When people ask me about the differences between writing for children and for adults, I could talk about age-appropriate vocabulary and sentence structures, about spending longer in my characters’ heads when they’re grown-ups and developing more external action for younger readers. But one obvious answer is the endings. In a story for primary age children, I won’t always avoid difficult or sad realities like bereavement, bullying or even war, but if my young characters have endured challenges and distress I’m always inclined to help them through to a happier place by the end, so that their future looks worth living beyond the book. Of course my hero Michael Morpurgo makes exceptions, most notably perhaps with Private Peaceful, in which the central character finally faces a firing squad. I aim above all for emotional authenticity so I’m not one for tying all ends up with a shiny rainbow ribbon, and in one of my early historical novels, VOICE OF THE ASPEN, the family my Lakota Sioux boy recovers at Standing Rock reservation is broken, with Wounded Knee on the horizon. In THE WATERHOUSE GIRL Daisy’s hair doesn’t grow back, because for those readers with alopecia that would offer a hope that may be false and therefore cruel.
But in both books there is hope. For my North American hero, it lies in his spirit, courage and strength – and in the friendship with equally spirited Grace, who will break the rules of Victorian England to work for a fairer world. For Daisy, still bald when the sequel begins, the hope is in the love she shows those around her, and theirs for her. It’s in her ability to reach beyond her self-pity to help others and be happy. Never once did I consider, in either of these stories, killing off my young characters or leaving them hopeless. Children these days know more about the world’s horrors than I used to fifty years ago, when we had no TV and I was protected from Dad’s commuter newspaper. What they may not access often enough, in classrooms where freedom and creativity are often stripped away, or in life after school where human contact may be less actual and more virtual, is joy. In the UK our children come low down the happiness chart.
That’s not an argument for a diet of fluffy feel-good stories disconnected from reality once children have recognised it. But it’s certainly an argument against a similarly monotone diet of darkness, dysfunctionality and tragedy. There will be no change for good if we demoralise children into hopeless acceptance of futility; mental health statistics show a sharp rise in depression in school students and I blame the pressures to succeed academically but also the darkness of the real world on their screens. They know about climate change; they see Trump and the UK government ignoring it and pursuing policies certain to speed disaster. They see children like them piled into boats on the Mediterranean, interned in refugee camps and sleeping on Paris streets, and the Tory government refusing to welcome all but a few of them. So the positive values shared in school assemblies and PSHE lessons, about compassion, respect, care for each other and the earth, contrast sharply with the adult values that underpin administrations and cause war and inequality. A friend of mine told me that her son, mindful at thirteen of such truths, said, “You don’t know what it’s like to be young in this world.”
As a children’s author I believe in honesty, but that’s not the same as shaping worlds for young readers that are as bleak as the world News. Like most of us, I have experienced in my life a great deal of love and kindness. I know many good people trying to help others and work for change. That’s the reality many of us know but you won’t find it on front pages. If there’s an underlying message in my fiction it’s that love is more powerful than hate or death and that people, working together for good, can work social or attitudinal transformations. So can stories.
But what about adults, the jaded ones who have concluded that the world is sick, and will always be a cruel, unequal place run by the powerful, greedy and corrupt? The cynics who have no faith in human nature? The mature ones who roll their eyes or scoff at the hopelessness of the idealists in their dream worlds? It seems to me that we have reached a point where many have given up on a future for the young and unborn, on social justice or a more peaceful world. In their eyes they’re the grown-ups, the realists, and the rest of us need to wise up. There are authors who write for them, creating characters with no hope or morality, but I’m not one of them. I don’t populate my stories with selfish, amoral characters to create a parallel dystopia, but with people with the same strengths and flaws as those I know. As myself. In my adult writing the ending may be open – allowing as much or as little darkness to gather over it as the reader chooses, but I never, – even in START – eliminate the species, or even the love. My adult writing explores alcoholism, betrayal, selfishness, war and food banks, venturing into areas of despair where I wouldn’t want to lead children, but never without humanity. I believe in a better world and I will not give up on it. I hope my readers, young or older, won’t either.
I read a tweet recently expressing a wish that people would vote Green because we don’t have to live in this dystopian nightmare. I agree. We mustn’t be corrupted by the destructive belief that it will always be like this. Anyone who has worked with children as I have, as a teacher and now as an author, knows they deserve better.