Bare Lit 2018 - Speaking of Morality in Young Fiction

By Candy Gourlay

I was so looking forward to sharing the stage with debut author Rutendo Tavengerwei (Hope is Our Only Wing) and the excellent Bali Rai (The Harder They Fall) at the Bare Lit Festival last Sunday. Our theme – Morality in YA and Children's Fiction – was a corker!

But it wasn't to be.

My vanishing panel

The first shocker was a message early in the morning that Rutendo would not be able to come, through no fault of her own. I don't think it's my place to explain what happened – suffice to say I was gutted I would not be able to meet her.

I frantically messaged lovely author friend Patrice Lawrence to find out if she was free to stand in. She wasn't.

Then, another message: Bali's train had been delayed and then now it was too late to get to London. He wasn't coming either.

I was having visions of sitting alone on a stage babbling nonsense for an hour and a half ... when festival director and co founder Mend Mariwany suddenly appeared with a relieved grin.

He'd managed to persuade Samantha Williams, inspirational multicultural bookseller, to become my fellow panellist, and writer and educator Darren Chetty  (who had come along to attend our talk) to become chair.

Here's a doodle of the three of us from illustrator Sarah McIntyre:

Darren Chetty, Candy Gourlay, Samantha Williams at Bare Lit 2018. Sketch by Sarah McIntyre


We had a quicky FIVE minutes to chat and prepare, and then we were on the stage!

I have to say my two new colleagues were superb. Samantha calls books "weapons of mass destruction" and earnestly believes that reading is key to a child's future wellbeing. Dismayed by the whiteness of books available to her own children, she has thrown herself into bookselling – with the aim to  "source, sell, encourage, self-publish and promote beautiful British multicultural children's books that celebrate diversity particularly children and families of Caribbean/African descent".

Samantha and her display of children's books at the Bare Lit Festival

Darren co-wrote this feature Why Diversity Should Start at Storytime with Karen Sands O'Connor, He and Karen also co-wrote this fascinating piece looking at the representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic voices in British chldren's fiction – read it!

This article is not a proper report of the event, though I do repeat some things that were said. It's more like my own take on the themes we explored.

Here is Darren's first question:

British kids lit grew out of a desire to educate and moralise. How do these factors impact your writing?

Darren and Samantha, with me in the middle (in full cultural appropriation mode wearing an Indian kurta and shoes in an African print). Photo by Heather Marks

Writing with an agenda

There is no doubt in my mind that any author writing a book would have an agenda.

Certainly, having once been a book-loving child who never saw herself in the books she devoured, inclusion is number one on my author agenda.

They say children's fictions should be like mirrors and windows, well for me, all the mirrors were broken or, worse, distorted like a carnival hall of mirrors.

This is the story I tell over and over again to white audiences at the diversity panels that have become a regular gig for me as a "diverse" writer.

Gazing across the majority brown faces in the Bare Lit audience, I realised it was not a story I needed to tell this audience. They already lived it.

Long ago I attended an Arvon Writing for Teenagers week with Melvin Burgess and Malorie Blackman. Tbh I was nervous about meeting Melvin, whose every book (Junk, about heroin use ... Doing It, about boys and sex) seemed to spark controversy. But meeting Melvin, I realised that his agenda was as sincere as mine – like me, he was holding up a mirror. To teenagers who didn't recognise the sanitised versions of themselves in books written for them.

"I realised nobody was writing stuff for real teenagers," Burgess said in a Guardian interview, about the seventies and eighties when he was one of a few authors who began to write for the demographic. "It's such a seminal part of your life, the point when you become who you are, and yet nobody made stuff for them."

It is said that the teenager was invented in the 1940s when American film-makers  realised that teenagers had money to spend – I wrote about it over on my writing blog, Notes from the Slushpile, headlined The Invention of the Teenager. Two decades after Burgess first shocked with his books, I can't help the feeling that there has been the same commercial awakening to the spending power of younger demographics. Even though every other movie or TV series seems to be a superhero blockbuster, there are many impressive books published today that marshal the same awareness, respect and sensitivity with which Burgess writes for his young readers.

Mirrors and windows

I couldn't take notes during the panel (because speaker 😳), so I cannot reproduce the words of my co-panellist Samantha Williams, who spoke passionately about the urgent need to put brown faces on the covers of books, about customers begging her for help because their children were desperate to become white and fair like the characters they saw in media.

Darren, as a primary school teacher, told a story that I can reproduce here courtesy of his blog:

A few years ago, I was teaching a Year 2 class in East London. We had been working on writing stories. When it came to sharing what they had written, one boy, who had recently arrived from Nigeria, was eager to read his work to the class.

As he read out his protagonist's name - I had suggested that children might use the names of people in their family - another boy, who was born in Britain and identified as Congolese, interrupted him.

"You can't do that! Stories have to be about white people," he said. This is not an isolated incident.

It is easy, attending a festival like Bare Lit, to rant on about books as mirrors and inclusion and representation. But as a child saved by books that didn't represent me, I want to put in a word for books as windows  – because windows are incredibly important to help a child imagine a bigger, better world in which to live in.

When I visit schools in the posh parts of London and tell the children that I am from the Philippines, the children become animated and tell me that their cook/nanny/cleaner is from the Philippines.

There was a ripple of indignation when I mentioned this anecdote, the audience were offended on my behalf. But why be offended by the truth? Eleven per cent of the Philippine population leave the country to work overseas, mostly in menial jobs. But by meeting me, the children see something outside their ordinary worlds. They realise that Filipinos are as diverse as they are. And hopefully, they will learn to give us permission to be whoever we want to be. Windows.

In 2015, I was invited to contribute to a round-up in the Guardian headlined Banned, burned, or simply life changing: what are the best dangerous books? where children's authors "share the books they probably weren't meant to read that either rocked their world or rocked the world".

My colleagues listed books such as The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath ... here was my response:

When I was growing up in the Philippines, there were very few locally published books for children and so everything I read was imported from America and the United Kingdom. When I think back, ALL the books I read as a child were dangerous. They took me out of the ordered rules of my cultural life and proposed that there were other choices out there.

I explored worlds that bore no resemblance to my own in my native Philippines. They made me disgruntled, discontented with my lot. Western characters seemed to travel everywhere, and as a little girl in Manila, I could not imagine ever being wealthy enough to even travel to any of the nearby countries in Southeast Asia. I puzzled over how characters spoke their minds. In my ordinary world, there were complex, unwritten ways of communicating, saying yes even if you mean no is an art embedded in many Asian cultures. 
It was not just culture clash either. Here were child characters who had eye-popping adventures, who ignored boundaries, who took their fates in their own hands. It was terrifying and unimaginable. And oh so delicious.

Whose morality?

So perhaps under the umbrella theme of 'Morality in Children's Fiction', we also need to ask whose morality? Morality, after all is in the eye of the beholder.

In the olden days when infant mortality was high, adults published books designed to save their souls. If you read Victorian fiction, there are plenty of idealised portraits of young orphans like Oliver Twist who are ultimately saved by discovering that they are wealthy after all –  which kind of makes sense when you take into account the materialism of the Industrial Revolution.

Growing up in the Philippines, colonised first by Spain then by America, I grew up with folk tales that I realised later had been repurposed with a racist colonial intent – like the story of the crow whose feathers used to be beautiful and white until he committed some misdemeanor for which his feathers turned black!

One of the first Filipino characters I encountered as a child was Juan Tamad (Lazy Johnny), who rather than climb the guava tree would lie under it, mouth open, waiting for the fruit to drop into his mouth. Again, here are the voices of our colonial masters calling from the past, reinforcing the lazy servant stereotype one can still hear still parroted today by the entitled classes.

Sadly, in the Philippines, one continues to witness toe-curling racism and racial self disgust. Skin whitening is big business and the silver screen is peopled only by fair-skinned actors. In our nonchalant celebration of whiteness, I can hear those colonial voices shouting down the centuries, reinforcing our staunch belief in our racial ugliness.

So yeah, we artists always seem to be engaged in correcting the imbalances of the societies we live in. In my book Tall Story, my loveable hero, Bernardo, has a thick accent because I have always hated the power politics behind accents in the Philippines. As a schoolgirl, I used to be one of the most robust and taller girls. Everyone else was petite – and I had to endure endless Hulk and Baby Huey barbs. So in Tall Story, Bernardo becomes a giant and I write him inside out so that people see who he is before they actually meet him.

Positive representation?

Here is Darren's second question to the panel:

Given the history of erasure and distortion of people of colour in kids lit, there are strong calls for positive representations of POC. There is also the need to tell great stories with morally complex characters. How do you work with these pressures?

So ... imagine what it must have been like when people saw themselves for the first time reflected in a mirror.

Now imagine what it would be like to see one's self in books for the first time.

While we call for representation, it will not be easy to see one's self represented. What do we really want to see? Do we want to see a better version of ourselves or do we want to see ourselves, warts and all? And what about all our secret doubts and insecurities? What about the unbeautiful parts of us, do we want those on display too?

And what is positive representation?

Does it mean characters who are people of colour always have to be the goody and never the baddy?

Does it mean never portraying a Filipino as a cleaning lady or a nurse or a caregiver? Or an African American as a drug-taking rap artist? Or an Indian or Pakistani character as a shopkeeper?

It took me a long time to commit to writing my forthcoming novel, Bone Talk. Watch this video I made to introduce it and you'll see why.

There aren't any novels written about the Bontoc people who are the heroes of my story, which is set in 1899 when the United States invaded the Philippines. When I visited the area, there was a reluctance amongst people I approached to discuss the animist cultural practices I was researching. "We are Christians now," one man told me, resisting my questions about death practices.

I trawled history books and diaries of anthropologists – but they were all written by Americans, portraying the Bontoc people – who were head-hunters –  in either racist or exotic terms. How do I represent them in an era that some of them would prefer not to remember?

Knowing that my readers are going to be children was another challenge. How do I write about a culture that so far removed from that of the modern child reader? How do I write in a way that would have my reader embrace my heroes instead of "othering" them?

The answer, I soon realised, was simple. Write well.

Writing well means writing characters in 3D – multidimensional, complex, with many shades of grey.

Writing well means allowing yourself the time it takes to discover the truth in your story.

Writing well means not settling for your first uncorrected first draft but taking the time to imagine and reimagine your story until it is at its best.

Writing well means your reader, whoever he may be, can see himself in your story.

Write well. It takes a lot of time. It hurts. But it's what we gotta do.

And then, of course, because of the lack of previous representation, we are pioneers. We have a LOT to make up, a LOT to say. All the issues, all the themes, all those things that had previously gone unsaid!

Which tbh would make for a boring read.

Children are true natives of this age of short attention spans and the florid author must be careful to observe the first commandment of writing for children: Thou shalt not be boring.

Sure, have an agenda. But story must always come first.

So my advice to the Bare Lit audience (I could tell that there were many writers by the way they took copious notes), was to remind them that writing is about craft. Craft your agenda into the hidden seams of your story. Craft it to enable your reader, not to educate her. Whatever your message, sew it in carefully and invisibly to serve plot and character  (I know aspiring writers are fed up with hearing it but SHOW DON'T TELL!).

For the sake of readers who might be bored by all this writing talk, may I direct writers to this article I wrote: Exposition: It's about Emotion not Information – which tackles the nitty gritty of building a case without the actual case.

Anything goes?

Here is Darren's final question:

What, if anything, can children NOT cope with in fiction? For example, must stories have a happy ending?

It is tempting to say that children of today can cope with anything. But that isn't true. I think for every child reader, there is a line that can be crossed. And so though I don't think authors should limit themselves in the themes they choose to write about, the books a child reads definitely benefits from the curation of an adult who knows them well.

The other day, I was asked on Woman's Hour what I thought about age banding (which hit the headlines back in 2008). I said I understood the commercial need for it but at the end of the day young readers need a curator, someone who understands how books are safe spaces for children to experience the life they have yet to live, someone who can identify the perfect book for the individual child. That curator – the librarian – is sadly fast becoming an endangered specie.

It is interesting though to note the breadth of "tricky" subjects that books for young people dare to cover today: death, sexuality, violence, abuse, drugs, war ...

I have just finished reading the heartbreaking Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, which imagines the ghosts of black boys shot by American policemen roaming Chicago. Though it describes some of the deaths, these descriptions are sober, quietly painful, and never gratuitous.

On the other hand I've read Mal Peet's posthumous young adult novel, Beck, about a boy who is sexually abused in care homes. Another brilliant, Carnegie-nominated book from Peet, but I would certainly be very careful who I recommend it to as there is a grim hopelessness to the story.

Writing Bone Talk, I worked hard to keep my underlying themes of imperialism and identity covert. I just want readers to enjoy it as a ripping adventure.

The truth is young people have sensitive antennae to these underlying themes. Children are deeply moral creatures, with a strong sense of what's fair and unfair. Sit in any playground and inevitably you will hear the cry "That is so unfair!" 😄

In fact, young people can be quite black and white about right and wrong. The beauty of novels for young people is that it allows us to show them all the shades of grey in between.

Books of earlier times regarded children as unthinking, empty vessels that needed to be instructed on the ways of the world.

But now we live in times inundated by a such a relentless gush of information that I don't think our children need further instruction. What they do need is the wherewithal to make sense of it all.

Books are a safe place to learn how to do just that.

In the past children may have  been instructed to turn to books to find answers. My hope is that children will read my books and find, not answers, but questions that can set them on the path to understanding their world.

One of the things that differentiate children's books from books for adults is that no matter how dark the subject matter, books for young people will always offer hope.

Back in 2011, I attended a panel to hear Morris Gleitzman talk about his searing Holocaust novel Once.  Here is what he said about hope in children's books:

We are handing the world over to our children. The survival of the species depends on their capacity for optimism.

1. With thanks to Bare Lit, and to my lovely friends at Native Province, who recommended me to the organisers.
2. Like what you see? Click here to subscribe to email updates
3. If you are an author trying to make heads or tails of self promotion, you might want to read my recent post on Notes from the Slushpile: My Year of Launching Prodigiously
4. Hey, I've got a new picture book in the shops and here it is!