Monday 26 February 2018

Guy Jones on serious issues in Children's Literature

I am delighted to have Guy Jones on the blog today talking about how children’s literature can take the serious issues faced by young people and package them a way which makes them more easily understandable. 



In my first book, The Ice Garden, the main character of Jess is a twelve-year-old girl who can’t go out in the sun without her skin burning and blistering. There are various causes of such of sensitivity – and Jess’s illness is never specified – but the most severe, like Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP) are almost unbearably cruel. Not only are sufferers forced to hide from the light or cover themselves up, but fewer than forty percent live past the age of twenty.

That’s not a nice thought, I realise. I state it in such bold terms to make the point that the stuff of life can be unpleasant. Even as adults we may sometimes choose not to dwell on such things; to skip past this or that story on the news for something a little bit lighter. But, of course, difficult subjects need to be tackled, and sooner or later every child becomes aware of this too. 

The balance between protecting children from, and exposing them to, serious issues is a hard one to strike, and books can play a vital role in this. I’m sure I’m not alone in the view that children’s literature is at its best when it eschews both heavy, Victorian-style moralising on the one hand and candy-floss blandness on the other. What’s left in the middle is the urgent need to tell stories that tie escapism, humour and adventure up in the very same bundle as difficulty, challenge and hurt. Stories that will delight the reader at the very same time they suggest that not everything is neat and perfect. Stories that help children learn that there’s no shame in struggle, that it happens to all of us, that it’s just as much a part of life as joy.

Jess sneaks out one night and finds a garden made of ice where the sky doesn’t burn her skin. In the garden, she makes a friend – her first real friend. This isn’t about sugaring the pill, or drawing the sting. It’s about putting something hard and serious through the filter of imagination in order to make it more easily engaged with.

If I’m being general then that’s because the principle applies so broadly. Mercifully few children suffer from XP, but Jess’s condition can stand for any illness, or even perhaps for a child who simply feels themselves to be a little bit different. Whether it’s terminal illness and bereavement in A Monster Calls, war and separation in Pax, or the transition into adulthood (amongst so many other things) in His Dark Materials, children’s books have the capacity to explore serious themes, just as surely any other type of literature.  

There is a place for gritty realism. There is even a place for gritty realism in children’s literature. But the lens of imagination, and of magic, is an incredibly powerful tool for exploring and understanding the world as it really is.

THE ICE GARDEN by Guy Jones out now in paperback

Follow Guy Jones on twitter @GuyJones80 and find out more at 

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