There was a bit of controversy at this year’s Edinburgh Festival when Anne Fine was quoted or misquoted about her views on the suitability of certain themes for children’s fiction. She appeared to be suggesting that gritty realism and downbeat endings could be taken too far, and might have an adverse effect on young minds.
I wasn’t there, and didn’t hear her exact words. As Anne Fine is herself the author of the splendid but pretty disturbing book, ‘The Tulip Touch’, I expect that what she actually said was more finely nuanced than the reports suggested. And she was probably talking about teen books anyway – Margo Lanagan’s ‘Tender Morsels’ had just come out with its themes of incest and rape. I did read ‘Tender Morsels’: it was beautifully written, and far less shocking – and much more of a fairytale – than advertised.
I don’t have a problem with gritty realism – or gritty fairytales either – and as far as teenagers are concerned, I think from the age of 14 or so, most young people are capable of dealing with fiction that expresses the harsher and crueller aspects of life as well as beauty, adventure and love. In any case, there’s a wide range of books available. If one story doesn’t please, another will. Even ‘Tender Morsels’ is unlikely to keep a healthy teenager awake at night.
For junior fiction, the situation is different. Authors are not teachers or pastors; we have no mission to instruct or to impart morals; but in practice most authors who write for younger children do present a broadly hopeful view of life in which good usually triumphs over adversity and evil. Part of the reason for this is that younger children are more impressionable.
Everyone enjoys being a little frightened. Toddlers giggle when you pretend to drop them. Eight year olds hide behind the sofa to watch Dr Who. A controllable degree of fright is fun. Cold terror is not, and most parents know what it’s like to have to try to deal – at one o-clock in the morning – with a hysterical child who can’t sleep for thinking about some frightening moment in a film or a story.
If only it were possible to predict what is too scary and what is not! But it isn’t possible. Children are too different. I knew one seven year old who was terrified by the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and another who could watch ‘Jurassic Park’ with complacent indifference. So which film is family viewing for seven year olds and which is not? Neither?
When I was 5 or 6, I had an Enid Blyton picturebook about Noddy, in which Noddy took his little car for a drive through the woods. You turned the page, and a goblin jumped out at him. The picture was black and white, and somehow horribly startling. It reduced me to helpless screams, and the book had to be taken away. Then, memorably, when I was about eight or nine, and horse-and-pony mad, I was given a Puffin book called ‘Snow Cloud Stallion’. On the front cover was a gorgeous, romantic picture of a white stallion sliding to a halt in a cloud of mist, framed against a background of dour pine trees. The story was about a boy who tames a wild horse, and there was a sub-plot about cattle rustlers. I plunged in and read eagerly till I reached a point in the story where the boy discovers the discarded skins of the slaughtered cattle.
And that was that. I was terrified. I couldn’t finish the book; I couldn’t even be in the same room as the book. My mother had to spirit it away. I wouldn’t let her throw it out because I loved the picture on the front cover so much; but I was too frightened of the book to able to look at it or even hold it. (She hid it on top of her wardrobe; I knew it was there, but the fact that it was in her room somehow neutralised it for me.) In the end, she had a go at hand-copying the picture for me, and then I presume she got rid of it. At any rate, it disappeared, and I never saw it again.
And then, just this weekend, in a second-hand bookshop in Stratford upon Avon, I found it again, and bought it for old times’ sake, and out of curiosity. How bad WAS that passage that had scared me so much? Would I still find it disturbing today?
Judge for yourselves:
“There lay the heifer – what was left of her. It took [Ken] several minutes to quiet the jumpy horse, unnerved by the scent of blood which must have reached him just before Ken caught sight of the slaughtered animal.
“It was an unpleasant sight. The hind-quarters were missing and the limp, bloodstained hide lay grotesquely empty. The flies were already buzzing around it in swarms. Ken could see a black hole in the forehead where the bullet had struck. The thieves must have used a silencer.”
Looking at this edition, Kaye Webb’s Puffin imprint of 1967, I see the book (by Gerald Raftery) was first published in 1953. The blurb says ‘A fine story that all children who like horses will enjoy; girls and boys over ten will, we hope, read it with equal enthusiasm.’ So perhaps I was a little young for it after all. I have to say I still find the passage raises the ghost of a frisson. But I don’t think an adult could easily have predicted the passionate terror those few sentences produced in me.
And so I wonder… do you have any frightening stories?