Stories for children have been very much on my mind of late, especially as I’ve been trying to introduce our eldest daughter – Maia, 4 years old – to more complex works of children’s literature. She was very happy to sit through readings of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, probably because she’s already seen the Gene Wilder film multiple times, but we only got two pages into Alice in Wonderland before she got bored. I sense that I’m probably reaching a bit too high at times; she is, after all, only four. There are a lot of stories I want to introduce her to, but the timing has to be right.
Alongside children’s books, I’ve also been pondering the nature of apocalyptic literature. The apocalypse and what comes after is a common theme in books for the young, at least at the moment. The Hunger Games has done roaring trade in bookshops and cinemas, and similar works, such as the Divergent series, have also been rocking the YA charts. What these books tell our children about the future is that it may be grim, but there is hope. That’s often not the story we are telling ourselves, though. The tone of literature concerning the future for the adult market is increasingly bleak. And I get that, I do. The future is looking very scary at times. But I also think that tales without hope can be counterproductive. If we are told, as we often are in these stories, that the future is going to be bad and is only likely to get worse, then aren’t we risking falling into lassitude? After all, why even think in terms of fixing something if you’re constantly told it’s broken beyond repair. If the future is darkness and despair, we risk living in the present in darkness and despair, and that is not a life well lived.
In YA and children’s literature the message is somewhat different. You can’t lie to the young about the shape of the world; they’ll figure that out for themselves at an earlier age than you may have assumed. The future is tough (hasn’t it ever been so?) but resistance to a message that essentially says Game Over, can change that. The Hunger Games is a brilliant series about resistance, about doing the right thing in difficult circumstances. One of the books we published, Gillian Kendall’s, The Garden of Darkness, shows hope in chaos, led by a group of children who manage to see good amongst the ashes.
We need more of this hope as adults. We need to think more like children at times, as children can be way more radical than the grown-ups, and can see beauty where we’ve given up even trying to look for it.
Bleak prose can be thought-provoking, can be disturbing on a pleasingly aesthetic level, but it often doesn’t propose solutions, or novel ways of thinking over problems.
So I think it’s important when we’re talking about the future in fiction for the young that (a) we don’t sugar-coat the challenges to come, but (b) we also don’t say that there’s nothing you can do, this future has been decided. The path of despair is a short path with a very clear and dark destination. Stories tell us about ourselves. They tell us where we’ve come from and, to some extent, they tell us where we’re going. They are also ways of imagining ourselves around problems, over hurdles, and it’s vital that this is an area nurtured in the young. We can tell our children how they can be better than us, and that’s a narrative it’s vital we don’t lose – no matter the bad times to come.