Red blood sell

18th June 2010 at 01:00
Gruesome tales feature heavily on this year's Carnegie Medal shortlist, but are `adult' themes of torture, war and terrorism suitable reading matter for children? Anne Joseph reports

No book is too gruesome for Emily. In fact, "the gorier the better", says the 13-year-old, a pupil from north London's Fortismere School. Nor is she alone. Indeed, if the shortlist for one of this year's premier prizes for children's fiction is any guide, she is very much in the majority.

Torture, war, terrorism and death all figure prominently in the books in the running for the prestigious Carnegie Medal; the winner is announced on Thursday.

Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book opens with a murder; The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness portrays a world of ethnic cleansing and torture under tyranny; Marcus Sedgwick's Revolver begins with a boy sitting next to his father's corpse. They may be aimed at young adults, but they are not for the faint-hearted.

For Margaret Pemberton, chair of the judging panel, the presence of so many hard-hitting tales on the shortlist shows that the writers "have confronted very real issues".

But there are concerns over the level of violence in books aimed at young readers. Alison Smith, an English teacher at Ulverston Victoria High School in Cumbria, argues that violence in books for its own sake is not educational. "If you feel sick because someone's brains have been splattered on page three, it's not going to be suitable for a school to teach from it," she says.

While gratuitous violence may be inappropriate, she says tackling real issues, such as death, offers educational opportunities. She cites Hold On, a book about teenage suicide by Alan Gibbons, as a sensitive way of handling a difficult but important topic.

Moyra Beverton, English curriculum leader at the Cavendish School in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, says she would be concerned if one of her pupils were only reading violent books. Instead, she recommends using a variety of texts to achieve a balance. "I don't think it's good for them to read raw violence," she says.

But the gory element is one of the chief selling points of young adult fiction, and this is evident from children's book-buying habits.

A taste for vampire fiction

Here, the taste is for the supernatural; more specifically, for vampire fiction. According to Tania Vian-Smith, acting publicity director of Puffin Books, there was an 89 per cent increase in the teenage book market from 2008 to 2009. Much of that can be put down to the influence of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels. The first in the vampire-romance series has sold 17 million copies worldwide and been made into a film starring heart-throb actor and gossip-column favourite Robert Pattinson.

Whereas 10 years ago the children's bestseller charts were dominated by J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, in the week ending May 22, eight of the top ten on the Nielsen BookScan list, which charts national book sales, were vampire fiction.

At the beginning of this month, vampires were the lead characters in eight of the top ten on Amazon's children's bestsellers, with only Candace Bushnell's The Carrie Diaries and Julia Donaldson's perennial favourite The Gruffalo breaking the hold on children's book-buying habits exercised by the undead.

While vampire fiction may be a passing fad, it does fit into a pattern of an increasing appetite for brutality in children's fiction. Shortlisted author Marcus Sedgwick believes this reflects the way the world is changing. His book Revolver addresses the question of when it is right to use violence, an increasingly prominent issue in the lives of many young people.

"I approach dark subjects," he admits. But he says his use of violence in his novels is never gratuitous. "It's not what you do, it's how you do it," he explains. He believes books provide a safe means for children to enjoy the thrill of being scared with the knowledge that nothing will happen to you.

But some children will not have the maturity to cope with "adult" themes, argues Dr Rona Tutt, past president of the National Association of Head Teachers. She has raised fears over the level of explicit violence in children's books and, in 2008, called for booksellers to display warnings of explicit content. "People didn't used to write for young children in this vein," she says.

Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, believes books can "desensitise children to violence". He urges teachers and parents to try to dissuade children from reading books they believe are inappropriate.

Rachel Adams, an English teacher at Fortismere School, agrees that there should be boundaries in the level of violence and sexual content in books aimed at children, but says she is not worried about children reading gory books. "It gets them interested in reading," she says.

Deciding where to draw the line over which books are used in school is no easy task, however. Ms Smith, at Ulverston Victoria High, says these decisions have to be made on a book-by-book basis, judging whether each book is suitable, according to its merits and taking the gore factor into account.

But Patrick Ness, another shortlisted author, does not believe the limits of what is acceptable have moved. Teen fiction has always pushed the boundaries, he says, the difference is that there is more children's literature available and it is the subject of more attention than ever before.

Mr Ness says he sets out to grip - not scare - his readers, and he cannot recall a single reader who said his novels are too violent. "They understand that I'm trying to take it seriously and that if there is something that is uncomfortable, then they can trust me that there's a good reason for it," he says.

Henry, a 12-year-old pupil at King Alfred's School in north London, says he enjoys scary books. "They can get your heart racing," he says. "I think you should be allowed to read what you want, depending on how mature you are."

Many children get a thrill out of being scared, says Dr Fiona Starr, a clinical psychologist who specialises in working with children and adolescents.

`Most children can cope with gory books'

She says most children can cope with reading gory books, but the ability of teenagers to understand, absorb and process what they are reading is markedly different from that of a 10-year-old. "Most children are able to differentiate between what is a fictional story and what is reality," she says.

It is also important not to try to wrap children in cotton wool, argues Ian McNeilly, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE). He says it is vital that children are exposed to books on a wide variety of issues, including potentially difficult ones.

"Just because a book deals with a sensitive subject doesn't mean it shouldn't be opened," he says. "In fact, that might very well be one of the main reasons for reading it with pupils."

Gory books are also less of a concern than films and video games, suggests Sam Wright, an English teacher at Fortismere. "There is a difference between the visual medium and the written," he says. Violence in books, even if extreme, can help children make an emotional engagement with what they are reading, he says.

Noah, 12, a pupil at the Jewish Free School in north London, agrees. "A book is never as violent as something you are viewing," he says. "Playing a violent game encourages you to do something, albeit indirectly. Books don't encourage violence, they are simply telling a story."

And gory books are nothing new, points out Mark Strathdene, another English teacher at Fortismere. For every child in previous eras who enjoyed lashings of ginger beer and midnight feasts with Enid Blyton, there was another who revelled in the severed pig's head in Lord of the Flies. And even the thirst for vampire novels is less about the blood and gore than it is another way to confront perennial teen concerns, says Puffin's Ms Vian-Smith.

"They address what it feels like to be a teenager in terms of their bubbling repressed sexuality. These books have tapped into those feelings," she says.

But it is important to acknowledge that there are children who are more sensitive than others, says Dr Starr, and they could very well be scared or even disturbed by what they read. While there is no need to panic, she says, it is important to be aware of what children are reading

* The winner of the Cilip Carnegie Medal will be announced at a ceremony in central London on Thursday


"People screamed and those nearest him leapt from their seats and ran. One woman wasn't quick enough, and the Wolf Man leapt on her and dragged her to the ground. She was screaming fit to burst, but nobody tried

to help her. He rolled her over on to her back and bared his teeth. She stuck a hand up to push him away, but he got his teeth on it and bit it off! . Blood was pumping out of the end of her wrist, covering the ground and other people . ".

From The Saga of Darren Shan - Cirque Du Freak by Darren Shan

"A burster was lying in the middle of the road. A father by the looks of it, though it was hard to tell. He had the familiar look of a vegetable, or a piece of fruit, left too long in the sun. The skin blackened, shrivelled and split, the overripe flesh inside squeezing out. His insides had turned to mush. This was what happened if any grown-up lived long enough to let the disease run its full course. They literally burst."

From The Enemy by Charlie Higson.

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