Writing for Children in a Post 9/11 World

This is a piece I wrote for Armadillo Magazine. You can check out the rest of the great magazine at: tinyurl.com/6kplw4v

Writing for Children in a Post 9/11 World

‘For a story to truly hold the child’s attention, it must entertain him and arouse his curiosity. But to enrich his life, it must be attuned to his anxieties … give full recognition to his difficulties, while at the same time suggesting solutions to the problems which perturb him.’

Bruno Bettelheim: ‘The Uses of Enchantment – The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales’

A recent article in ‘The Wall Street Journal’ caused a storm in the Twitter-sphere by suggesting that contemporary teen fiction was full of, ‘images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.’ The author of the article, Meghan Cox Gurdon, argued that making teen readers confront difficult truths and come face to face with the more challenging aspects of human nature was somehow morally corrosive and spiritually damaging. Within hours of the article’s publication, the topic became one of Twitter’s top worldwide trends after a British journalist asked YA readers to respond using the hash-tag #YAsaves. By the end of the day there were over 15,000 responses.

So when people ask me about writing ‘We Can be Heroes’ – a children’s book about terrorism, bereavement, fractured families, racism, extremism and kidnap – they sometimes question if those are really appropriate topics for readers of 11+. In response, I tend to argue that not only is it OK for kids’ books to address topics like this, but that it’s actually important that they do. And then I refer them back to Bruno Bettelheim whom I quoted at the start of this piece.

I came across Bettelheim, an Austrian born psychologist, whilst researching an article about fairytales. When I started reading them to my own children I was troubled by those gruesome endings: wolves cut open and their bellies stuffed with stones or boiled in scalding cauldrons, gingerbread men eaten, wicked stepmothers dancing to their demented deaths – surely this wasn’t appropriate stuff for children’s tender sensibilities.

But Bettelheim argues that it is. Why? Because stories are not merely entertainment; they perform a vital moral and psychological function within a child’s development. And it is for this reason that children’s stories should not shy away from the more troubling realities of life – from death, man’s capacity for evil, pain, loss, anger. Children need a safe space within which they can explore the troubling aspects of their world and their own natures, thus equipping them to deal with both. ‘Stories speak about his severe inner pressures in a way that the child unconsciously understands, and – without belittling the most serious inner struggles which growing up entails.’

Contemporary child psychologist, Linda Blair, agrees, advising parents not to shy away from fictional intimations of mortality. ‘In our society we shield both kids and adults from death and fear far too much: the result is that they have no idea how to cope with grief and loss when it occurs.’

So, Bettelheim changed my view of the function of literature (and made me stop adding on happy endings for wolves and evil step mothers – or even gingerbread men – when reading fairy tales to my kids!) And he is a big part of the reason that I chose to write a novel for children which explores the events of 9/11.

I’d written an article for ‘The Times’ about children who lost a parent in the September 11th terrorist attacks in which I included interviews with several kids who had lost a parent that day, and with a British boy whose father had died in the July 7th London bombings. http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/families/article4706754.ece

It made me conscious that today’s children – my own children – are growing up in a world shaped by the events of 9/11 and I wanted to write a novel which explored the difficult questions that threw up. ‘We Can be Heroes’ is about a boy called Ben whose father has been killed in the attacks, and the friendship he forms with a young Muslim girl, Priti, who is convinced her brother is a suicide bomber. Priti enlists Ben’s help to foil the bomb plot with hilarious – and explosive – consequences.

‘My dad was killed in the 9/11 attacks in New York. But the stuff in this book is not about 9/11. It’s about the summer my mum went away; the summer that me and Jed and Priti tried to catch a suicide bomber and prevent an honour killing and started a race riot. So it’s not really about 9/11, but then again none of those things would have happened if it hadn’t been for that day. So I guess it’s all back to front. Sort of . . .’

Whilst I was writing the novel, I was researching another article about helping children cope with bereavement, a topic close to my heart following the death of my children’s grandfather. I learned that yes, children require reassurance but they also require honesty. Grieving children need adequate information about death and for adults to address their fears and anxieties directly. The same, it seems to me, applies to fiction. Children’s authors writing about topics such as death, war, terrorism, family break up etc. need to be honest and open with their young readers.

All this research very much informed what I wrote. Priti decides to turn amateur bereavement counsellor/child psychologist (as well as undercover bomb squad, marriage guidance counsellor and matchmaker!), encouraging Ben to make a memory box and talk to his grandparents about his dad. Meanwhile, Ben, asks loads of questions in a series of lists throughout the book which were inspired by the parents, children and experts I had interviewed.

‘Things I’d like to know about the men who flew their planes into the twin towers and killed my dad’

1. What did they look like?

2. Did they have brothers and sisters and families and kids and homes and stuff? And did they tell those people what they were going to do?

3. Were they scared of dying? Or was it that they didn’t like being alive and had rubbish lives so didn’t mind dying?

4. Did they hate my dad and all the people in the Twin Towers when they did it?

5. Did they hate the kids like me who had dads and mums in the towers too?

The children in my novel are forced to confront and explore the troubling realities of the terrorist threat, Muslim extremism, Islamophobia and racism and my hope is that the novel allows young readers to explore those issues themselves and reach their own conclusions.

Of course it’s hard to know if your own novel achieves what it sets out to do, but I do know that other contemporary children’s novelists are exploring similar themes with great success.

Annabel Pitcher’s superb novel ‘My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece’ is also about a young boy whose life has been affected by terrorism. Jamie’s sister has been killed in a fictional terrorist attack on London and the tragedy has shattered his family apart.

‘Everyone kept saying it would get better with time, but that’s just one of the lies that grown-ups tell in awkward situations. Five years on, it’s worse than ever: Dad drinks, Mum’s gone and Jamie’s left with questions that he must answer for himself.’

Pitcher’s novel made me laugh, and cry, then do both again in turn. It asks difficult questions and does not provide all the answers. It is a book which will enlarge the sympathies of young readers and force them to ask questions of themselves and their society – both of which are surely good things.

‘I never set out to write about terrorism, but … I didn’t shy away from it either,’ says Pitcher. ‘Teenagers should not be patronised as readers. It is important for their books to reflect the reality of their lives. Unfortunately that includes terrorism.’

Anna Perera’s ‘Guantanamo Boy’ is a more challenging read. An unflinching portrayal of a 15 year old British boy’s ordeal in the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, the novel makes disturbing reading because it reflects the plight of dozens of real child detainees.

Khalid is a Rochdale lad who loves football and computer games. On a trip to visit family in Karachi he is arrested and accused of taking part in a terrorist plot, then detained without trial for two years, first in Pakistan, then Afghanistan and finally in Guantanamo Bay. Perrera had researched the novel meticulously, so much so that it might be in danger of reading like a documentary were the voice of Khalid not so convincingly evoked.

Perrera draws our attention to the plight of the many young people who were imprisoned illegally in Guantanamo and the appalling suffering and torture they endured at the hands of their captors, but whilst the book is bleak it is not entirely hopeless. At the close of the story, Khalid has been irreparably changed by his experiences, his cousin is still imprisoned, the war on terror continues, but Khalid’s journey from disbelief through madness, to anger and finally forgiveness of sorts provides a glimmer of hope for the novel to end on.

‘I don’t think that feeling of misery will ever totally go away… But whenever I start to think of that prison, I stop and remind myself how kind most people are in the world.’

This book is harrowing but important – a novel every young person should be encouraged to read.

Similarly Alan Gibbons challenges young readers when he explores inside the mind of a suicide bomber in his extraordinary new novel ‘An Act of Love.’ ‘What breaks inside the child that makes the man so flawed?’ he asks in this clever page-turner which explores how ordinary kids can be sucked into violent extremism.

Told through a series of flashbacks and set against key news events of the past decade, it traces how two young British friends, Chris and Imran, end up as a wounded soldier and a potential suicide bomber respectively. In the background a bomb is about to go off – will it or won’t it? The element of thriller in this book will keep even the most reluctant readers glued to the page.

Alan Gibbons is aware that writing about controversial topics can evoke a mixed response.

‘Eight years ago I wrote ‘Caught in the Crossfire’, a … love story between a Muslim girl and a white boys. It was read with great affection by many but provoked some abusive letters and emails,’ explains in the Authors Note to ‘An Act of Love’. ‘Why do I choose such bleak subjects? Well, you only enter a dark room if you think you can light the way out.’

According to a study conducted by Dr Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario, from Monash University, children’s books, particularly those from the United Kingdom and Ireland, are well ahead of most adult books in writing on 9/11 themes and aspects of terrorism. ‘[Children’s] authors present an acute understanding of the ambiguities of war and terrorism,’ she says, in a recent paper. ‘Through their storytelling they reflect that not everything is black or white, or as simple as ‘good versus evil’.’ Through fictional portrayals, young readers are shown the importance of questioning what is going on – of looking at all sides of the issue.

And Dr Do Rozario believes that, although children’s books covered issues of terrorism, they also provided a sense of hope.

‘Ultimately, these authors equate terrorism with a very understandable construct – childishness. Their books reveal a sense of the ridiculous underlying terrorism and war, while still acknowledging the horrific consequences.’

When I’m not writing novels, or articles, I teach English part time at a local high school. And it is from that vantage point, more than any other, that I approach this topic. I believe that the WSJ journalist who seems to think that teen readers should be fed a diet of happy ever afters fundamentally under-estimates the intelligence – and the needs – of young readers. Because if the next generation are to tackle the problems that will beset tomorrow’s world, then children’s fiction surely has a duty to help them understand the troubles of today’s.

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