Books to broaden minds

4th July 2003 at 01:00
A tolerant mind is an open mind and children's literature today is rich with mind-broadening material. To misappropriate Helen Keller's quotation about education, we could propose that "The highest result of reading is tolerance". Note the word "highest", rather than inevitable.

Narrow reading can entrench stereotypes and bigotry. Propagandists use words to reinforce inflexible attitudes.

The writer Joan Lingard grew up in Northern Ireland and many of her books, such as Across The Barricades (about a Catholic boy and a Protestant girl) can be read as a plea for tolerance (Puffin, pound;4.99). She explores the theme of brotherly betrayal in civil conflicts in a new novel about the Spanish Civil War, Tell The Moon To Come Out, to be published in August (Puffin, pound;4.99).

Another of her books, Tug Of War (Puffin, pound;4.99), tells the story of 15-year-old twins who become separated while fleeing their country. Joan Lingard said that in writing it, she felt it was important to acknowledge that sometimes a resolution has to be one of flight. "My husband is a Latvian, like the characters in Tug Of War," she told a summer school on conflict resolution and tolerance, organised by Children's Books Ireland.

"There, the resolution was to flee, to build a new life in another country, in his case Canada."

For most school children who have never experienced war or been forced out of their homes, reading remains one of the best ways of being absorbed by such events, from the standpoint of soldiers or civilians.

In October, the Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo is due to publish Private Peaceful (Collins, pound;10.99 hardback), a gently moving novel about a soldier in the First World War condemned to death for cowardice.

Marcus Sedgwick's Cowards (Hodder, pound;4.99) is a lucid non-fiction study of those who formally refused to fight, the conscientious objectors.

Barry Turner's One Small Suitcase (Puffin, pound;4.99) is another excellent short, non-fiction title which tells the story of the Kindertransport, the influx into Britain of Jewish children escaping from Nazi Germany. Lines In The Sand, an anthology about war and peace (edited by Mary Hoffman and Rhiannon Lassiter, Frances Lincoln, pound;4.99), was born out of an outpouring of concern over events in the Gulf. The contributions from writers and artists (an illustration from the book is shown left) were gathered in the space of a month.

Fiction can help readers under-stand the limits of tolerance, as well as its desirability in the broad sense. It is one thing to live with an invading force or a totalitarian regime, but another to grow up within an intolerant family.

Freedom Flight, a Bernard Ashley novel due out in August (Orchard, pound;4.99) is a fast-paced, plot-driven story of a teenage boy who helps a Polish girl attempting to escape the violent clutches of her English step-father and return to her homeland.

It takes a skilled novelist to sustain a book that focuses on the emotional conflicts that build up before a bid for freedom. Gaye Hicyilmaz has achieved this in Pictures From The Fire (Orion, pound;4.99), a powerful novel in which Emilia, a Romanian gypsy, spends almost the entire time imprisoned in a hostel room. We know that her family has spent time in England, but moved to another European refuge. Only slowly is the reason for the move revealed and an explanation given for Emilia's rejection by her father, a proud man who wants his children to live as gypsies without any accommodation to the values of the rest of society.

Emilia explains the story of her past to herself by means of drawings in a diary and becomes sufficiently brave to reject her parents' attitudes. The author developed a similar theme in Girl In Red (Orion, pound;4.99), a prequel to Pictures from the Fire that is principally the portrayal of a son falling out of love with his mother because he can no longer tolerate her bigoted views.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school in Hailsham, East Sussex.

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