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The Controversial Childrens Novel Junk English Literature Essay

Whilst violence and evil have long appeared in children’s literature, it is only recently that widespread violence, such as the treatment of the Holocaust in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Boyne), has been accepted as important in teaching children and young people about the more sinister aspects of human nature. In his 2005 essay, Kenneth B. Kidd explains that the treatment of such events in children’s literature is now necessary because “we no longer have the luxury of denying the existence of or postponing the child’s confrontation of evil” (Kidd 121). Moustakis (1982) argues that reading literature containing violence can help children to come to non-violent solutions to obstacles in their own lives. She claims that in fairy tales, for example, the monsters represent a child’s own ‘inner monsters’ and can allow them to “vicariously master them” (Moustakis 30); she also echoes Favat’s beliefs, stating that the “fairy tale handles justice and retribution in a manner that young children understand” (Moustakis 29). Kristine Miller (2009) supports this view, attesting that war fiction can also communicate a healthy way to deal with conflict. War is an undeniable part of our world, always relevant, and war fiction, Miller argues “helps readers to think constructively about a world being destroyed” (Miller 273).

The realities and consequences of war and political oppression are key themes of Beverley Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth (2000). After the assassination of their mother, Sade and Femi are forced to flee Nigeria to seek asylum England. Separated from their journalist father, and abandoned in London with no money and nowhere to go, Naidoo claims her novel aims to “reveal the impact of the wider society and its politics on the lives of young characters” (Naidoo). After a traumatic series of events, the children are placed with sensitive foster parents, only to discover that their father has been arrested, detained and is facing deportation. Written in the third person, and told from Sade’s perspective, the novel contrasts the children’s experiences in London with their old life in Nigeria and their expectations of England based on BBC World Service broadcasts. The contrasts between the two countries are reflected in the treatment that Sade and Femi receive at the hands of the children at school, the strangers they meet in London, and the welfare and social systems; and support Naidoo’s belief that the world of refugees in Britain “is largely submerged under public indifference and increasingly overt hostility” (Naidoo, Carnegie Medal acceptance speech).

The major theme of the novel is suggested by the title and has a number of interpretations; an individual’s view of the world based on their own context; the contrast between Sade and Femi’s middle-class perspective of themselves in the politically oppressed Nigeria versus the racism that they face in England; and perhaps the most significant within the novel - Sade’s moral struggle between her received understanding that “Truth keeps the hand cleaner than soap” (Naidoo 74), and the realisation that her father’s truth-telling led, inadvertently, to her mother’s death, and their consequent struggles in England. As the oldest sibling, Sade has to assume the ‘parental role’, making the decisions regarding what information she will share with the authorities to get help, whilst at the same time trying to protect herself, her brother, and her father. Her surrender to deception and lies weighs heavily upon her, and is particularly evident in her fear and disgust after her theft of the lighter from Miriam’s uncle’s shop, particularly in light of Mariam’s revelations about her past. It is not until the children discover that their father is alive and in London that they begin to experience some sort of peace, although their hopes are quickly dimmed by the knowledge that he is on hunger strike and faces deportation back to Nigeria. The novel’s conclusion, whilst not the simplistic ‘happy-ever-after’ is nevertheless, optimistic, and is a direct result of Sade’s determination and decision to tell ‘her truth’. As Jana Giles notes, the message of the novel appears to be that non-violent solutions are the answer, quoting Folarin’s comment in his letter to his children that “We must dare to tell. Across the oceans of time, words are mightier than swords” (Naidoo 193). With her novels, Naidoo attempts to encourage children to examine the “the historical, social, [and] political context”, hoping that they will begin not only to question “’What will happen next?’ but ‘Why is this happening’” (Naidoo, An Interview with Beverley Naidoo). Naidoo’s comments on her books appear to reflect Falconer’s beliefs, though on a more world-wide scale; while Falconer seems to limit her comments to the reality of the intended reader, Naidoo aims to address the wider reality of the “moral human universe” (Naidoo, A Writer's Journey: Retracing 'The Other Side of Truth' 340).

The debate over what is suitable material for children’s literature is “one of the oldest and most active” (Reynolds 88). Previously highly conservative in content, recent years have seen an increase in the number of books deal with “sex, death, sin and prejudice, and good and evil are not neatly separated but mixed up in the confused and often turbulent emotions of the central characters themselves” (Appleyard 100). In his essay, Melvin Burgess admits that Junk was an “experiment”, explaining that he felt there to be a lack of literature that would ‘speak’ to “real” teenagers (Burgess). Like Naidoo, Burgess strived for “authenticity”, knowing that the book was likely to have a “rough ride” (Burgess), and despite the criticism, Junk went on to win the Guardian Fiction Award and the Carnegie Medal.

Junk is certainly very different from the portrayal of adolescents by earlier writers like Ransome. The novel focuses on two 14-year-old heroin addicts; David, who has for years, been protecting his alcoholic mother from his abusive father, and Gemma, who yearns for adventure and escape from her oppressive parents “They had no doubt at all that unless my life was made as miserable as possible, I'd be a junkie whore by midnight.” (Burgess, Junk 65). Gemma’s attitude is in stark contrast to for example, Wendy’s confident belief that her mother would always leave the window open for her (Barrie 4.1). Both Gemma and David crave freedom, but not the freedom of an innocent childhood, rather the perceived freedom of early adulthood; “It was...being on my own, having an adventure. Yeah. It was life. A big, fat slice of life.” (Burgess, Junk 69) That Gemma is only able to experience this adventure by leaving her parents is sadly ironic, and, implies that perhaps such adventure cannot be found within childhood, only by leaving it behind.

After a brief third-person narrative in the first chapter, Junk is composed of the individual testimonies of the characters, with Gemma and ‘Tar’ taking approximately half of the chapters. This form of first person narrative, referred to as “immediate-engaging-first-person narration” (Schwenke-Wyile 185), enables the narrative to become more intimate and revealing because the narrating agent and the focalizer are the same (Schwenke-Wyile 188-189). Whilst Junk doesn’t openly condemn drug use or prostitution, Burgess’ use of irony and the contradictions between the individuals’ testimonies, reveal the truth about the events of the novel and the effects those events have on the characters. Burgess relies on his readers’ ability to “make a moral judgement” (Burgess, Sympathy for the Devil 319), rather than lecturing, which he says young people “get enough of at school” (Burgess, Sympathy for the Devil 319). Whilst Burgess wants to avoid lecturing his readers, his desire for authenticity in his novels, and his reputation for “honest writing” (Burgess, Sympathy for the Devil 316), suggest that he still wants to educate them. This is reminiscent both of Beverley Naidoo’s intentions when writing The Other Side of Truth, and of Rachel Falconer’s belief that children’s literature should “address the reality of their lives”.

There is some debate over whether or not historical fiction can address contemporary issues; Coram Boy however, is an example of historical fiction that deals with issues such as race, abandonment, and even teenage pregnancy. As Ringrose points out, in showing that children of the past suffered injustice, it implies similar injustices are suffered by today’s children, and furthermore, in reading the novel, a child “would find out much about eighteenth-century England” (Ringrose 359). Coram Boy exposes readers to the stark differences between the lives of the children of wealthy aristocrats, those born to the lower classes, and the bleak reality of the lives of orphaned children. Through Gavin’s characters, the social injustices of eighteenth-century England are revealed; children abandoned to die, sold into slavery or the military; the contrast between the opportunities available to children of the wealthy aristocrats versus those of the lower classes; the mistreatment of mentally-challenged individuals; racial discrimination. Slavery may now be illegal, but most of these issues continue to be relevant today. Gavin claims that historical fiction can enable writers to “explore events, issues, relationships or situations, which sometimes can be easier to deal with when removed from a contemporary context.” (Gavin 363) Coram Boy allows readers to compare their own culture with that of England in the eighteenth century and in doing so implies that whilst society may have advanced; there are still many things that need to be achieved. As Ringrose attests, “Jamila Gavin brings to Coram Boy a modern interest in difference, race and justice” (Ringrose 361).

One of the issues with historical fiction, particularly for children, is historical accuracy. Gavin believes that “First and foremost, a writer of fiction is telling a story, so sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, accuracy may not be as thorough as it would be in non-fiction” (Gavin 365), and uses this to justify some of her ‘stretched truths’ and ‘distorted facts’ (Gavin 366). The use of narrative telling in Coram Boy is also significant in relation to evaluating how the historical period is portrayed. The majority of the events are narrated in the third-person, and indirect speech is favoured over direct speech. These techniques enhance the reliability and objectivity of the narrative, implying that the novel is an account of an historical event rather than a work of fiction. The minimal use of direct speech may be an attempt to avoid the problem of characters’ period speech which can result in inconsistencies, such as Melissa’s contemporary usage of the phrase “hanging around” in contrast to Isobel’s previous comment that Otis has “such a lack of respect in his bearing” (Gavin, Coram Boy 129). The consequence of such inaccuracies in a novel is open to debate; if, as Falconer believes, literature should focus on the ‘reality’ of children’s lives, then is ‘poetic licence’ justified as a means to an end – does it matter if the history is accurate as long as the issues are relevant?

Much of the literature produced for children today has moved away from the Romantic notion of childhood, and this change is largely due to the way the world is today; increasingly urban, with a rise in crime rates (House of Commons) and decline in familial support networks. ‘Childhood’ is an ‘umbrella term’ and does not reflect the individual, as Peter Hunt argues that it is vital that “the inevitable variety of childhood and childhoods is acknowledged in its real readers, and it variability as a social and commercial construction is acknowledged in the texts” (Hunt 23). With such variety and variability then, the ‘reality’ of young people’s lives must surely be subjective, since each individual child experiences things, and reacts to these experiences in their own way. Whilst I agree with Rachel Falconer’s statement, and believe that children should be told the truth about the world in which they live, I think that Slayton has better conveyed my opinion: “to avoid in children’s literature anything that children fail to avoid or cannot avoid in their own lives is to do them a considerable disservice” (Slayton).


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