the child actor of their generation. When we think of Tom Sawyer we tend to remember him bunking off school to go fishing, tricking his friends into painting the fence, falling in love with Becky Thacker; we forget that Tom and his friends witness a grave robbery and murder, where they are genuinely in danger for their lives, and in the sequel/ companion book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is kidnapped and imprisoned by his drunken wastrel father, taken up by conmen and takes up with a runaway slave.
These books were, and continue to be, controversial and "challenged" novels in the USA (and indeed Twain claimed in 1905 that the books were never intended for children and he regretted their access to them, although I think this can be contradicted by other correspondence with his publishers where he relished the publicity of the controversy). Nowadays the objections are not so much against Huck and Tom's petty criminality, smoking, drinking and swearing but to the attitudes to "Injun" Joe and the freed man Jim, and the use of the word "nigger". I am very much against bowdlerising, and feel that a more useful approach would be to consider the very marginal existence Huck has and the possible reasons for his attitudes.

The other novel I was thinking about is Louisa M Alcott's Little Women (1868-9). this novel was explicitly written as a "girls' book", unlike Alcott's previous works, Gothic horror and thrillers. However, Little Women is an extremely radical text; it makes claims that were shocking for the time. The March family are poor middle class (their father is a chaplain in the army). The two older girls (Meg and Jo) are out working; Meg is a governess and Jo is the paid companion to her wealthy aunt. In an era when it was considered that working "coarsened" girls by allowing them to have contact outside the home, thus making them unsuitable for marriage, this was revolutionary for a girls' book. The girls are seen caring for their neighbours (even poorer German immigrants, the Hummels), developing a friendship with their wealthy next door neighbour, wealthy Lawrie (and being accused of gold digging) and overcoming vanity, anger, pride and timidity to become "Little Women" rather than artificial "Young Ladies". Even their eventual marriages are unconventional; Meg marries a young tutor despite threat of disinheritance, and Jo marries a German intellectual refugee rather than the more conventional romantic hero Lawrie. The girls pick their own husbands, and all three turn down wealthy men that they know will not make them happy.

I think that there is a debate to be had, but I don't believe that the exclusion of everything unpleasant or challenging from Young Adult fiction is the one to have. Sit on the bus behind a group of young people and listen to what they are talking about; they are not immune from the world that we adults have created for them. They watch the news, they read the magazines that we do; they have concerns about ongoing wars, the environment, politics as adults do. Family separation, physical and mental health, housing problems, substance abuse and sexuality are issues that affect young people of our times as well as those of Tom, Huck and the March sisters (alcohol addiction is more explicitly addressed in Alcott's Rose in Bloom).

I feel that firstly, the lack of vision and originality in YA fiction, and the unwillingness of publishers to take a risk is of more concern; we have had teenage wizards, then romantic vampires and now dark dystopias as fads; there is more to YA novels than these, but the marketing appears very much focused to what is popular rather than what is genuinely new and original. Secondly, again, we seem to expect young people to be reading the way we encourage them to eat fruit and vegetables: because it is good for them. Do we adults only read Proust and Rushdie? Of course not; we may read "quality" fiction, but we also read Heat magazine, thrillers, romances and popular biography for fun. Why don't we expect young people to do the same? And readers who are my contemporaries may remember the truly hair raising Flowers In The Attic; is Twilight really any worse than the Gothic tale of family murder, betrayal and incest?


  1. I grew up on Mark Twain books. They didn't damage me. I'm sure the fact that I'm a raving psycopathic killer is nothing to do with it.

    But seriously, I did grow up on Mark Twain and I loved the chilling adventures Tom and Huck had. I also grew up on Swallows and Amazons, Jill and her Ponies, Enid Blyton (Famous Five and Mallory Towers) and Alistair MacLean. They all just made me want to read more and, eventually, fostered the compulsion to write.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Brennig! Like you, I read widely as a child and teenager- I might read Flambards, follow that with Stephen King and then Nancy Drew. I do regret reading some books like Charlotte Bronte's Villette or Shirley when I was really too young to appreciate them- I re read them as part of my MA a couple of years ago. But I can't believe that reading a book about romantic vampires will make girls self-harm, which seems to be the thrust of the Wall Street Journal article.

  3. I remember Flowers in the Attic! I moved school and all my friends at my new school were obsessed with it and the sequels. I remember reading all the shocking bits (incest, incest and more incest, mainly) just to see what they were talking about!

  4. They (and Shirley Conran's Lace, and Judith Kranz's Scruples, which were definitelt NOT aimed at young adults) were passed around my school when I was 16 or 17. I flicked through one in a charity shop a few years ago, and was astonished that anyone could read it and be shocked by books like The Hunger Games.