Claire King

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Archive for August, 2015

Truths and Lies

Posted on: August 17th, 2015 by Claire - 3 Comments

Every now and then I hear so many wonderful things about a book outside my usual sphere ( I tend towards contemporary adult fiction) that I have to read it. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls is one of those books. It’s a children’s book, but really you can read and appreciate it at any age. Since finishing it a few days ago I have been trying to explain to people why it is such a good book without bursting into tears.

This is partly just my general temperament, but partly because it is such a beautifully truthful, beautifully human story. A story that happened to coincide with several other things I have read, watched or listened to in the last couple of weeks that have a consistency of theme – the kinds of stories we tell our children.

Stories wreak havoc

A Monster Calls tells the story of  how a young teenage boy deals with his mother’s terminal cancer. There’s also some bullying and a bit of broken family dynamics thrown into the mix. Not so much about having adventures in the fresh air and drinking ginger beer, then. Is this the kind of subject matter that our children really need to be dealing with at that age? The Danish think it is.  They actively teach empathy to children, and believe that we shouldn’t shy away from engaging children with stories that tackle tough topics. We all want to protect our children, but at the same time we want them to fly the nest ready to face the world, and by reading about different kinds of emotions – fear, sadness, anger – children develop their ability to connect with their own emotions and empathize with others.

This is nothing new. Most of the books we read our children contain dark elements (even Guess How Much I Love You if you look hard enough); the storytelling tradition is full of devils, wicked stepmothers, and wolves who eat children. Many of us grew up with the moral lessons of Aesop’s Fables, but also Hans Cristian Anderson’s Ugly Duckling and the Emperor with his new clothes, and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, so many of which have gone on to be sanitised by Disney (Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White…).

Fairy tales can teach us truths about foolishness, arrogance, selfishness and good versus evil, but what else are children taking out of these stories? For example, I listened to this broadcast from the excellent Radio 4 Misogyny Book Club series:  ‘Unhappily Ever After’  which discusses how such fairy tales portray male and female roles. If you think back to the kinds of stories you were read, and then later read yourself as a child, can you remember what they told us about how men and women behaved in the world? Which actions were rewarded and which warned against and how the world was described? There was almost certainly much less diversity than we try to insist on these days. And possibly the gender stereotyping was inconsistent with the way we would like our own children to think?

cinderella quote

In the broadcast, Rosie talks first about the fairytales she read, how they portrayed the ideal woman and her aspirations – for the “good” female character it usually culminated in marrying the prince. But interestingly she compounds this experience with her later reading as a teenager, notably Twilight, and talks about how she responded to that story and the relationship portrayed in it by entering into a string of abusive relationships.

I haven’t read Twilight, and I don’t believe that in itself it is a bad book that will turn teenagers towards abusive relationships, but as we grow up we do take our context from the stories we are told, and more and more these days there it seems harder to find a balance. As well as books, we are told stories by our teachers, our peers, our parents and other people we trust. We are also fed stories in the other media we consume, notably in commercial “storytelling”: The adverts that tell you how buying things will make you more popular. The TV shows that show kids how anybody can be a pop star if they want it 110%. The glossy magazines with their beauty essentials and airbrushed models. And the internet…which brings me onto the subject of pornography.

porn warning

Pornography is another kind of storytelling, I believe. Boy meets girl. Boy fixes girl’s washing machine. Fellatio results.

Something else I came across last week was this video on what our children are learning about sex from the internet. The children (16 year olds) talk about what they have ‘learned’ from watching internet porn and how it influences their thinking and behaviour with the opposite (in this case) sex.  It then shows the effect of bringing a Belgian sexologist in to a UK School to change the narrative. It might seem strange to include porn as ‘stories’ – on so many levels – but the children who are watching it seem to believe it is fantasy.

A Monster Calls has fantastic elements. Central to the plot is a walking, talking yew tree. Shaking off the boundaries of the real world allows complex ideas to be conveyed simply and poetically. In fantasy, magic and the supernatural can provide conduits for telling very human stories. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is a wizard or a scarecrow, a sentient robot or a flying nanny, the characters are sympathetic and the story is one that the reader can relate to, and find truth in. Every story we write, fantastic or realistic takes the reader on a journey, asks them to consider a situation, empathise with the characters and wonder what they would do in a similar situation.

Yew Tree Monster

Yet the further our stories get from fantasy, from what we know cannot be true, and the closer they get to resembling the world around us, the harder it can be to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins.

Our children must learn to discern which stories are fantasy, which are fictionalised portrayals of events that could happen in real life and which hold no truth at all. And here is where the danger lies. We have a responsibility to tell the truths, as hard as they might be, because if we don’t then lies will take their place. At every age, from the first stories we read to them, to the books and magazines they read and the websites they visit during their teenage years, the stories we tell our children inform their view on the world.

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Links:

A report from the YALC (Young Adult Literature Convention) talking about whether sex should be included in YA books.

list of Young Adult Titles that get first sex (awkwardly) right.

My blog post on Why I think 5 part story structure is less important to kids than storytelling

 

Drawing Breath

Posted on: August 3rd, 2015 by Claire - 8 Comments

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

I am learning to swim.

I did learn to swim as a child, and somehow I competed in swimming as part of Modern Pentathlon at university. But in fact I was rubbish at swimming and only managed to be on the team because I was pretty good at all the other stuff and managed to pull up my average that way, floundering my way to completion in the swim and hoping no one remembered that bit. It turned out I had never learned to swim really, despite having my badges from 10m (purple)…

10m

…to 1500m (teal), I had only learned to get from one side of the pool to the other without drowning. 1500mBadge

Time moves on twenty years. Children have been born. Years have been spent teaching THEM to swim (bear with the story, the punchline is great). And now they can swim unaided and our nearby town has a summer pool (outdoor) where twice a week there is a swimming club, and adults can go and be taught to swim better. And I am doing that.

It’s good to learn a new thing. The learning process itself affects your brain. Remembering how little you know, accepting to be ignorant, trying to be better. And so every Monday and Thursday I get in the pool with lean, fit, twenty-somethings and strive to do a little better than last time. To be stronger. To be suppler. To be more co-ordinated. But the thing I am having to relearn most of all is how to breathe.

When to breathe.

What part of my body to breathe with.

And the teacher tells me ‘Souffle!‘ when she wants me to breathe out.

And the teacher tells me ‘Inspire!‘ when she wants me to breathe in.

When she wants me to breathe in, to gasp for air, she tells me, ‘Inspire!

No one has ever had to tell me how to breathe in French before (even when I was in labour all they cared about was the souffle).

And so perhaps that is why I never realised that in French, the verb to inspire is the same as the verb to breathe.

And inspiration is the same as taking a breath.*

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*From wikipédia:

Le terme inspiration a principalement deux significations.

 

The Proximity by Proxy of Writing Letters

Posted on: August 2nd, 2015 by Claire - 2 Comments

My 9 year old daughter has joined the Scouts. One minute she was in the car and the next we had pulled over half way up a mountain and she was stomping off to join her troop with 40kg of orange T-shirts and mess kit strapped to her back, calling back over her shoulder, “I love you. But you can go now.”

The camp is 10 days long, and there is no contact. No Skype, no time-limited calls from pay-phones, and no emails or texts obviously. But we are allowed to write to her, and she is allowed to write to us too, should she have the time and inclination. She has been equipped with SAEs (remember those?) and pencils. And a sharpener.

I have no idea if she will miss us – I suspect she will a little, 10 days is a long time when you’re that age – but I’m already missing her. I’m used to us being apart when I have to leave home for a few days to go to work, but I do get to speak to her every day, and anyway it’s somehow different when I am still here and she is gone. The mess she has left randomly around the house – drawing books on the kitchen table, sandals in the courtyard, discarded pyjamas on the bathroom floor – is much less annoying than if she were here for me to ask her to pick it up. Her absence has given it a sentimental value. And so I have already written my first letter to her (see below). Actually, I confess that I did also write one the day we packed her rucksack. While she hopped about fizzing with excitement, I was writing to tell her how I hoped she would have a brilliant time, and posting it so it would arrive after her first couple of nights away.

When I was younger I wrote letters all the time. To absent parents, to penpals, to friends I missed in the holidays, to people I saw every day. They provided a moment of concentration, of catharsis, of closeness in absence, of amusement and crafting. I loved writing letters in a way I don’t love writing emails. And in putting pen to paper today I realised that I still love the way that you have to let the writing flow. There’s no going back to delete bits, and there’s no spell check, but you can express yourself in handwriting in a way that type doesn’t permit. You can sidle off up the side of the page or add in drawings or flourishes. You can be more authentically yourself than in a well-crafted email. It’s closer to speaking than typing, except you can hold it and re-read it, if you were that way inclined.

My challenge to anyone reading this post is to get out a piece of paper right now and a pen of your choice and in one sitting write a letter to someone you miss. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too…

 

So, then, that’s the first day without her over with. Just nine more to go.

It’s OK, I have PLENTY of pens.

PS

 

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