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Where are the fathers in fiction?

Anna Perera; Guantanamo Boy

Anna Perera; Guantanamo Boy

The Sunday just gone was Fathers’ Day. Prompted by this, a friend of mine tweeted a question that I thought I’d be able to answer:

I had a half-hearted stab at naming a couple of father figures who seemed like generally good eggs – Dumbledore, obviously, and The Fat Controller from Rev. Awdrey’s Thomas series. In desperation I added the father from Piggybook, who starts out not very pleasant but grows into a good father. Other friends mentioned Arthur Weasley – Ron’s dad in the Harry Potter series, Pa Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie and  Gilbert Blythe from the later Anne of Green Gables books (from Anne’s House of Dreams onwards).

Contrast this with the number of (kid)literary orphans one can name without taking more than a second to think about it: Harry Potter; Oliver Twist; Giant Peach inhabitant James; Mary Lennox; Heidi; Anne of Green Gables; Dorothy (of Oz), Mowgli; Pauline, Petrova and Posie of Ballet Shoes; Katniss Everdeen; the Sager children of Children on the Oregon Trail or the Chant siblings of Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life, to name but a few. Read the rest of this entry

Something Amis(s)

If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book‘ says Martin Amis, ‘I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write’.

In just a few words, Amis misses the point of writing for youngsters by a mile. To write for children is not to write at ‘a lower register’, it is to write for a different audience. One with a different world-view, a different set of concerns. But one with just as critical an eye.

A child of seven is sitting up in bed reading Oliver Twist. When her Daddy comes to tuck her in she says ‘Mr Brownlow has let Oliver go out, but I think Bill Sykes is going to get him!’ She speaks with fear in her voice. She is concerned for the fate of a character so well drawn that she has come to care for him. In short, she has reacted to the words on the page in the same way as an adult reader. She has lifted the overt and covert messages in the text, processed and understood them. She is an adult reader in embryo. She is me, 20 years ago, incidentally, and this is one of my father’s favourite dinner-table anecdotes.

There is a complexity in writing a novel, a story, for a child audience that is (understandably) absent from adult literature. A children’s author must understand characterisation, plot, voice, narrative value and a host of other issues that face the adult author, and at the same time they must address a child without patronising them. Perhaps Mr Amis lacks this skill. As Mark Haddon said;

Writing for children is bloody difficult. Books for children are as complex as their adult counterparts, and they should therefore be accorded the same respect.

Neil Gaiman, author of the beautiful children’s fantasy novel The Graveyard Book which won the CILIP Carnegie Medal in 2010, will probably agree. Like Angela Carter, Arthur Conan Doyle and myriad others, he is as successful in children’s literature as he is in adult literature. And he does both remarkably well. Take that Mr Amis.