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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
A report from the YALC (Young Adult Literature Convention) talking about whether sex should be included in YA books.
A list of Young Adult Titles that get first sex (awkwardly) right.