When I was 12, I watched a mini-series on TV called “And the Sea Will Tell”. Without bothering with the investigative journalism required to look it up on IMDB, it was about the court case following a dastardly murder at sea by an attractive couple – prosecuted by one Vincent Bugliosi. Mr Bugliosi made quite the impression on me and so my dad – I was his only child, and he was 47 when I was born, so perhaps that was to blame for his ideas about what constituted a fun time for a kid (I had been to every war museum in London by this age, for instance) – handed me his dog-eared copy of Helter Skelter, the true story of the Manson killings, prosecuted and written by the very same man. I was completely fascinated by it, would not put it down, and was only interrupted in my reading of it by Mrs Lane, my year six teacher and a woman with rather different opinions on what 12-year-old girls should be reading than my dad. When I produced it during silent reading time one afternoon, she confiscated it and, deaf to my appeals that I had completely legitimately procured it, phoned my father at work to ask him did he know what his delinquent daughter was reading at this terribly nice private girls school? Yes? Well she wasn’t to bring it in ever again. So Vincent stayed home and I took politer fare to silent reading time (probably the Billabong books, which I read at the same age on the suggestion of my mother. I liked horses AND famous mass murderers, you see).
At the same time here are some books my parents discouraged me from reading until I was older: Joseph Wambaugh’s The Glitter Dome (a police procedural classic set in LA, filled with sex, drugs and violence. I liked the glittery cover), Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Wives (“No”), and a bunch of short story collections – Switch Bitch, Someone Like You, Kiss Kiss by some Welsh guy, no reason a kid would be into him, I dunno if you’ve read his books – Roald Dahl?
Hahah, I kid, of course you’ve heard of him. Beloved writer! Creator of Matilda, the goddess of all bookish little girls! My god, the man wrote Boy, which is practically a guide to being a naughty child. I cannot believe he wrote children’s books that were adored around the world AND wrote rather racy stories for adults as well where was his sense of loyalty to his readers my god the kids the kids are going to want to read this stuff they are going to ask me about it and I’m going to have to say no this is awful I need a lie-down and then I need to write a disappointed article for the UK Daily Telegraph questioning why Dahl has chosen to bewilder his readers so. Except I wouldn’t do that because 1. Dahl is dead and 2. What kind of idiot thinks authors should only write for one audience? and also 3. What kind of parent is incapable of policing what their children read?
And I suppose if we were talking about J K Rowling (which we are about to do) I would add 4. What kind of neurotic, out-of-touch adult actually thinks a kid is going to want to read about a fight for a local council seat?
Clearly quite a few people, judging by the reaction to the publication of The Casual Vacancy, the Harry Potter author’s first novel for adults, which was released two weeks ago amidst an unsurprisingly massive international fuss. It is by all accounts a grim, satirical take on modern “broken Britain” (one strain of criticism is from conservatives furious about this). A member of a parish council dies suddenly, leaving the vacancy of the title. While the wealthy middle class locals scheme and fight, they are surrounded by the poverty of their neighbours, the residents of a public housing estate home to domestic violence, drugs, rape, the host of the ills of society. There is a graphic rape scene, and brutal descriptions of life at the bottom of the UK’s class system. It is not a book for children. Rowling has not claimed it is a book for children. You will not find it in the children’s section of all but the most illiterate chain bookshop.
“There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher,” Rowling told the New Yorker on the book’s publication. “I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write.”
And yet here are some choice reactions:
From the aforementioned Daily Telegraph piece: “If you have sold 450 million books, mainly to children, and you have achieved a net worth of £560 million, often from the pocket and birthday money of children, then you may not consider yourself to be their babysitter, or their teacher, but you were certainly their bedtime reading, and they will be helplessly drawn back to your voice.” (As though there is nothing – NOTHING – standing in the way of darling Jessamine from reading about the perils of teen pregnancy and methadone addiction and abusive relationships. And again, we are talking about a book set around a local council election, clearly a popular topic for children’s novels. I must have missed The Famous Five Go To A Site Inspection After Objections Are Raised About A Development Application or Biggles and The Land And Environment Court). The writer, Allison Pearson, continues “No wonder The Casual Vacancy has been as keenly anticipated as Christmas: more than a million pre-orders have been placed, and inevitably some of those customers will be very young.” Well then their parents are bloody idiots, aren’t they? Unless we’re talking about seven-year-olds with the wherewithal to walk into a shop and pre-order a novel, which I really don’t think so. “So why has Rowling decided to break the spell, bewildering fans with this uneven, often harrowing book?” Because she is an author exercising her creative autonomy? Incidentally, fans who do not read the book will not be bewildered by it, so you know… “In the coming days, along with thousands of parents around the world, I will have to do something that offends our best instincts: I will try to stop my children reading a book.” Because you would never exercise editorial control over your kids reading habits in any other situation? Young Magnus likes the picture of the businessman’s tie on the cover of 50 Shades of Grey, so you pick it up for him while you’re down at the shops?
But ok, you say, that’s just one mad British columnist. How about this, from a bookseller of all people: “I am really concerned that young readers will inevitably pick this up and it will be too confronting for them.” That’s a staff member at Melbourne’s Reader’s Feast bookstore, quoted in the Herald Sun. A bookseller. Here is a ragingly controversial idea: maybe make sure you do not put this book in the children’s section. Maybe steer children away from it when you see them looking at it. Maybe you should tell the parents of children that it is not suitable for them, with examples from the text if they are unconvinced. Maybe the responsibility for what individual children read should not lie with an author.
Or there’s this: “All it’s lacking is what would seem an all-too-necessary warning label: Keep Out of the Hands of Children.” (Malcolm Jones in the Daily Beast). You would think she had written the sequel to American Psycho.
While most of the reviews have managed to avoid placing all responsibility for children’s reading choices in the hands of Ms Rowling, almost to a man they have commented that a) this isn’t Harry Potter and b) gosh this book is dark. This brings me to my next complaint: have these people not read Harry Potter? (Those who have not might like to skip the next few sentences) Did they miss the bit about the curse that tortures people, or the multiple scenes featuring the villain torturing people? The fact that the hero has spent the first ten years of his life living in an abusive family? The scene where a boy is murdered in front of Harry? The bit where Harry is forced to write lines in his own blood by a teacher? Are there parents who gave these books to their kids to read thinking they were all sunshine and light? When I said I was planning to write this piece, Tim Hollo said his daughter had read the first three books, but she wasn’t allowed to read the rest yet because they were too dark for her and that, my friends, is a parent excercising editorial control over his child’s reading habits. Why is this such a difficult concept for people to grasp?
Ultimately, I feel the best commentary on the matter came from Kerryn Goldsworth in the Sydney Morning Herald:
“Children are gifted self-censors and most will not persevere with a book beyond their reach; any child still interested enough to keep reading after 10 pages or so is probably ready to do so. Besides, the central message of this novel is that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers: we should take better care of each other. And that, surely, is a lesson any parents worth the name would be glad to have their children learn.”
I would only add that if you have a child who is vividly interested in the goings on at local government, you may have greater problems on your hands than their reading habits.
Image by Sonia Belviso via Creative Commons Licence