Sunday 11 September 2011

The Horrors of History – what do we tell the children?
Barbara Mitchelhill

I’d already written this blog when I read Katherine Langrish’s blog posted on September 5th on Torture as Entertainment and I agreed with everything she said. But I decided to give you all a double dose of this subject by telling it as it happened to me.

I had never written about WW2 before starting my novel Run Rabbit Run and I gave a great deal of thought as to how much detail of those gruesome years I should reveal to children of 9 to 13 years.

Although my readers are young, they are sophisticated in many ways. On their televisions they view war as it happens in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have seen the violence of the Arab Spring with people left homeless, their families destroyed - but I asked myself where should I draw the line in a book about WW2? I simply decided to avoid the more horrific happenings which could traumatise my readers. Not avoiding the truth but treading somewhat carefully.

Soon after the first draft of the book was completed, a librarian friend asked if I’d read Morris Gleiztman’s Once and Then. I hadn’t but I knew him as a wickedly funny writer for my readers’ age group. I bought the book and settled down to an enjoyable read.

‘Once I was living in an orphanage in the mountains and I shouldn’t have been and I
almost caused a riot. It was because of the carrot.’

So began the story in Morris Gleiztman’s delightful, inimitable style which would surely draw in any nine or ten year old. I was already hooked.

This book is set in WW2 and is told in the voice of Felix, an achingly naïve little Jewish boy. But the author soon takes the reader into the horrors of Germany in WW2 , seeing terrifying events through Felix’s innocent eyes. People being captured and shot. A river running blood. Seeing a young friend and his surrogate mother hanging by their necks in the town square. I read on and I felt bad. Really bad. And if I felt bad, what about the nine or ten year old? Although the book is beautifully crafted and elegantly written, this cannot make up for scenes of horror one after another. I’m not saying that we always need happy endings. But I believe that to leave children without hope, is unforgivable.

Michael Morpurgo has written many books for this age group on the subject of the two World Wars and does not hold back from telling the hard truths of conflict. Some of his books do not have happy endings. Some leave the reader feeling sad – but, I believe, not traumatised.

As I came to the final chapter of Once and Then, I hoped (oh how I hoped!) that Felix would find a refuge and someone to protect him. Surely, surely the relentless horror must come to an end, I said to myself. But no. In the last pages, I found that Felix had been living in a hiding hole for three months, his legs growing weaker and his eye sight failing.

End of story.

And this is the reason why I am writing this blog. I am asking the question, where do we draw the line? Is it right, that a book written for young children can be without hope? Do we as writers not owe it to young children to exercise duty of care? To use the equivalent of a ‘nine o’ clock watershed’? I think we do.


Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I agree completely about the need for hope, Barbara. I have posted on this topic on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure in the past. Rather than leaving a long comment now, I will respond to this at more length in my post here on the 15th.

Katherine Langrish said...

I think we do need to take care, Barbara - I agree with you. And in books for teenagers too, as a matter of fact. A lot of teenagers are emotionally fragile anyway. I haven't read Morris Gleitzan's book, but I remember reading another holocaust book some years ago - I've forgotten the title and the author's name, unfortunately - told from the first person of a young Jewish girl, and it ended with her walking into the gas chambers at Auschwitz, expecting a hot shower. I remember practically dropping the book in electrified horror, almost in tears. You can say horror and tears are the only proper response to what happened there - and I agree - but it was so emotionally disturbing I'd be very wary about handing that book to a child or a young teenager to read.

But then there are newspaper reports I read decades ago which can still upset me in the middle of the night.

Everyone needs hope. It is human and right to have a heart which can be wounded, but we need to be careful about inflicting vicarious pain on others. Especially young readers.

Keren David said...

In the context of being a Jewish child during the Holocaust, one might think that being alive, hiding in a hole, offers at least some hope, compared to the overwhelming likelihood that he would have been murdered.

Trilby Kent said...

I absolutely agree that young readers need to be left with some element of hope. It is, for me, the single most important difference between writing for children and writing for adults.

That said, I think it's extremely important for children's and YA historical fiction to remain loyal to the truth and not shy from tackling difficult subjects (I'm not hugely keen on history re-written as 'parable' or 'fairy tale' for this reason). My last YA novel, set as it is during the Anglo-Boer War, had to include the word 'kaffir', despite the fact that in South Africa today that word continues to be considered a perjorative on a par with the n-word. It was hugely important to me that that word not be normalized (hence its use in italics) - but at the same time, I felt strongly that it wasn't my job to sanitize history, either. A difficult balance to get right...

Thanks for the interesting discussion!

Alex said...

I have often asked myself this question as I chose books for my blog. Many are indeed graphic and without hope. Some of the older ones are so unpolitically correct, it stuns me as I read.
I think it is important to let kids know what happened in WW II. They need to know where hate and bigotry can lead. And that can be done without being overwhelmingly explicite and age appropriately. I agree with what Trilby Kent (above) says, that it is a difficult balance.
Thanks for this interesting and thought provoking post. I am sure I will continue to think about this topic for a long time.

Brenna Briggs said...

Interesting discussion. Since I never got over Beth dying of natural causes in Little Women, I do not feel qualified to comment!

b said...

Thanks for all your comments. I think that this is a discussion that will run and run.

Stroppy Author said...

It is vital to offer hope alongside historical accuracy. It is, of course, true that if we are absolutely honest there is no hope to be offered in some stories - so perhaps those are not stories to tell for young people. They will learn in school about horrors in history but if they are choosing to read for enjoyment/escape/solace/excitement it is, I feel, a betrayal of their trust and emotional engagement to send them away wrung out with only despair at the resolution. Lie may do that to them. Adult literature may do that time. But childhood is not adulthood and just as we don't let them walk into the middle of the road when they don't understand the dangers, I don't think we should push them - even in their imaginations, often so much more potent than ours - into the gas chambers. All subjects are suitable for fiction, but not all are suitable for children.

Annette said...

Stroppy Author said it wonderfully! Thank you, Ms. Mitchelhill, for an interesting and important post.