The global financial crisis may not be good news for publishers, but it might just be great news for literature, particularly children’s fiction. Poverty, they say, is the mother of invention (or something like that!) and there’s long-standing tradition of economic downturns producing great writing. Think Steinbeck on the Great Depression and Dickens’ crusade against Victorian poverty, not to mention the angry young men of post-war Britain and the numerous literary depictions of life on the breadline under Thatcher.
On the adult bookshelves, the current economic downturn has produced its own new genre dubbed ‘recession-lit’. But with studies showing that young people are amongst those hardest hit by the failure of the economy, how are children’s novelists like myself responding to the very real and very scary economic headlines? And why is it so important that we do?
Because if you think grown-ups are the only ones worrying about the global economic crisis, think again. New studies show the gloomy financial climate is shaping our children’s emotional development – and that includes kids from all different backgrounds. Stressed and depressed parents means a generation of over-anxious kids who are bearing the brunt of their parents’ financial worries. Not to mention the fact that money pressure is also a key factor in family break up and creates an emotional disconnect between parents and children.
Perhaps it’s not surprising therefore that so much great children’s literature has been inspired by a sudden down turn in a family’s financial affairs – think ‘Framed,’ ‘The Little Princess’, ‘Ballet Shoes’ and ‘The Treasure Seekers’, as well as contemporary offering like Rachel Vail’s ‘Lucky’ trilogy (‘Gossip Girl’ meets the Eurozone Crisis!), or ‘Fifteen Days without a Head’ by Dave Cousins, as well as ‘The Money, Stan, Big Lauren and Me’ by Joanna Nadin and my own new novel ‘Pop!’ both of which feature kids using modern means to solve their parents’ financial difficulties (Billy Grimshaw in Nadin’s novel enters a version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ whilst the main characters in ‘Pop!’ decide that the North West equivalent of ‘The X Factor’ is the route to financial solvency)
Because studies show that financial worries make parents emotionally disconnected from their children. “When parents are having money worries, it affects their ability to parent effectively,” says Gustavo Carlo from the University of Missouri who has been studying the effects of recession on young people. Parents who are focused on money worries may not be physically absent but they are often emotionally unavailable. And of course this creates the perfect scenario for children’s fiction. After all, kids being left to their own devices is key catalyst of much successful children’s fiction!
‘The Money, Stan, Big Lauren and Me’ is the latest in Joanna Nadin’s Billy Grimshaw saga; the first ‘Spies, Dad, Big Lauren and Me’ made the Richard and Judy bookclub list last year. It sees Billy’s mum lose her job which leaves Billy looking for ways to save the family finances, turning Dickensian chimney sweep, applying for ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and winning ‘Money Madness’ (a thinly disguised version of ‘Who wants to be Millionaire’). The results are both funny and devastating. ‘As a child of the 70s, I was utterly convinced we were on the poverty line,’ Nadin explains. ‘I did everything I could to dissuade my spendthrift brother from squandering his pocket money and I made a rota for my clothes so none would wear out. It turns out I was labouring under false pretences. But the dark cloud of poverty is hanging over children again, and it is very scary and very real.’
My latest novel ‘Pop!’ depicts a group of teens pursuing the talent show dream in the shadow of strikes and unemployment on Merseyside. Inspired by everything from ‘Billy Elliot’ to ‘Shameless’, Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ to ‘The X Factor’, and Frank Cottrell Boyce to ‘The Railway Children’ – as well as my own childhood in the industrial North West, with a bit of ‘Glee’ thrown in for good measure – ‘Pop! is about three kids who decide the only way to rescue their families from poverty and bring an end to the strike dividing their community is to enter a (very thinly disguised!) version of ‘The X Factor’ – with hilarious and heartbreaking consequences.
Recent research suggests that whilst parents attempt to shield their kids from their fiscal anxieties, children often end up feeling guilty and/or responsible and this is a key theme explored in contemporary children’s ‘Recession Fiction’. Whilst my main character Elfie hides red ‘final demand’ bills from her dad, skives school to look after her baby brother and comes up with more and more elaborate plans to bring in some cash, her best friend Jimmy Wigmore is convinced it’s all his fault his dad is threatening to cross the picket line.
Jimmy is a talented swimmer with Olympic dreams but he needs to ace the National Trials in order to get sponsorship otherwise his dad is going to turn strike-breaker to pay for his training – and Jimmy can’t let that happen. ‘It’s sort of like superglue,’ he says. ‘My swimming is kind of what’s keeping him together. It’s down to me to find a way to make this work.’
Parent-child role reversal is a key theme in kids’ ‘Recession Lit’. In ‘Fifteen Days Without a Head’ Dave Cousin’s main character, Laurence, thinks it’s down to him to provide for him and his little brother when his alcoholic mum loses her job and does a runner. He dresses up as a woman, enters a radio phone-in competition and (nearly) turns shop-lifter in order to put food on the table. What is most moving in this funny but tear-jerking novel is Laurence’s sense that he needs to hide his troubles from teachers, neighbours and social workers – that he has to sort things out on his own in order to protect his mum.
Financial strains clearly put enormous pressures on families. ‘Framed’ by Carnegie Medal Winner Frank Cottrell Boyce may have been written before the economy went pear-shaped but it reflects contemporary economic concerns as seen through a child’s eyes in a way that is beautiful, moving and hilarious all at the same time. Dylan is the only boy left in the tiny Welsh village of Manod; all the other young families have moved away to find work. Then his dad’s garage goes bust, his father commits insurance fraud and disappears, and his mum locks herself in her bedroom, leaving Dylan and his sisters to try and keep the family afloat – by turning to crime (in this case high-end art theft and forgery!)
Frank Cottrell Boyce is my literary hero (in fact, ‘Pop!’ is actually set in exactly the same location as ‘Millions’, a couple of miles from where I grew up!) and ‘Framed’ was a big source of inspiration for ‘Pop!’ which also explores family break up and absent parents. Elfie’s mam has always been unreliable: ‘How many times has she walked out on you now?’ Jimmy asked. ‘Thirteen’, I said. ‘Fourteen if you count the time she went to Blackpool for the day and left me in the ballpark in Ikea.’ So when the money runs out, so does Elfie’s mam, only this time she’s fighting Elfie’s dad for custody of the children. There’s no way Elfie is going to let that happen, even if it does mean posing as a teen mum, selling a load of whoppers to the tabloids and landing her friends up to their necks in trouble!
Finally, and perhaps most alarmingly, recent research suggests that high unemployment has lead to a resurgence in zenophobia and racism amongst young people. ‘Pop!’ was inspired by the Lindsay Oil Refinery strikes where the picket lines were hijacked by nationalists, parading under the ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan. ‘It’s your fault no one round here’s got any money,’ Elfie tells her band-mate Agnes, daughter of a Portuguese immigrant worker. ‘Half the men in town were out of work – cos you foreign ‘immos’ come in and got all the contract jobs.’
Tensions between the strikers and the scabs take on an ugly racist element and Agnes’s family are viciously targeted by the community. And once again it’s down to the kids to sort things out. Elfie’s dad will go mental when he finds out she’s singing with an ‘immo’ but maybe – just maybe – if they can make it all the way to the grand final and scoop the prize money, they can help heal the rifts in their community.
Just as in my last novel ‘We Can be Heroes’, I chose to write about racism and immigration issues, because as strikes and soaring unemployment continue to stir up tension between different ethnic groups in the UK, these issues are increasingly relevant for young readers.
Oh, and then there are the riots! Look out next summer for Alan Gibbons ‘Raining Fire’ which will look at how poverty turned kids as young as eleven into looters and arsonists. Which is also the theme of the book I’m working on right now …. so watch this space!
Double dip recession, Eurozone crisis, stock market crashes, public sector strikes and soaring unemployment: the economic outlook is about as bleak as it could be and some of our finest children’s authors have not shied away from exploring the impact that has had on young people. But typically they have responded to difficult themes with a mixture of humour and hope. The fiction that has emerged from these gloomy economic times is characterised by honesty, comedy and a sense that things will – probably – turn out OK in the end. Can children’s authors sort out the national debt? Probably not. But maybe they can help young readers deal with the impact it’s having on their lives.
A weblog about writing, books, teaching and the rest of life by the author Catherine Bruton.