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"Sick Lit" and other challenging books for children and teenagers: are they bad for readers?

Posted by Kate on Jan 03, 2013

Melanie McGilloway (@librarymice), who blogs about children’s books, directed her Twitter followers to a piece in today’s Daily Mail about ‘sick lit’ for teens (which is not to say that she agrees with the piece).

As someone who has, in my time, published a book about a child who dies of cancer, Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls, I found the piece interesting. I was the MD of Scholastic UK when Ways To Live Forever was published by Marion Lloyd Books (an imprint of Scholastic) – just a couple of months after Before I Die (mentioned in the Daily Mail piece), as it happens – and I remember that we discussed at length our responsibilities when it came to publishing this book. We felt, though, and I continue to feel, that the quality of writing and the sensitivity with which the book was written meant that this was a book we felt comfortable publishing. Of course, many of the issues raised in the Daily Mail piece didn’t apply to Ways to Live Forever: it’s about an 11 year-old boy, not a teenage girl, and doesn’t have the “sex and swearing” that the Daily Mail castigates.

I’ve read Before I Die, but I can’t claim to have read books published subsequently in this genre. We don’t publish book for older teenagers, and most of the books discussed in the article – books that fit the Razorbill list – wouldn’t be right for the Nosy Crow list. “Me-too” publishing is rarely publishing at its best, and it may or may not be the case that individual books picked out by this article are bad books or harmful books. I don’t know: I haven’t read them. So, rather than write about those books specifically, I am going to say four general things:

1. Children’s writers and publishers take their responsibilities seriously

The first is that most children’s publishers, and certainly all of us at Nosy Crow, take our responsibilities as publishers of material for children very seriously. We recognise that publishing for children (and younger teenagers) is different from publishing for adults. I wrote a blog post on the subject here, prompted by Martin Amis’s statement that he’d write a children’s book only if he suffered a brain injury.

2. “Sick lit” isn’t new

The second is that there is nothing new in children’s books dealing with children’s illness and death. Beth dies in Good Wives. Ruby Gillis dies in Anne of the Island. Cedric Diggory and Fred Weasley die in the Harry Potter novels. Ill children – though they are often improbably cured – were common in earlier children’s literature, something explored by Lois Keith in Take Up Thy Bed and Walk. Think of Clara in Heidi, or Katy in What Katy Did, or Colin in The Secret Garden. And these are only characters in books written explicity for children: there are also ill and dying child characters in Dickens, read by families. Children like Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, or Jo, the crossing sweeper in Bleak House, who is, memorably, “Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.”

3. Books that deal well with difficult topics can be a safe way for children to encounter those topics

Third, looking beyond the specifics of books about children who are ill or dying, many – some of them great – books allow children to explore emotions and circumstances more extreme than their own. I’ve just (belatedly) read A Monster Calls, and my 13 year-old read it immediately after me, at my suggestion. It’s a book that deals with a terrible honesty about the complexities of a boy’s emotions as his mother dies: Conor wants the awful process of his mother’s dying to be over, though he doesn’t want to lose her. A character in Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons (another book about parental and grandparental death that I was proud to publish) says, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins”, and many of these books allow children and teenagers to walk, for the duration of the book they are reading, in the moccasins of someone else – someone whose situation is more extreme than their own. They can try on those emotions for a while, to wonder what they’d do if the circumstances were their own, and, perhaps, to end up with a different kind of sympathy and understanding for other people. Books that deal well with the difficult stuff can be an important part of children’s emotional journey. Illness by proxy, pain by proxy, war by proxy, persecution by proxy, bereavement by proxy… these can be a good thing. As Francis Spufford writes in The Child That Books Built, “I even began to understand what was not said on the page. This was the kind of reading that can magnify your curiosity about real people, and send you back to the world better equipped to observe and comprehend… the key that opened the folds and tucks of human behavior and spread it out and made it knowable.”

(But the book has to deal with the subject well and be written well. I know that making that judgement is subjective, and can only speak about the judgements I make as a publisher and a parent. I do not think that every book written about a challenging subject is a good thing. For example, personally – and I know that this is far from a mainstream view – I think that John Boyne’s The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is a misleading and mawkish book about the Holocaust that I wouldn’t encourage anyone to read. One of my children has read it, though: I wouldn’t recommend the book, but I wouldn’t stop anyone reading it either.)

4. Books shouldn’t be singled out for concern – books are only one way that children encounter challenging subjects

The fourth thing to say is that the idea that books are somehow particularly threatening – “next time your teen is curled up with a book, ask them what it’s about”, says the Daily Mail piece – is an interesting, and, I think, wrong-headed one. Of course, one of the great joys of reading is that it is a private experience unlike, say, watching a TV in the living room, when anyone can walk in and see what you’re looking at. But my own children spend a lot of time on private screens and I don’t always know what they see there: screens have become as private as pages. Meanwhile, countless children watch soaps like the BBC’s Eastenders, scheduled at a child-friendly 7.30pm each weekday. A glance at the programme’s website gives an idea of the issues that children are going to be exploring vicariously. Why are books written (and, you have to hope, responsibly published) for children and teenagers of more concern than programmes like this?

What some “target readers” say

My 12 year-old says that the books that she found most challenging in terms of content are Malory Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses and Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella. She says that she thinks that it is easier to deal with some of these issues “with fantasy”, citing The Hunger Games as a good example of a book that deals with horrible things in a fantasy situation. She says that she thinks that there are things, “like rape” that she shouldn’t be faced with in books and for which she would welcome “age restrictions” (though, of course, when she says this, it’s clear that she knows – from the news, apart from anything else – exactly what rape is).

My 13 year-old says that books – and she cites A Monster Calls – might be a source of support and reassurance for a child whose circumstances are similar to those of the child in the book. And she says that novels about terrible historical events like the Holocaust, for example, give children a different kind of understanding from the understanding gained from a history lesson: “If these books aren’t read, and if children don’t have an understanding of people’s suffering – if they only know about, say, the Holocaust through a timeline learned in a classroom – then they are going to have no deep sense of what people experienced”. When I asked why it might be important to have a sense of what people experienced, she said, “basically, to ensure that things like that never happen again”. She says, though, that it might be valuable to have someone who has experience of the issue dealt with in the book to know “what might be too difficult to say”. I think this is a tricky one: I remember asking Sally Nicholls if she had personal experience of children with cancer, and – honestly – feeling some concern when she said she hadn’t any close experience of her subject though she’d researched it carefully. I was, for a moment, concerned that other people might think that this invalidated her writing. In the end, though, I don’t think that personal experience “trumps” writing quality or sensitivity.

If subjects are handled with sensitivity, if writing is good, then the range of challenging situations and stories that children’s writers can write about, and that publishers can publish, should be wide.

Are there things that can’t be written about in books for children and/or teenagers?

Comments (19)

  1. I’ll stick to answering the question “are there things that can’t be written about in books for teenagers” rather than ‘children’ as there’s a heck of a lot of difference and an unfairly blurred line to actually measure when children stop being children and start becoming young adults. There is clearly a massive number of other influences, media types and stereotypes to tackle before you could comfortably start wielding a blunt instrument to ‘sort out’ teen fiction. The levels of coverage the current criticism of YA Fiction feel eerily familiar though and the pattern seems to be the same one more recently applied to videogames, mobile phones, social networking and other teen-favourite pastimes. Clamour loudly enough that something is subverting our youth, generate enough panic and listlessly refuse to offer anything imaginative to address the problem other than (next to useless) age rating systems that are fairly ineffective.

    readitdaddy Thursday January 3, 2013 #

  2. Ah, the voice of sanity, thank you Nosy Crow. My sister died of leukaemia and, personally, whilst I can appreciate the quality of a beautifully well written book which treats the subject with respect, like Ways to Live Forever or A Monster Calls, I’ve never felt that a novel like that has reconciled me with what happened. I know that other people with similar personal experiences to mine have found comfort in these books, though. On the other hand, I’ve written about psychosis without having any direct personal experience of it, and I worried a lot about whether I was capitalizing on someone else’s illness. In the end, I’m sure that for many, reading about terrible things of which they have no direct experience allows them to begin to understand other people’s suffering, which is no bad thing.

    Katy Moran Thursday January 3, 2013 #

  3. On Twitter, @LonelyBeastABC directed me towards this piece about Neil Gaiman which touches on how “dark” children’s book scan be: www.elevenhundredhours.com/69691529

    Kate Thursday January 3, 2013 #

  4. I don’t think there are subjects that can’t be addressed in books for teens IF they’re well handled (which, in my experience, they usually are). As you say, the publishing industry is well aware of its responsibilities and this, I feel, is the key thing here. Reading is all about vicarious experience and our least pleasant experiences are the ones we need most help interpreting and facing – books can give us that.

    I think children need more sheltering from hard topics, but there are some superb examples of books for children that deal with things like parental death, family breakdown etc which many children will have to face in their actual lives.

    Beth Kemp Thursday January 3, 2013 #

  5. To answer the question more directly, I’d say that whilst there are some subjects that probably aren’t suitable for a very young readership (sex, for example), many children will find comfort, solace or even just greater understanding by reading a book about death. Personally, I prefer a more subtle approach, but that’s just me – Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider is a wonderful example. There’s nothing that shouldn’t be written about in books for teenagers as long as these difficult subjects are dealt with respectfully and responsibly.

    Katy Moran Thursday January 3, 2013 #

  6. As a I said in earlier tweet, my experience as a school librarian is that teenagers have always sought this kind of literature, and it certainly is not a genre suddenly invented by John Green and the other authors cited in the article (I am sure they would not claimed to have invented it either!).
    Working in loco parentis, I’d much rather make sure my students read books that are written and edited with teenagers in mind, rather than having them read “misery lit” (which we also often get asked for but stock very little of), such as the Dave Pelzer books, “Ugly”, etc which are for an adult readership and therefore often written with less sensitivity.
    As for whether anything is taboo in YA, no I don’t think anything should be. What is important is that is written in the right way, for the right audience. “Forbidden” by Tabitha Suzuma is about incest (brother/sister – consenting) and is written sensibly and sensitively. It is a great book, but of course the Daily Mail would only see the incest bit of it, not the circumstances that surround it.

    Library Mice Thursday January 3, 2013 #

  7. I very nearly wrote about my brief experience of being responsible for the publication of misery memoirs for adults. It was one of the experiences of adult publishing that I was thinking about when I distinguished between publishing for adults and publishing for children/teenagers in that Martin Amis blog post. I know that many children and teenagers – girls especially – are drawn to the adult misery memoir genre: several of those books, particularly Ugly, were being discussed when my children were in year 6, and I wouldn’t have wanted either of my girls reading them. They did, though, both read Chinese Cinderella, which pretty much kid’s misery memoirs and they both went back to it again and again. That things in misery memoirs are real life and therefore particularly disturbing (and my 12 year old mentioned Chinese Cinderella as a read that she’d found upsetting), feeds into this idea that dealing with things in the safety of fantasy/dystopia makes them less hard to deal with emotionally. But I felt that this piece was long enough.

    Kate Thursday January 3, 2013 #

  8. Interesting! I think, on the whole, adults are more disturbed by these things than younger readers. We’ve had time to learn how to worry, to think about consequences and implications.

    I think many things in kidlit and teen lit are too dark for grownups, but fine for their target readership. You have a different take on dark things as a teenager. Trying on painful emotions can be an artistic experimentation/what if thought experiment as well as actually being about real feelings.

    HOWEVER… I think this is truer for dark fantasy/horror than real life miserylit. That adds a layer of detachment perhaps?

    I do feel, though, that children and teenagers need to be given the choice to read what they’re ready for. Perhaps there are some things that some teenagers should never read because it’s too close to home, I don’t know – but, at the same time, there might be another teenager who’d really benefit from it and enjoy it. I’m leery of censorship at the level of book buying (eg age banding), though publishers do self-censor in terms of what they put out there. Perhaps less so than previously?

    I haven’t read any of the books they’re talking about – not my cup of tea – so I should add a coda to this comment: may contain wild speculation based on no experience. :)

    Louie Thursday January 3, 2013 #

  9. Interesting blog. I also think that it is the responsibility of publishers to approach these kinds of issues in books as books are a safe place for children to explore challenging and difficult situations. Reading is also the main way that we learn to empathise with others, and we do this by reading about people whose life experiences differ to our own.

    I think the question you’ve posed at the end of the blog is very interesting, and if anyone wanted to write at length about it, they might be interested in submitting something for a special edition of Write 4 Children Journal which I am co-editing: http://www.withoutexception.co.uk/resources/Write%204%20Children%20CFP.pdf

    I think it likely that readers of this blog would be interested in the journal in any case, so hope it’s ok to share the link.

    There are many debates about what is and isn’t suitable in literature for children, but I think it’s important to remember that the fears often belong to the adults, and children are more robust than we think.

    Beth Cox Thursday January 3, 2013 #

  10. “Are there things that can’t be written about in books for children and/or teenagers?”

    As others have said, there is a big difference between books for children and books for teenagers. I would be very reluctant to tug anything out of a teen reader’s hands, especially someone who reads an awful lot and has encountered a lot via fiction, whereas there would be certain things (sex, bad language, drugs, etc) I wouldn’t want the under-tens reading.

    I think when topics and issues are written about well, as part of a story rather than An Obvious Moral, and in a way appropriate to the age group (e.g. in a picture book, several spreads of someone dying in agony would be distressing but also just not suiting the form), there’s very little that isn’t ‘suitable’ for young readers.

    Claire Hennessy Thursday January 3, 2013 #

  11. I am interested in this idea that there is a clear distinction to be made between the child reader and the teen reader, as the parent of a 12 year-old and a 13 year-old. I am wary of this distinction. As a parent, I have conversations all the time with my kids about what is OK for them to read or watch. My 13 year-old has read, in the last week or so, Bring Up The Bodies (I called a friend of hers to find out how explicit the violence was); The Language Instinct; A Monster Calls; I Capture the Castle; and is now reading a Claire Tomalin biography of Thomas Hardy. My 12 year-old has read Here Comes Junie B Jones; Kiss Kiss (the story collection by Roald Dahl); The Diary of Adrian Mole; Jeeves Stories and is now reading I Capture the Castle. The range here is from a book that I’d recommend to a seven year-old to books for adults. The idea that there’s some magic moment at which children transition from child readers to teen readers isn’t my experience. It’s all messier and blurrier than that, I think.

    Kate Thursday January 3, 2013 #

  12. I totally agree that it is a blurry distinction, and very much depends on the individual child – which is precisely why age-banding wouldn’t be appropriate. Have you seen the guidance wheel that Hot Key Books put on the back if their books? While nothing is ever perfect, I think it’s a much better way of giving an idea of the overall content of a book.

    Beth Cox Friday January 4, 2013 #

  13. Teenagers will always seek out books on subjects that adults are uncomfortable with. It was a right of passage to read Judy Blume’s Forever when I was at school, and it was a moment of triumph to spot it on the shelf in the school libraray before anyone else did. And I’m sure I’d rather have my girls reading it than finding them reading Dave Peltzer.
    I think it’s really important that literature for children and young adults does cover difficult subjects, as long as it’s in an age appropriate way. It might be a niche area, but I would love to find a book that would help my 4 year old understand what is happening in Belfast at the moment – she’s stuck on ‘but it’s only a flag’ at the moment. It’s never easy to explain to a small child why they are rioting outside the library down the road and the books I’ve found specifically about Northern Ireland are pitched at an older age group than hers.
    At the other end of the scale, teen suicide is sadly endemic in the area we live, and I think that they have the right to have the lives they are living recognised and reflected in the books they read. I know it’s not a problem that can be fixed by a book, but it would be one way of starting building trust in a generation who feel disenfranchised and are being manipulated by the sinister elements in society here.

    eviesbooks Friday January 4, 2013 #

  14. I think there’s probably a clearer difference between children’s books and teenage books (as marketing/bookselling/publishing categories) than between a child reader and a teenage reader, if that makes sense? Some twelve-year-olds might read teen and adult books almost exclusively and have it suit them; some thirteen-year-olds might find children’s books more comfortable for them.

    Claire Hennessy Friday January 4, 2013 #

  15. Two children died at school last year – both in my son’s year. I think the fact that he was reading A Monster Calls helped him deal with the aftermath. As did many of the other books he has read.

    Life can be so much crueller than fiction, but I think fiction can help with things that seem to be injustices or random acts of savagery. It gives young people benchmarks, scenarios, explanations, and I for one, would have found growing up into the real world without it, very hard.

    I have recently read Artichoke Hearts, a magnificent book which I felt was helpful as an adult in dealing with unresolved grief. It was kind, it was loving, it was beautifully written, and it absolutely demonstrates how helpful a story can be as an allegory of one’s own life.

    fleur hitchcock Sunday January 6, 2013 #

  16. I am so pleased that Fleur Hitchcock found ‘Artichoke Hearts’ a compassionate read. My next book will deal with a very difficult subject and every word that I write is imbued with a deep self questioning; a feeling of absolute responsibility to my young readers to tell a story that will feed their minds, touch their hearts, open them up to a wider world of experience but ultimately help them reflect on their own place in a complicated world.

    I very much appreciated the discussion raised in this article. I have always been personally sceptical of any writer who says they would never write for children and young people…it’s like saying I don’t write for humans! The range of emotions children’s writers explore are the full range of human emotions. It is HOW these are explored through the story and writing that will impact on the reader.

    Sita Brahmachari Monday January 7, 2013 #

  17. I would just like to add to the conversation by pointing out that child survival of cancers, particularly leukaemia, are rising all the time and maybe the checks and balances that are missing in the literature are books for children and teens about surviving acute illness and living with acute illness.

    Miriam Halahmy Monday January 7, 2013 #

  18. I agree with Miriam’s comment – a cancer diagnosis must be frightening, but survival rates are indeed rising. It would no doubt help those living with acute illness if there were more novels about surviving.

    Katy Moran Thursday January 10, 2013 #

  19. Your blog got me thinking about my own turbulent childhood spent in and out of children’s homes. I remember at times feeling very lonely despite being surrounded by lots of other children. I turned to books and devoured them, keen to delve into brighter, sunnier worlds. These fantasy realms were immensely comforting. I disliked reading anything that touched upon my situation and had and still have issues with the likes of ‘Oliver Twist’ … and stories dealing with abandoned children or kids with no mothers. I never enjoyed watching films such as Willy Wonka because I did not like to see children like Charlie Bucket in poverty and distress. Books and films that celebrated friendship, happiness and love were more my thing. When you live in a dysfunctional world the last thing you want is more of the same from an author’s imagination. This view is at odds perhaps with your blog but one I thought might be useful to share.

    Alan Dapre Wednesday April 24, 2013 #

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