Where all the biggest questions meet

Near the top of my travel wish list is Prince Edward Island, a determined destination since I read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s ‘Anne of Green Gables’ series. I loved the stories when younger, but as I grew slightly older, I appreciated Anne’s dilemma anew; empathising in the fact she was an ‘outsider’ and that her red hair, adopted status with elderly, inflexible guardians, academic ambition, and creative imagination, made her the object of curiosity, doubt and fun. 

I did not share the majority of Anne’s experiences, but I could empathise. I felt an outsider in my school, and was very aware of my differences. Anne’s victories reassured me so that I could claim them, a little, for myself.

In a society of constant, rushing news, and edited reality, it can be hard to isolate facts and admit to feelings.There can be so much, that it is easy to be disconnected and immured. Also, when there is such diversity and difference, it may be safer, to stay in your place, erase, or hide.

At times I struggle, when selecting our books, to decide what is ‘appropriate’ to readers, and at what stage. Already I have explained that the age groupings common amongst booksellers are a publishing device, unpopular with writers when introduced in the late 1990s. The inclusion of titles is random and limiting. Paying attention to readers’ comments, we have introduced a considered recommendation at the footnote of each new entry, offering some suggestion as to suitable age and interest groups.

I am aware that some parents and teachers find the ‘tough’ stuff, the more realistic challenging themes and subjects, ‘off limits’ from children’s literature.

When Sarah Garland’s ‘Azzi in Between’ an outstanding story about a child caught in war, was selected by a keen 7-year old, as a favourite book on World Book Day at a school in which I worked, a colleague declared it ‘inappropriate’. She was not alone in this criticism.

Yet, reading books that take such a crisis, craft and clarify it carefully for the audience, encourage a child to understand, appreciate and empathise, all attitudes desirable in an enabled reader. That child was really reading.

Recently, I have been reading a number of titles inspired by ‘real’ events or problems. As ever, the books we have selected are the best offered. This morning, I read Gill Lewis’s latest book, ‘A Story Like the Wind’. It is stunning; centred on the plight of refugees aboard a small boat, escaping civil war.

I added ‘All The Things that Could Go Wrong’ by Stewart Foster this week. It focuses on bullying, with the story told in turns by the victim, who suffers from OCD, and the perpetrator, whose older brother is held in a Secure Training Centre. It is frightening and truthful. Yet it is also wonderful.

One of the reasons we have a large number of picture books in stock, is that images and sparing text allow readers opportunity to read meaningfully, drawing inferences from the words and pictures, and building a real contextual understanding. Picture books introduce and expand a child’s understanding of tougher themes and subjects with subtlety. That is why such superb works of the human condition, such as ‘The Journey’ by Francesca Sanna, and ‘Last Stop on Market Street by Matt DeLa Pena, have been praised by educators and librarians around the world. A number of our titles cross divides because of the universality of their subject.

We have stocked our Young Adult section cautiously, despite the number of titles published in this popular market. In this area of children’s writing, readers want to be challenged, affirmed, and always, gripped enough to think and feel. The works have to be believable. An essential ingredient is an adolescent protagonist who will probably face monumental difficulties and learn and grow stronger, or more resilient.

Concerns in the declining reading habits of boys as they grow older suggests that the propensity of heroines in YA fiction is unsurprising. However, 55% of YA titles are bought by adults.

The best YA books are confident enough to tackle issues in a memorable, risk taking, potent way. They validate us, make us human. These books are essential in building an informed, empathetic society.

Award winning writer Patrick Ness says, YA books are about ‘finding boundaries and crossing them and figuring out when you end, who you are and what shape you are’. That’s a tough call!

I suggest books in other groups, like ‘The Journey’ and ‘All the Things that Could Go Wrong’ that do this; it is not exclusive to YA books. The differences are often the language, tone, introduce of sex and violence, and the impact, and varying level of hope, e.g., Sally Gardner’s masterpiece, ‘Maggot Moon’. Earlier, age appropriate experience of reading titles that are affirming and real, like Jo Cotterill’s ‘Library of Lemons’ support and enable us as readers, and citizens of society.

I have travelled Henry K. Larsen’s path as the brother of a murderer, in ‘The Reluctant Journey of Henry K. Larsen. My heart broke when Ruth realised her grandmother’s sacrifice in ‘The Smell of Other People’s Houses’. Tears welled when I joined Jack, not Jackie, recalling the yellow dog, as he rushes to rescue Joseph from the fractured ice in Gary D. Schmidt’s superb ‘Orbiting Jupiter’.  I urged Jackson’s parents to face their financial situation honestly in ‘Crenshaw. I have been absorbed, bruised and confirmed, feeling more alive for reading such superb books.

So, don’t avoid the real stuff, for you and your smaller readers, will be all the better for the experience. Each book that we choose with a nugget of truth, is unique, perfectly crafted, and totally memorable. Denying these titles at the right time, in the right way, is what may be termed ‘inappropriate’ to readers. Bronnie

 

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