Too much tragic realism?

Reading the (Saturday) Times book supplement today (Sunday), I found much to catch my interest. Sometimes there is very little, or one article, but this week, for me, is a good one.

The children’s book review round-up (by Amanda Craig) included the title Fearless by Tim Lott, for readers aged 11, and the author’s first children’s book. According to the review, Little Fearless’s mother is taken away by armed guards, but not before she has given her daughter three gifts. The girl is a laundress slave in an institute and helps the other girls by telling them stories. She escapes to tell the girls’ families what is happening to them but they won’t listen. Unwilling to let her friends down, Fearless returns  to them three times, on each occasion giving them one of her mother’s gifts. Eventually she is imprisoned in an underground room and dies in the arms of her best friend and betrayer. 

The review admiringly states: "This may sound grim, but it is gripping and one of the most original children’s books I have read for some time. The awfulness of many English children’s lives is insufficiently recognised….." and how much better is Fearless than "the fluff that pretends that childhood suffering doesn’t exist".

I disagree with this view. I don’t think the book sounds at all suitable for an 11 year old of any sensitivity or imagination; many popular children’s books contain quite awful tragedies; and in what sense does the plot summary provided by the reviewer apply to "many English children"? The opposite, by and large, I would think. There is much tragedy and drama in the books that children of this age love, most notably in the very popular Harry Potter series, which reduces them to tears at various junctures. Harry Potter is fantasy that meets tragedy head-on, but in the mind of the young reader, provides various ways to deal with the worst things that can happen to you. Jenny has just finished a newly published book (translated from the French) called "The Princess and the Captain" which ends sadly — but the book tells an explorer’s adventure and that is what stuck in her mind when she was telling me about it. Matilda, Tracy Beaker, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and many other popular 11-year-oldish children’s favourites deal with life’s tragedies, but not at relentless, miserable and frightening length.

I recently saw a film called Pan’s Labyrinth which sounds rather like Fearless. The film tells of the fantasy world a girl constructs to escape the awfulness of her daily life in Spain during the Second World War. It was a grim film, and in one sense ended tragically — but it was not classified as suitable for 11 year olds, even though the film was mainly about one.

Children can learn about the existence of tragedies and discover ways to deal with them by reading stories. The Times reviewer did not say whether she had found out what any 11 year olds thought of Fearless: the review was based on her own, adult reading. Maybe there are plenty of 11 year olds who would like this book, but based on the ones I know, I somehow doubt that it will become a classic among that age-group.

1 thought on “Too much tragic realism?

  1. Yes, I think it is important that miserable events in books in general are embedded in something that is not. For me the most poignant moments are usually surrounded by comedy. I admire people that can do this enormously.

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