It's a jungle out there

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Author- teacher James Watson has made it his mission to take teenage readers to dangerous times and places ... from the bloody waste of the Spanish Civil War to the recent conflict in East Timor. Here he reflects on his own fiction overthe past 30 years and explains why young readers need to be challenged

My writerly journey began with history. In Sign of the Swallow (1967) young readers met William Caxton in Bruges and Leonardo da Vinci in Florence. In The Bull Leapers (1970) they were propelled into the arena at Knossos to join in one of the most dangerous sports in history, at the same time being introduced to a slice of Minoan civilisation.

About that time the publishing world decided there was no future in the past. I ventured into the outskirts of the present with The Freedom Tree (1976), set during the Spanish Civil War, in which history was creating a scenario for the future; and it was directing me as a writer into my own future.

My fascination for history joined with red-hot outrage, not only about the tragedy of Spain, but about occurrences back home, namely the great Jarrow March against unemployment and poverty.

These were matters I wanted to share with young readers. Scarcely concealed in this desire - at least to me - has been the dual role of author-teacher. My description of the bombing of Guernica was as faithful to the events as I could make it; but for my characters, and for my readers, one feature of those events stood out, and has been replicated in different forms in my later novels - faith in the ultimate survival, if not triumph, of justice: the tree of liberty does not perish in the flames which destroy Guernica.

In all my stories young people are cast into the eye of the storm. Childhood is abruptly cut away or has scarcely been permitted to exist. My characters participate in conflicts brought upon them by their elders, by those bearing authority as well as responsibility. In Talking in Whispers (1983), the seemingly unchallengeable might of the Junta meets the stirrings of revolt in the hearts and behaviour of young people - teenagers like those reading the book, witnessing the burning of books, sharing the nightmare of arrests, beatings and torture.

Two teenage characters in Where Nobody Sees (1987) sound the alarm at the illegal dumping of nuclear waste and bring on themselves the reprisals of another version of totalitarianism, secrecy and the collusions which accompany it.

I like to think that such stories are a reminder to western readers, protected from the worst excesses of civil strife, that the liberties they possess have been hard won. They are the achievement of generations of protesters, of strugglers against oppression of all kinds - and such liberties are fragile.

Young readers understand this. In their letters to me and in discussion after school readings, the message comes over loud and clear: the serious, the challenging and the complex are readily assimilated if narratives keep the pages turning.

Often, in my view, the older generation errs in its expectations of young people. They are regarded as a segment of the population that needs primarily to be kept in check; except, that is, when they are classified as consumers and then they become the ad man's darlings. They deserve a higher profile and are worthy of higher expectations.

Some time ago in Birmingham, hundreds of teenagers gathered to hear authors debate the issue of children's fiction and censorship: where, went the "grown-ups" question, do you draw the line? Most of the young speakers regarded talk of "drawing lines" as adults talking down to them. I am not, however, intent on drawing lines of my own between young and old, supporting one generation against another. My stories feature interaction between young people and adults, generally to the benefit of both. In Ticket to Prague (1993), set in the aftermath of the Cold War, Amy Douglas forms a friendship with Josef, an elderly Czech poet in exile in this country, who, consigned to a mental hospital, long ago surrendered self to watch a blank TV screen.

Books are what brings them together. It is through literature - reading aloud The Good Soldier Svejk - that Amy gently tugs old Josef back into the land of creativity and opens a new life for both of them.

Central to all my stories, as befits their readership, are relationships between young people; in the case of Malenga, the medical aid worker, and Hamish, the South African army deserter, in No Surrender, reaching across barriers of culture, nation and ideology. Similarly, in Justice of the Dagger, Lyana of the forest people confounds the expectations of Johannes, son of a general in the army of East Timor's Indonesian oppressors, and plants in him the seeds of tolerance and love.

I am indebted to the literary "midwives" in schools whose initial promptings and encouragement have given young readers a jump-start with my books; and to my great satisfaction also reported the success of the stories with "reluctant readers".

There are a number of hazards in writing about contemporary matters, not the least of which is the risk of being out of date before the print has dried. It continues to surprise me that Talking Whispers, set in the 1970s, still stimulates interest and study. The explanation may be that such stories rise above the recording of a situation in history to address matters which have a continuing relevance. Perhaps because they are the product of imagination, they appeal to the imagination and resonate there for longer than bald fact, however dramatic.

The test, of course, is whether the text is meaningful to those who read it. Just occasionally a young reader informs the writer where he or she is at. I treasure the comment of a pupil from Twynham School, Dorset, who wrote of Talking in Whispers: "It made me realise how important the world is to us."

'Talking in Whispers', 'No Surrender', 'Ticket to Prague' and 'Where Nobody Sees' are published by Collins Cascades. 'Justice of the Dagger'is published by Puffin

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