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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

Children’s literature v Young Adult Fiction

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 20, 2008

I was pleased to see that the vexed issue of classifying Young Adult fiction as Children’s Literature was addressed by Rosemary Neill in today’s Australian. (20.8.08, Review, p15). In her article ‘Analysing their Dark Materials’ she asks if graphic sex and violence, and distressing moral issues, are too prevalent in children’s fiction, and whether or not the CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) should consider overhauling the current awards to create a separate category for Young Adult fiction.

The issue arises because of two books in the 2008 shortlist, one of which went on to win. The Island by Armin Greder is a thoroughly unpleasant and nihilistic work which depicts a naked man arriving on an island. He is grossly maltreated and ultimately cast out onto the sea. It’s supposed to be an analogy of the way Australians have treated refugees, and it’s obviously designed for use in schools since no one would buy it for any other reason than to explore this issue. It is crude and unsubtle, and teachers using it would have to spend considerable time explaining the background to its theme, including presenting both sides of the political argument that surrounds it. Under no circumstances is it suitable for use in a primary school because the topic is too complex and politically fraught to be dealt with in a way that even the most intelligent and sensitive of children under 12 would understand.

Requiem for a Beast, by Matt Ottley, won the Picture Book of the Year Award. I haven’t read it: I picked it up when browsing in the local library and it didn’t appeal. Neill describes this book – with a suggested image of a suicide, cruelty to animals, a possible murder and the now almost obligatory swearing – as ‘a sophisticated if often desolate multimedia work intended for teenagers’. Ottley himself agrees that the book – ‘a meditation on depression, racism and the Stolen Generations’ is ‘very dark’.

Well, ok, authors can write about anything they like, and publishers can choose whatever they think will sell, but I’m curious about the buyers. Picture books are expensive to publish and sales need to be adequate to make their publication profitable. Are the bulk of these sales to young people? Parents? Schools? Why is there thought to be such a profitable market for dreary and depressing books about tormenting social issues like these? Does the CBCA Award bear any responsibility for promoting the sales of such books? Adolescent depression is said to be widespread, and books of this type, and all the other bleak young adult fiction that crowds the bookshop shelves can’t be helping. It’s not that I want Pollyanna back on the reading list, but an unremitting diet of grim and gritty realism breeds despair and cynicism in young people.

Anyway, it’s high time the CBCA responded to the criticism that their award categories are confusing and inapt. It is absurd to include books for mature teenagers in the same category as for very young children, and fair to neither. Parents, teachers and booksellers need guidance to choose quality literature that is suitable for the developmental needs of children, and we ought to be able to rely on the CBCA award categories as having integrity and due care for the under 12s. It’s not just a matter of the issues covered and the use of graphic images, it’s also the language used. I’m not a prude about swearing, but all primary schools prohibit swearing for obvious reasons, and IMO it is not ok to normalise it by including four-letter-words in books for under 12s. If the CBCA took a firm stand on this, Australian publishers would respect it and edit out such inappropriate language because it is not necessary.

I resigned my membership of the CBCA this year because I just don’t like their emphasis on confronting and depressing books, and I didn’t want to support it any more. I no longer trust the shortlists as any sort of guide to buying for the school library, and am hesitant about making a big deal of the Book of the Year with my students. That’s a pity, it really is….

5 Responses to “Children’s literature v Young Adult Fiction”

  1. Frances said

    All this discussion about the CBCA Awards is wonderful. More people are looking at the Awards and the categories and making their own informed decidions. The categories are clearly defined, the books mentioned do not look at the rosy side of life but the again the group they are intended for request and devour realistic fiction.
    As a society we consider people under 18 children, they are still dependent on an adult. Once you add another award for young adults you are faced with an ongoing debate about other age splits etc. Whatever happened to personal choice, picking up a book and reading it then deciding who to share it with.
    The only certainty out of all of this is books people might have otherwise overlooked have been effectively and cheaply publicised.

  2. MJG said

    So based on one book you read and didn’t like, and other you didn’t read but heard was dark, you have written off CBCA?
    You reduce the focus of your attention to two books that do tackle darker themes and use that as a yardstick to judge the entire awards. Seems like an easy shot.
    Yes, ‘picture book’ is not the right name for that category because people keep expecting them to be for little kids, and no amount of education over the rules and categories will make a difference here. The fact that there is no age specification for this category is simply lost.
    There is already a category for young adult – it’s called ‘older readers’. There is already a category for picture books for little kids – it’s called ‘early childhood’.
    If you feel this strongly, stay and argue the point. The fact that the books evoke strong reactions is a sign of people being passionate about literature – a good thing. And yes, you get to agree or diagree with their choices, and then make an informed decision about what you share with your children and/or those you educate.

  3. Matthew said

    The Island is certainly not nihilistic (it is an attack on a certain way of thinking, but to mistake this for nihilism is a bit silly and reactionary), nor is it unsuitable for younger readers, most of whom could deal with the dark themes in this book in the way it is presented, allowing them to discuss the ideas safely. It deals with a situation that goes beyond politics and looks at how fear can control a comunity. It works as a story on it’s own and children do not need to have a grasp on current or past political situations to get something from it.

  4. Lisa Hill said

    Well, I’ve finally made myself read Requeim for a Beast, and I disliked it every bit as much as I thought I would when I first browsed through it. Pretentious, depressing, incoherent – I really can’t be bothered with books like this.

  5. […] and Millie and the Very Fine House.  It’s on the CBCA shortlist, and for once I have no reservations about the suitability of the books they have chosen.  Freya Blackwood also illustrated this thought-provoking story about a little […]

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