Saturday 5 January 2013

The 'sick lit' debate

Feeling infuriated!
On Thursday the Daily Mail published an article by Tanith Carey entitled 'The 'sick-lit' books aimed at children: It's a disturbing phenomenon. Tales of teenage cancer, self-harm and suicide...' It has caused quite a stir and not just with me. To me this is typical sensationalist reporting that hasn't really thought through what is being said. There is the odd academic reference to offer credibility and a single quote from an author offering a defence. (I suggest you read Phil Earle's books - they are brilliant) But there is a lot more out there that counters what Ms Carey says, which she has very carefully avoided.

For a start, sick children in books are not new. Just think of Heidi, Little Women, The Secret Garden and What Katy Did. In some of these books, steps back in mock horror, someone dies! Did it stop people reading them? No! There is a reason for this, sometimes children want to read about the reality of their lives and many of them don't live perfect lives. This is not going to change and neither should it. I am not saying that all books should include teenage cancer and self-harm but I do believe if they are relevant to the story and are well told they should remain. I feel the same about sex, drugs and alcohol.  I should also admit I am not truly convinced by suicide story lines and whether they fit in at the moment but that in the main is based on the fact that I have not read any of the books mentioned that deal with suicide so don't feel I can comment.

I am an academic as well as a writer and my PhD looked at the representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in British young adult fiction. Yes, I admit the representation has changed and become more graphic but I feel this is only a reflection of what children are able to access via the TV and the Internet. I do not (and neither does my research) see it as a reflection of what children are actually up to. For me, and backed up by my research, books are all about the vicarious experience. The children may never intend to take drugs etc but they want to know how to react in any given situation. This is what books can do, they can provide the vicarious experience between the safe page turning of a good book. It should not be knocked nor should it be dismissed. Books that deal with contentious issues need to remain. They need to offer children a chance to escape and ask questions of themselves and the text in safety. A book also means you can go back to certain bits whenever you want to if you are still unsure. No one is going to know because reading is a private matter.

Reading as a child/teenager is all part of working out who you are. It is all part of the search for an identity. Books are a chance to try on different voices and identities to see how they fit in the safe environment of between the pages.

The article says that there is a risk that it will encourage people to self harm etc if they read these books. Well on a simplistic level, if you read lots of crime stories do you go out there and commit a crime? Yes, there may be a minority that will do something wrong but that is the case for everything and you can't assume that they wouldn't have done it anyway. I also note she mentions Twilight but fails to mention how it shows an abusive relationship as being acceptable. I can only assume she doesn't see that as a problem.

Yes, I am passionate about this as I feel it is important to give children chances to read about life. They may never chose to do that. They may only ever read fantasy but it should not be up to us. I am confident that the gatekeepers that are in place like publishers, editors, booksellers and librarians will protect children from unsuitable books (this could be an issue with self published books but that is for another post and not for today). The most important thing for me as a writer is to provide stories that are well written and that children want to read. I am not all about shock tactics but will use contentious issues if they fit into my story and that is never going to change. The most important thing to me is that we offer books that children can escape into and, as I said earlier, to ask questions of.

Here is a bit of Teenage Dirtbag because it seems appropriate as I used to listen to it with my, then, teenage children and who are now delightful adults despite having lived 'interesting' lives...I know how lucky I am that they have turned out how they have.


  1. Geez, I got through my childhood and teen years reading books that dealt with broken families, death, abuse, being an outsider, etc. I think it's critical to provide well-written, thought-provoking books that tackle all the so-called taboo subjects. It can be a great comfort to read a book and feel that someone understands what you're feeling or experiencing or can at least put a name to something that you thought you alone suffered. I'm not surprised at the conservatism. It is pretty normal during hard times for things to regress and social rules get stricter so that people feel "safer". Wasn't the 50s a bit like that? Oh well, what do I know, I'm just a children's book writer. Colleen

  2. Exactly Colleen, think you have hit the nail on the head too!

  3. I just posted a comment. Please let me know you received it as it seems to have vanished

    1. No I didn't, am not sure why it disappeared

    2. My point was that please don't presume to say what I have "carefully avoided". While I am fully aware of the cult of Chatterton and Edwardian children's literature, I do not have endless space , as you do on a blog.
      Books like Heidi and A Secret Garden are also totally different from the latest wave of books I mention, both in tone and outcome. In those book, the children recover. In these they often die.
      While these latest books are fine for older teens - in fact Red Tears is called "a very useful account" in the piece, the feature does however question their suitability for younger readers as young as 11 and 12 - and why these novels are classed as "children's books".
      There was also not rooom on the page for interviews I did with self-harmers who felt such books had a negative impact on them - or for an interview with a 10-year-old who read Before I Died because it was nominated for children's book award - and was profoundly upset by it.
      The feature also suggest that if young children are going to read these books, they should have an adult to talk through such issues.
      Also do please address the issue that the press no longer reports anything except the most broad facts of a suicide, even though they have all the details at inquests - for fear of inspiring copycats.
      Yet books like By the Time You Read This I Will Be Dead centres on a 15 year old bullying victim using a suicide website to set herself a deadline to kill herself - and considering how best to do it.
      I see you also decline to mention that the article stated that I asked Penguin twice for a corporate comment and both times they declined.

  4. The above should read Before I Die. And yes, I did read it to research the piece.

  5. I don’t think topics such as suicide and self-harm are inappropriate for children and teenagers, as these are issues they are likely to come across and even experience themselves.

    Where the problem lies is not what is put before our children for them to consume, whether that’s literature, pornography, or even literally consume, such as unhealthy food. The problem is that we as a society don’t communicate with children and teenagers enough. Instead of offering guidance and counsel, we prefer to sit back and complain at what they watch, do, read and experience.

    The only part of Tanith’s article that I agree with is at the end where it says ‘the next time you see your child reading a book, ask them what it’s about’. But not because you need to police their reading, but because there may be concepts, ideas and experiences in there that they are not sure about and need some help understanding. If we stop bickering and complaining and focus on educating children, helping them to understand these concepts, they can grow to be rounded, compassionate, enlightened people, and society needs more of those.

    Our adult taboos are passed down to our children, and this perpetuates the cycle. It’s the reason sexism and misogyny, racism, homophobia and fear and misunderstanding of mental illness still exists. Keeping things hidden from children means they grow up stigmatising certain topics and misunderstanding them. And misunderstanding leads to fear and hatred.

    When I was younger, it was seen as the responsibility of the parents to ensure that nothing that would upset children was given to them to read, or watch. It used to be that if a 10 year old child was allowed to watch an 15 rated film, or read a book aimed at children 5 years older, that was a sign of irresponsibility on behalf of whoever looked after them. Now it’s seen as the fault of the people who produced the film or wrote the book.
    We need to stop scapegoating and start accepting responsibility again. We’re all getting lazy, and our children, and ultimately our society, is suffering because of it.

  6. Yes, I am a big believer in explaining things in life to children in age in appropriate ways, as many of my previous articles and books have shown. The article questions abandoning younger readers to these issues like suicide and self-harm on their own without any adult context, or reference. The publishers could position these book as adult novels. But of course that might limit their potential readership. According to publishers I have spoken to, they are looking for a "cross-over" audience.

  7. Thank you both Rewan and Tanith for taking the time to reply. I think the importance of adults responding to questions that come out of books is an important and very valid one and one I totally agree with.
    I thought you might be interested that back in 2010 the Book Industry Communication review committee were going to split the YA 12+ category into 'teens' which would be aimed at 12+ but would not contain contentious issues and Young Adult which could. (See article by Caroline Horn 10.09.10 The Bookseller). I have never seen any evidence of this actually happening though.
    I think this young adult category is misleading as throughout the world it means very different things. For example in Australia the main protagonists can be in their late teens or even early 20s while in the UK they are rarely over 18.This obviously can have implications for story lines. However, I am against putting age banding on books as I think this can put children off reading.
    I would also like to say that I have spoken to self harmers who have found Red Tears to be a useful books that helped them understand themselves and come to terms with it plus seek help. But I think that is the case with all books for some it is going to work for others it might cause problems. Sometimes we need to trust our children and as you have both said take the time to talk to them if we see them reading a book that we know has contentious issues. However, that of course is reliant on parents taking the time to have an understanding of what is currently available, which does beg the question who would allow a ten year to buy Before I Die - there is no way, regardless of whether it was nominated or not, that a parent should have allowed that. There is some responsibility here that should be focused on the parents as Rewan has also said.
    On a different matter this also highlights the issue of disappearing libraries and independent booksellers as these were full of experts who could and would guide children in their choice of books. But of course that is a totally different can of worms.

  8. Keren David has also written a fascinating blog post on this matter if anyone is interested

  9. Another thought provoking post, Vanessa, and I think you make some very relevant points, particularly your observation, "Books are a chance to try on different voices and identities to see how they fit in the safe environment of between the pages."

    While I found myself primarily at odds with the Daily Mail piece, I do have a general concern about how children might be influenced by books. I think the critical point is, as Tanith Carey made, if a child, particularly a child who might be seen as vulnerable, is seen to be reading a glut of, let's say, self harm books, that a responsible adult is at least able to be there for that child.

    Of course, the other point is that some books aimed at older YAs shouldn't probably be read by younger children - and again, it brings in the question of some degree of reading supervision and responsibility on the part of parents or teachers. (Though I do tend to agree with you, Vanessa, about age-banding.)

    There is an important point to be made that writing about difficult topics such as those mentioned in the article can help a child feel considerably less isolated and can provide them with helpful insights. Teens particularly are very much at the stage of life where they ask the big "meaning of life" questions - fiction gives them the opportunity to consider some of the issues.

    We can't hide away from the more difficult parts of life, they are a fundamental part of who and what we are, and teens need a way of exploring them. In the case of fiction, I do think it comes down to how a book is written and how it deals with its subject matter. But I'd sooner see a teen read a well written book than try to find answers on an irresponsible website which can do a lot more harm. As Keren's article is titled, let's not "throw the baby out with the sick-lit".

  10. A very measured post Vanessa and an interesting response from Tanith. I have only read Before I Die of the books under discussion-which I found to be a fine, brave and authentic piece of work. I completely understand parents concerns about issues like sex, drugs self-harm and suicide (I'm a mother, too), but realistically when the internet is saturated with this stuff the negative impact of these books must be outweighed by their role in giving many children a 'safe' vicarious ride through the roller-coaster of emotions that come with relationships, break-ups, risk-taking behaviours and death. There has been some academic work on YA literature as a sort of alternative rite of passage (I blogged about this )
    Teenagers dying may be (happily) rare but death is not-it gets us all in the end and therefore it shouldn't surprise us that, like the other big questions, it interests teens also.
    As an aside I'm too old to have read any YA books-instead, happily unsupervised from the age of 11 onwards I was ploughing my way through the adult library having devoured everything in the children's section. Good readers from 11 or 12 onwards will be doing the same.