Thursday, 26 June 2014

Diversity and Censorship in Literature

All this week I have been volunteering at the UEA's Festival of Literature for Young People (aka, FLY). At the festival, students aged 11-18 get to listen to author talks and take part in workshops run by authors to get them thinking differently about literature - both reading and writing. Yesterday, I was an usher for the mornings author talks, so I got to sit in on the talks and listen to what both Bali Rai and Alex Scarrow had to say. I had heard of Alex Scarrow before - mostly due to his brother Simon Scarrow who wrote The Last Centurion series and came to my college to talk about it - but had never heard of Bali Rai. Both gave very different talks. 

Alex's talk was totally geared towards his readership, 11-14 year olds. He performed at the front of the lecture theatre and had all the students roaring with laughter.

Bali's talk, on the other hand, was very much spoken up to the students rather than down to them or at them. As an older student who has a vested interest in the production of literature, it was his talk which really stuck with me.

Bali spoke extensively on the need for diversity in children’s, teen’s and young adult literature. As a first generation immigrant – born in Leicester to Indian parents who spoken very little English – he found that the books he was reading were not at all connected to him. He couldn’t identify with either their protagonists or their plots. It was only his love of reading which made him stick to trawling through various adaptations of the well worn ‘Famous Five’ plot (upper middle class white children who speak the Queens English going on adventures).

Similarly he spoke about the whiteness of highly successful books. Harry Potter, had he been named Harish Patel, would never have been successful, mostly because it would never have been published. (This being said, I love the head cannon of Harry being a mixed race kid, James Potter could easily have been a black man, Lily Evans a white woman – Harry the boy with unruly hair and unusual eyes).

He also spoke about the success of American books and authors as opposed to books set and written in Britain by British authors such as himself. He specifically pulled out The Fault In Our Stars by John Green and Before I Die by Jenny Downham to compare. The Fault In Our Stars is a book about two terminally ill teenagers who fall in love. Before I Die is a book about one terminally ill teenager who wants to experience all life has to offer. However, Before I Die only became hugely successful after it had been Americanised – it was reformed into Now Is Good, a film starting Dakota Fanning doing an (incredible, in my opinion,) English accent. The plot may not have been changed, but the title change and the decision to cast an American fundamentally changed the way the book was viewed.

As a writer, he decided to write about the thongs which spoke to him – inner city life, characters from the full spectrum of racial and ethnic backgrounds, plot lines which were inspired by the gritty reality of life. He doesn’t shy away from discussions of abuse, racism and classism. He doesn’t pull punches, either, as he proved when reading a small extract from his book The Web of Darkness.

Throughout the talk he made it very clear that he was writing hard hitting stuff, and that if you as a reader do not enjoy reading about nasty, grimy, gritty characters who do horrible things, then you will not enjoy his books. However, the area of his discussion which really interested me was this:

Why shouldn’t all students of all ages been given the opportunity to read about it if they want to?

He made the example that an emotionally mature 11 year old who is a confident reader is probably better suited to read some of his books than an immature 15 year old, and has just as much right to pick up one of his books from their school library shelf as any of the older students.

All of this kept I mind the idea that age warnings/content warnings should be displayed on the books in a prominent place (an argument I tend to agree with, and one which Patrick Ness heavily debated on Twitter a month or so ago - @Patrick_Ness).

I pretty much agreed with Bali, although I do understand how it can be hard from school teachers and librarians to judge whether one child of one age group is more or less emotionally ready than another child of a different age group. However, as a confident reader myself, I remember the days when I had read through the entirety of my age ranges books at my local library and was bored of reading the same boring things again and again. I also remember reading a book before I was ready for its content precisely because the age warnings were not displayed on the book.

If I could implement a system which both allows confident readers to read broadly as well as warning readers about the content of the books it would be something similar to a tactic which used to be used by the Little Black Dress publishing house. A small pie chart was placed on the back cover of the book showing how much of it was romantic, funny, sad etc. This could easily be adapted to show if the book featured sexual or triggering content.

Another way to do this would be the same way as films show why they have been given their age rating – a small table which says things like ‘Sexual content: none, Bad language: Some, mild’ etc etc.

Of course, both of these systems would have to be approved by all publishing houses to have any effect. The last way to warn younger readers about what they might be reading is the enlarging of the ‘Not Suitable For Younger Readers’ notice which appears on the back of some books, including Bali’s The Web of Darkness.

The idea of censoring children’s literature is a controversial topic, one which Bali did not tread on lightly, and many people have very strong opinions on the innocence of children. Sadly, I believe we do not live in an innocent age – we never have – and it is much better for children to read about horrific events within the context of literature, where morals are often clear and laid bare, than through the media with its scare mongering or, as Bali suggested, through potentially damaging pornography.

If you are interested in engaging in the debate, as I know I haven’t fully expressed the extent of it here, then please either leave a comment below, or contact me via twitter @VickMaitland. If you want more information on FLY please visit the festival website or contact @UEAFLYFestival on twitter.

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