A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Today we have a fascinating interview with children’s author Leila Rasheed, who was a member of Vulpes Libris in its infancy, way back in 2007. Since then Leila has been busy writing excellent novels with terrific titles, including Chips, Beans and Limousines, Doughnuts, Dreams and Drama Queens, and Secrets & Sapphires. The following interview has some of the most interesting ideas about children’s literature that I’ve ever read, so please do read on.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a nun – the God bit was a minor obstacle, I thought being a nun would mean I would be left alone to read books in peace and quiet – or Indiana Jones (left alone to raid tombs in peace and quiet). I never contemplated being a writer. I loved reading and I loved making up stories, but being a writer was unimaginable. It really never struck me.
Do you think teenagers should be able to read whatever they like? Is there any subject that shouldn’t be covered in YA?
Yes, teenagers like everyone else should choose for themselves what they want to read. Having said that, adults have a moral responsibility to look after the interests of people who are not of legal majority. That extends to the influence they have over them, and nothing is more influential than a book. I look after my son, who is two. I stop him from running into roads and make sure he brushes his teeth and stuff. I do it partly because I love him, partly because it’s my legal responsibility, but also because he is not an adult, and I am. I don’t have to take care of every non-adult in the world, but I do have to take care with every non-adult in the world, because I think that is the morally right thing for me, as an adult, to do. Difference between taking care of and taking care with: I don’t have to adopt orphans, but if I hand a sixteen year old a crack pipe, or tell her she’s fat and ugly on a daily basis, I am at least partially responsible for the consequences –because I am thirty-seven, old enough to know better.
So I think writers of YA literature have a moral responsibility to take care. When I write a novel, that novel is going to speak intimately, in private – a private line, a voice in the ear – to many, many different people. As a writer you speak privately, intimately, persuasively without knowing to whom you’re speaking. Am I speaking to a teenager with a history of self harm? To a child whose father has just walked out? To an adult who was sexually abused as a child? I don’t know who is reading my books. I don’t know the impact my words may have on them, because I don’t know them. I don’t know what they are sensitive to. I don’t know what they are allergic to.
If you think about this too much you paralyse yourself, which is of course no good. Still, Patrick Ness said in his Siobhan Dowd Trust lecture that writing for children is an act of love. I agree, and love is care. The fact that your book is being published as teenage literature, rather than adult literature is a promise that this book will take care with its audience. Every author for children and teenagers needs to set their moral compass for themselves – but they do have to set it.
I can’t immediately think of any specific subject that shouldn’t be covered in YA. I can’t think of any subject that shouldn’t be covered in children’s literature either. It’s more a question of *how* you cover it.
And as a follow-up to that question: Is YA getting too dark? Do you think there should be age guidelines/content warnings?
What is dark? What is a young adult? What is literature? I don’t mean to sound dismissive. I think these are vital questions. By too dark do you mean too much violent content, too much graphically described violence, too much politics, too much death from war, too much death from illness, abuse, or what? Is The Hunger Games dark? Is We were Liars? Is Before I Die?
I do think that children’s literature has always gone hand in hand with death, as has childhood. I’m not up to Googling the statistics, but I’m sure all over the world, most people die before their first birthday. It is only relatively recently that British children have stopped dying just as much, from poverty and disease, and even more recently, two world wars which brought death into many if not most families in Britain. Peter Pan is all about death – tick tock, tick tock. The Water Babies is pretty dark. The Fairchild Family has lots of deaths, a child burning to death, a gibbet. The Narnia series starts in the middle of a war and ends with the death of Lucy, Peter and Edmund in a train accident. And the passage of time, the loss of the past, the inevitability of change and eventual death – that’s a constant obsession of British children’s literature. Tom’s Midnight Garden, Winnie the Pooh.
Then there are the less well known children’s books, the forgotten books that were wildly popular at the time: Froggie’s Little Brother, Jessica’s Last Prayer – these books in particular – the evangelical, ‘street arab’ stories – these remind me strongly of the cancer genre, they centre around the pathos of a child’s death, and that death carries meaning for the reader about how to live their lives. In the Victorian age, the focus was usually on the death itself; the good death. In our less religious world, the focus is usually on the good life. But here’s the thing, at about the time Before I Die came out, when I was working in a bookshop, there was also an autobiography written by a teenager who was living with cancer. The difference in tone between this upbeat, positive, energetic voice and the elegiac voices of every cancer book I’ve ever read, struck me very forcefully. The difference was that she told her own story; the cancer books tell stories about dying people for the healthy and living. But people who want to read about cancer will pick up The Fault in Our Stars, and I expect her book is out of print now.
Briefly, I do think that we seem to be going through a rather wallowy miserable period in children’s literature, and yes, The Hunger Games is more violent than the Chalet School. But what does children’s literature reflect except an adult world? Adults can hardly go to the cinema to see a Tarantino and then complain about The Hunger Games. So I think we are, as always, getting the children’s and YA literature we deserve.
Leila, thank you so much for these terrific answers, which have given me much to think about. To end the interview in classic Vulpes Libris tradition, please recommend five books.
(These are not all children’s fiction).
Ragtime. My new favourite book: long rangy sentences that lope through time and from character to character with breath-taking confidence.
The Iliad. This gets better with every age, more relevant in its empathy, compassion and power – its unswerving gaze is brutally truthful, sad, compassionate, tragic.
Tintin: the Castafiore Emerald. Tell you what, I was upset when I heard on the Today programme that magpies don’t go for shiny objects. That is the only fault with this, which is one of the best Tintins in my book – a cunningly constructed game of red herrings that takes you round and round in a circle and provides a fabulous example of managing tension without the boy reporter and his fishy friend ever having to leave Marlinspike Manor. The Tintins are genius storytelling.
Beyond Black I’m actually half way through this, but I already know how good it is. I had to stop reading because it was upsetting me so much.
Crowboy. David Calcutt is a really interesting writer for teenagers, and should be better known.
For more information about Leila, please visit www.leilarasheed.com
For chat, networking, info-share group for Midlanders interested in writing for children/teens, please visit Write for Children Midlands
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