So I’ve been thinking about age. Not just because this year holds a milestone birthday for me, and for many of my friends, but also in terms of storytelling. I don’t think age matters too much in deciding what we choose to read – I am equally happy to read about Julian Barnes or Philip Roth’s older men as I am to read books with child protagonists; Life of Pi, Room, My Name is Leon etc. It’s more to do with our interests and personalities. However, stories do appeal because they resonate, so I think my father, for example, would more happily read Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett than Not Working by Lisa Owens (two great books I devoured this summer).
With children though, it’s more contentious. There are those that say we shouldn’t ‘gate keep’, and that we should let children read anything – if they don’t understand it, it doesn’t matter because the content will go over their heads. The same people say that censorship by age is nonsense – who are we to know the emotional intelligence or sensitivity of a child? Each one is an individual.
However, several things occurred to me recently. Firstly, I’m running an INSET this week about school library use and helping children to choose books. I’m sure there are some books the Headteacher vetoes (and rightly so, deeming them too old for the primary school library). Secondly, I read two books this summer aimed at the younger end of YA, but which for me, contained too much disturbing detail for me to suggest for that readership. Thirdly I read a review in The Times newspaper of Mal Peet’s newest novel, posthumously finished by Meg Rosoff, in which the reviewer stated that it contained details of rape, and therefore was suitable for 14 years plus – thus putting a direct age censorship on one particular issue.
Michael Morpurgo stated recently that hugely disturbing images come flooding at our children all the time – mainly because of their access to multimedia and because of the media’s access to what’s happening in the world as never before: Earthquakes, floods, war, terrorism. But how much do we protect children from this, or explain it? I have the headlines rolling into my kitchen every breakfast time, but I distinctly remember turning down the volume when, for a while, all the headlines were about Operation Yewtree, and I didn’t want my children (all aged under ten at the time) to hear details of that.
Some may think it’s good that MG (middle grade) and YA (young adult) books deal with difficult issues. I certainly agree that no literature for children should ‘dumb things down’. Children and teens are intelligent and should be presented with books that are well written, clever and ‘good’ literature, and which confront topics that they don’t necessarily, and wouldn’t want to, experience personally – in fact, sometimes with issues that don’t ‘resonate’ personally but which they want to read about happening to others to explore the emotional empathy it provokes. But, as in all art, there’s a reason that a TV watershed was introduced, that some music is labelled ‘explicit’. It’s to point out what’s contained within.
When I started my website, and my reading consultancy, I gave myself a remit. I would suggest books for children up to about age 14. This covered primary school, and those children who are advanced readers and emotionally astute – thus pushing the boundary slightly above their 11 year old selves, because, as above, I believe in each child being an individual.
And then this summer I read two books from publishers who thought that they fitted my remit. Possibly because they have young protagonists. And yet, although they’re both good reads, and in fact one is stunning, I couldn’t just review them on my site as books of the week without this mitigating introduction. Because the subject matter, well – it’s up to you as your child’s book buyer, hand-holder, confidant, judge of their own emotional intelligence – to decide if it’s appropriate for your young teen.
The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard
Told in immensely lyrical, poetic, and emotional prose, Alice tells her story. She is 15, but trapped as a pre-teen from her acquired brain injury, a result of a horrific assault (with an implied, although not blatantly stated, rape.) Her speech is slow. Her words, however, fly out on paper, and she writes poems to express herself, leaving them adrift throughout the small town, Oktober Bend, in which she lives. No one takes much notice, until Manny appears in town. A former child soldier, adopted in Australia from his native war-torn Sierra Leone, Manny runs round town to overcome his past, and finds Alice’s poetry. Manny’s story is told from his point of view, in chapters with a different typeface and a starkly different tone and prose style – far more matter-of-fact, much starker. (Personally I felt that Manny’s story was too buried beneath the starkness, but two woeful emotional tales may have been an overload).
In essence, then, this is a love story between the two – but readers will fall in love with the setting, the characters surrounding the protagonists, but most of all with Alice’s voice.
Not only is Alice’s voice poetic – but it is written with a lack of capital letters, and punctuation in unexpected places – some of the prose weaves into poetry. This lifts the voice from the page, so that the reader is fully immersed inside Alice’s head; creating an intimacy as if Alice is speaking aloud to the reader in a way that she cannot speak in her own world. Perhaps, also because of her isolation from the rest of her town – defined by her slow slurred speech and the townspeople inability to understand her/fear of her – the inner monologue creates an intense intimacy with the reader. Some of Millard’s phrases – as seen through Alice’s eyes, are startling in their poetry:
“in seconds we were racing along the damp dirt track beside the river. tiger-striped with sunlight and shadow.”
And yet all the time giving Alice an acerbic and humorous teen perspective on things:
“at day centre they showed us how to make things like paper, aprons and library bags, then they sold them to people who could have made anything they wanted, but didn’t because they went to school and university and got jobs and then there was no time left over for making anything.”
The love story is not just between Manny and Alice though, (as they come through their painful pasts to accept a hopeful future), but also the distinct and clearly written characters of Alice’s grandmother and brother – both Alice’s protectors. As Joey, Alice’s brother, grows older himself, so their relationship twists and changes, and this is one of the most special aspects of the book – an increasing awareness of the bond between the two siblings stretching and changing as they both find love outside the family unit. So too, as Alice’s grandmother grows older and more frail, does the relationship between the two of them change – one protecting the other and then flipping, as relationships do. It feels real, and heartbreaking and is written with expert emotional intelligence.
The setting too adds to the whimsical poetry of the book; a sleepy closed-off town, on a river – which is key to the story – both the place where Alice was attacked, and the denouement where the characters learn about revenge and forgiveness.
This is a book filled with soul, and beautifully written. Compelling and emotive, it’s recommended as a read for ages 13-17 by the publisher. To fully understand the implied issues, I feel that the book warrants a deeper maturity on behalf of the reader, so would recommend for older YA readers (and adults). A great, stunning read. You can buy it here.
What Sunny Saw in the Flames by NNedi Okorafor
This is a scintillating read, written in matter-of-fact prose from the point of view of twelve year old Sunny. She lives in Nigeria, but was born in America, and struggles to fit into either country. What makes it harder for her is that although her features are African, she is albino. It’s hard enough entering the teenage years, without feeling like a misfit already.
But when she discovers that she has a magical gift – she is one of the Leopard people, imbued with an ability to see into the future with magical power, she is sucked into a fantasy world. Together with her new friends, she visits the city of Leopard Knocks and learns that her destiny is to destroy Black Hat Otokoto, a monstrous serial killer who also happens to be a witch.
By traversing the fantasy with reality, Okorafor poses Sunny in both familiar territory as a skilled soccer player yet one who cannot easily be in the sun, and the difficulties that she faces as albino in Nigeria, along with placing her firmly inside a tightly built fantasy world that draws inevitable comparisons with Diagon Alley and the team pursuits in Harry Potter.
The writing feels childlike – told from Sunny’s point of view, it dances around with exuberance – a running train of thought with observations that are both childlike and yet expose quite brilliantly the difference between the two cultures, which Sunny experiences – even down to the gritty detail of the differences between mosquitoes in Nigeria from those in America. The imagery is quite stunning – from her burning anger to the flames and the sunshine of her name – but also mixing the exotic and the familiar – the imagery of Africa with the more familiar territory of America and her American friend – to the fantasy world of the Leopard people.
Yet, for me, despite it being marketed as being for 10-14 years, Sunny’s battle against the serial killer contains frightening imagery. A killer who focuses only on children, and who maims them in the process – a five year old child found dead in the bush with no eyes or nose, for example.
Of course there’s a difference between fantasy darkness, such as Voldemort, and a darkness that intrudes upon everyday reality. And although there is darkness in Okorafor’s fantasy landscape, it pervades Sunny’s reality too, a familiar world to the readers, and so for me, was too frightening to recommend for the pre-teen market.
However, this is a novel of startling strengths – not least in the mix of the exotic and the familiar, and the ease with which Okorafor shifts between her landscapes. An absorbing book, although with a protagonist who could do with being slightly more dynamic – she is far too reliant on her friends making decisions for her. You can buy it here.
It could be argued that this age-group (Year 7, and so 12 years +) are recommended to read The Diary of Anne Frank for example, and not much is more horrific than the reality of the Holocaust, but somehow I felt that the topics of rape and maiming in the above titles could wait to be confronted. A fictional landscape of such horrors can be dealt with when readers reach a more mature age – it’s not as if there’s a lack of material available to read for ages 10-14.
Disagree? Catch me on twitter @minervamoan