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We are living through dangerous times, I think we all agree. Environmental disasters, virulent diseases, extremist politics, hate crimes, the threat of war, increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots. Anybody who suggests the future is rosy, that we are heading towards sunlit uplands, is an arrant fool — or else takes the rest of us for fools.

So this is a time when we should be channeling our outrage into more than just speaking out, maybe direct action or agitprop, right? We should be actively resisting, demonstrating, doing all in our power to turn hearts and minds in favour of benevolence and communitarianism, surely?

But what do I find myself increasingly doing as each day’s depressing news headlines impinge on my consciousness? I’m immersing myself in children’s fiction. Is this mere comfort reading? Escapism? Burying my head in the sand? Or is there a more profound, if perhaps unconscious, impulse behind this pattern?

Of the six titles completed and reviewed this year, three mightn’t be classed as adult fiction (though that’s not to say more mature youngsters wouldn’t enjoy them). Along with a couple of other ‘serious’ novels, I’m currently reading three children’s titles simultaneously — Tove Jansson’s Comet in Moominland, Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Joan Aiken’s Is. (And I’ve even — finally — started perusing Eleanor Fitzsimmons’ recent biography of Edith Nesbit, another celebrated children’s author.) What’s going on?

Here’s what I think is going on. While philistines could well say these works are sheer fantasy, what with friendly trolls, time travel and alternative history, I say that these themes aren’t primarily what these books are about. The Jansson book, first published just after the end of World War II, was inevitably bound up with the fears arising from the conflict and the hopes following it. Pearce’s 1958 novel is acknowledged as being about understanding between generations. And Aiken’s 1992 fantasy, the latest of the Wolves Chronicles I’m examining, probably reflects the author’s feelings after a decade of Thatcherism and its social, especially class, divisions and economic disparities.

For the readership the books were originally aimed at doubtless they were entertaining, but for all their superficial fantasy they also portrayed a reality — the threat of nuclear holocaust, the nature of authoritarian parenting, the evils of totalitarianism — that could upset any rose-tinted view that assumed that all was right with the world.

And that’s why it’s so important that children read, have access to books, to libraries, to classrooms where such fiction is held in esteem. For here, without the bitter pill Victorian novelists forced children to read, are deeply moral narratives. Here there may be crises to face and wicked antagonists popping out of the woodwork; but there won’t be the piety that accompanied too many tales from the 19th century, stories in which the protagonist suffered calamities and atrocities with a reverential quietude and passivity, accepting the fate that a noble sacrifice might offer.

No, as the 20th century proceeded the protagonist (other than the gung-ho British bulldog type who might show natives and the lower classes his superiority with feats of derring-do) would increasingly exhibit humanitarian values and a sense of compassion, combined with a bravery that wouldn’t require outstanding physical prowess or a privileged education. Nesbit’s children’s books are regarded as marking a sea-change from the piety of Victorian and Edwardian literature written to improve children to a more realist yet sympathetic fiction written with their innate sense of fairness in mind.

I generalise of course. But think of the classics that stand the test of time: in the main they are the ones that are based on moral outrage against injustice, war, deprivation, waste, greed, and so on. Whether the scenario is small-scale — family-based, perhaps, maybe in a school — or of epic proportions, stretching across continents, such narratives share the values of many traditional fairytales: standing up for what’s right, and recognising responsibilities.

In an era when most of our daily news stories concern the apparent success that arises from cheating, bullying, lying, exploitation and abuse, and when much contemporary adult fiction seems to end in tragedy or at the very least ambiguity, is it not important for all our sakes to counter that with alternatives? I don’t mean the saccharine endings of romcoms or the impossible triumph, against all the odds, of plucky outsiders over supervillains in the apocalyptic final reel; I’m thinking instead of the child hero who learns to do what is right because…

Well, just because.

34 thoughts on “Outrage

  1. It makes all the sense in the world. There’s those who in the tradition of C.S.Lewis, still believe we all need good children’s fiction, as it forms the moral imagination, as you so aptly note in your last paragraph.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Perrault’s literary fairytales concluded with a moral, rather as Aesop’s fables did with their pithy precepts, and many Victorian tales written for the improvement of children were like sermons, the lesson spelt out at the end as though the audience were completely stupid or unperceptive.

      The best of modern children’s stories (to my mind at least, Silvia!) focus on the thrust of the narrative and the character of the protagonist; and if there is an underlying message — moral, environmental, balance, self-fulfilment — it works best when implicit, to be subtly teased out by the reader rather than crudely hammered home; that way it allows the child agency, the delight of puzzling out and appreciating any deeper undercurrents, or the choice of ignoring them altogether.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. With a bit more time.

        I still think Aesop fables are worth reading to our children. I read them to mine. The pithy precepts I sometimes skipped, LOL, or let them figure out what the author tried to tell us with the fable. They are part of the collective, and that’s part -not all- of what I mean with ‘moral imagination’.

        I haven’t read much Perrault, but opted for the Grimms.

        When C.S. Lewis speaks about ‘moral imagination’, -and forgive me, because I’m not well versed at all in a concept that’s been more and better expounded by some nowadays, he’s talking about exactly the opposite of the “moralizing Victorian tales” he too despised.

        Bad moralizing tales are written without regards to literary value, they aren’t art, they are preachy sermons to bring a point, or force a point on the child.

        Narnia, by contrast, and all the good children’s fantasy literature you love and know so well, present the child with ‘moral issues’, and as you say, does it implicitly, because good art transcends entertainment, and has that ability to delight while posing all these important questions, worldviews, etc. and leaves it all at the feet of the reader, who is thinking and learning, pondering and wrestling with the issues of life while being delighted as well.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I do like your epigram that “good art transcends entertainment” because I believe that too. Interestingly, Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (described as a didactic moral fable by Wikipedia) tries to have it both ways. It includes a ‘Moral’ at the end which disclaims being anything of the sort but also includes its own epigram at the start of the novel (“Come read me my riddle, each good little man: | If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk …”) which makes it clear there is a moral wrapped up in its fun and games. I have a love-hate relationship with this work, which is mischievous at times, tendentious at others.

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  2. Pingback: Outrage — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  3. Such a thoughtful post. This has resonated with me. Children’s books, particularly those you mention, deal with important themes and are usually presented in a way that offers the reader hope. Sometimes as adults we too need that hope and optimism. There is a growing trend in children’s fiction now to tackle subjects such as refugees, discrimination etc and these may encourage greater empathy in the next generation. That again is a cause for optimism.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I’m pleased this resonated with you, Anne, especially as children’s literature is your specialism and you know whereof you speak! Empathy is its saving grace, as it were: in a world where selfishness seems to be held up as the ultimate good in politics, commerce and much popular culture, empathy is all the more crucial to our own survival and even for biodiversity.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I enjoyed this very much, thank you. And I agree with it. I too have been reading a lot of children’s fiction over the last year or two, and I would add two points to your post.

    The first is that children in most children’s fiction, as in life, operate from a position of little or no power. Child heroes are always disadvantaged against an adult. And yet, using the limited means at their disposal, they can succeed. To us now, many of the threats against us are overwhelmingly large – climate change, authoritarianism – we are in the position of the children facing the adults. These books remind us that the small can triumph.

    And second is that while the best children’s fiction often confronts dark and difficult problems, it always resolves in a hopeful ending. I don’t think it’s escapism to need hope.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I agree entirely with you, Helen. I recently finished that reread of Aiken’s Is which epitomises exactly what you say: ‘child heroes are always disadvantaged’ but we are reminded ‘that the small can triumph.’

      And your final sentence says it all. Thank you.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. I’d say you’re reading them because you value your mental health! Why put yourself into the stressful situation of listening to all the doom and gloom on news reports when you can chill out with a book in which even when things go wrong, it all comes right in the end

    Liked by 2 people

  6. earthbalm

    I’ve never moved out but before 1970 it was all Purnell’s Children’s Classics. I’ll be eternally grateful to my parents but in 1970(ish) I got my first library card and the world became my lobster.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Fiona

    When I read your post on Monday, I tried to comment, and for whatever reason couldn’t – so glad I now can!

    For me, children’s lit, fables, legends, etc., has always been about subtly teaching children how to deal with dangerous emotions, with adversity, and with despair. (One of the worst things I think my late unlamented mother-in-law did to my spouse was to refuse to read him – and refuse to let him read – ‘fairy tales’, because they weren’t “true”.)

    The starkest example I’ve experienced about the value of children’s lit in this domain was the publication of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”.

    That was back in 2003, at the height of the propaganda, gaslighting, and downright dishonesty about the “Coalition’s” purported and actual reasons for the invasion and – almost – destruction of Iraq.

    – The intolerance of anyone who disagreed.
    – The ill-treatment of anyone who disagreed.
    – The calmunies directed towards anyone who disagreed.

    And, as I read that book, I thought, “Yes, sounds SO like Bush (US), Blair (UK), and Howard (my Oz PM).” Lie after lie after lie, vilification of anyone disagreeing, and the intense to destroy anyone disagreeing with their vile stance.

    It didn’t – quite – work then.

    Now, however?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry about the lack of comment box, posting from my WordPress mobile app sometimes mysteriously disables comments and pingbacks, and I have to go back to my dashboard and re-enable them as soon as I realise. It’s not consistent, unfortunately.

      I concur with everything you say, Fiona, about the importance of children’s literature in helping readers deal with emotions, adversity and despair — and the danger that comes from not allowing youngsters to understand that the way of the world doesn’t rule out hope. I think the danger of TV soaps, gossip columns and stalking social media is that it’s constantly depressing and presents the worst of human behaviour as the norm. With a diet like that presented not just as ‘reality’ but also as the only possible outcome of daily living (anger, bullying, failure, self-harm, addiction for example) people are given the wrong sort of ‘script’ by which to lead their lives.

      That’s why there’s a hunger, not just for happy endings but, more importantly (as with the Order of the Phoenix) for a stand to be taken against injustices. So pleased you’ve picked up on this aspect.


  8. Your final paragraphs support my appreciation for The Good Place (NBC/Netflix). In the end, it turns out that we’re on earth SO THAT we can be good to each other. That is the final “meaning of life”. Not “42”, but “treat each other well”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not seen this series, Lizzie, but I do like that message. Pity it’s not universally accepted, and I do find it extraordinary that often the greatest deniers of this message and offenders against its precept are religionists — it’s as though they don’t believe it applies to them…

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I can only vouch for Catholicism, Lizzie: brought up in the faith, going to a Catholic school, then teaching for thirty years in another I was in a good position to distinguish between the charitable and the uncharitable according to how loudly they proclaimed their faith and how sympathetically they treated those in their care. I’ve no doubt that correlates with religionists in the other Judaeo-Christian faiths or Hinduism for example.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. AMEN. This is something that has so often bothered me regarding literary fiction for adults–that misery sells more than hope. Even the books for children that DO include some tragedy, there is STILL hope for the characters in the end. Sure, I get that not all stories don’t want to, oh, put on rose-tinted glasses, but then readers shouldn’t be judged because they’d like to see positive choices and hopeful places in their stories…especially when they don’t get to see much of that in their daily lives…

    Hope you’re healthy and well, Friend! xxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In this time of pandemic, misgovernment and environmental crisis it’s easy to despair but resilience won’t be boosted by misery memoirs, a constant dripfeed of negative news items or ‘realistic’ fiction. So the good news is that, despite emotions being besieged by lockdown and daily government briefings, my partner and I are physically okay, her recovered from a week or ten days of Covid symptoms and myself only troubled by a sniffy nose. And you and yours? Your recent posts show you surviving as well as may be expected.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! Yes, we’re all well, all things considered. We each had our turn under the weather with sinus issues in March, but we’re all out of it now. These days it’s a matter of surviving one another’s nonsense, and unfortunately Bash has been serving up FAR more nonsense than I have patience for. It’s…ugh, it’s been a tough one. But we soldier on. Little adventures like Basil of Baker Street make for excellent diversions, as do the kids’ unique takes on Bible stories. We talked about Palm Sunday today, and I had each kid share what they’d do with Jesus if He came to our town. Blondie wanted to treat Him to ice cream, Biff wanted to play video games with him, and Bash said he’d build a spaceship and go off with Jesus to explore “unknown worlds.”
        So, you know, typical Holy Week fare. 😛

        Liked by 1 person

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