Tuesday, 1 September 2009


Anne Fine's view that childrens books today are too pessimistic and realistic hascaused considerable dispute amongst writers and educators. Speaking at Edinburgh Book Festival, Fine asserted that realism 'may have gone too far in children's literature', and worries about the effect that reading so many books without happy endings will have on children. She questions what effect these books will have on their young readers' aspirations.

The Guardian today reports that her remarks have caused 'a rash of sneering from the literati' who have denigrated Fine in the way childrens authors know best - by comparing her to Enid Blyton.

The question then is whether it is idealism and escapism which is best for children, or whether they are better reading books that ground them in reality. My main objection to the escapism/realism opposition is that it is seen as synonymous with creativity/dull. My own view is that the best books for children to read are those that are both creative and realistic - my prime example would be John Boyne's 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas'; it is by no means uplifting but there is a lot of positive to be found in it - a lot like life, you could say. Other books that I read in my late childhood that combined the creative with the real is Jostein Gaarder's 'Sophie's World', which dazzling combines a narrative about 14 year old Sophie, and about the history of continental philosophy. It is too easy to connote realism with pessimism and negativity; to do so is misleading, and overlooks a lot of fantastic fiction. Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is another example.

And the same goes for fiction for younger children. Alistair McCall Smith, writer of the No1 Ladies Detective Agency Series, has aired a passionate defence of "nasty" books, like the ones he read in his childhood. "Children like to see gruesome events in stories and some characters come to really nasty ends in Dahl's books. I don't think children should be sheltered from these stories." Roald Dahl is a favourite of mine, and although his stories cannot be called wholly 'realistic' - The Witches, Giant Peaches, Oompa Lumpas - they aren't wholly fantastical either. Their child protagonists often have very real lives, live in very real families and face very real troubles - consider Matilda and the lack of affection her parents have for her, the poverty of Charlie Bucket - and the fantasy is framed within this reality.

Michael Morpurgo makes an important point that it is better for children to be reading any book, rather than none at all.

It says a lot about our society that the terms 'bleak' and 'realistic' are almost interchangeable, but childrens fiction is one of the most acccessible and entertaining ways to explain it all to children. There is something worth preserving in the unwavering optimism of escapist childrens writing - such as Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter - but the fact remains that children enjoy grim realism - Goosebumps, Horrible Histories, A Series of Unfortunate Events. And as Morpurgo says, whatever gets children reading should be encouraged.

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