Professor Kim Reynolds introduces radical children's literature, and says the time has come when children can become radical writers as well as radical readers.
Many people think of writing for children and young people as little more than a training ground for readers; something you pass through on the way to real literature. There are certainly children’s and Young Adult books that just entertain readers, but the best books are those that linger in the mind and grow with readers through life. Because it is one of the first ways in which we encounter stories and begin to explore other people, places, and ideas, children’s literature can play an important part in shaping how we understand and think about the world. This is especially true of what I call ‘radical children’s literature’. You won’t find a shelf of these in any bookstore or library, but radical writing has been around as long as children’s books have been published. In the past there have been children’s books that opposed slavery, children’s books that campaigned to stop children from being forced to clean chimneys and work long hours in factories, and children’s books that pointed to the degrading poverty and abuse suffered by many homeless children in Britain’s cities.
The tradition continues. Four years ago, the Little Rebels Book Award was created to celebrate radical children’s books. Despite its name, the Award, is not concerned with rebellious characters in children’s literature; it celebrates books that inspire readers to question the status quo and become socially and politically engaged. This is the essence of radical children’s literature: radical writers and illustrators help readers recognise that the way world is currently organised is not inevitable, and that even the youngest members of society can help to change it. They can also help bring about change by becoming radical writers.
Children’s literature is the only kind of writing to be named for its readers rather than its creators (think, for example, of women’s writing, black writing, Asian writing, and postcolonial writing). One reason for this is that in the past, children’s writers have not had the means to reach wide audiences. Digital technology, the Internet and the option to ‘print on demand’ are changing this. Whether in the form of traditional novels, such as the Inheritance cycle by Christopher Paolini, begun with the self-published volume, Eragon (2001), fan fiction, or stories written and circulated on mobile phones, young people are producing and circulating an unprecedented amount of fiction. But how much of this writing is radical writing for an audience of other young people? To qualify as radical children’s literature, writing needs to start from the assumption that children and young people are socially aware and interested in changing society. It will then do some – or all - of the following:
- new ideas about how society could work better
- offer new visions of how society is organised, managed, and sustained.
- readers acquire the skills, ideas and information they will need to bring about progressive change.
Meaning they are
- dedicated to achieving a more stable, fair and equal society at levels of wealth, sex, class, sexuality, ethnicity and race.
- feature all kinds of children and people, not just the dominant and most visible groups in society.
To achieve these aims, radical writers may use fiction, non-fiction, journalism, verse, graphic novels, picturebooks or any other genre or format, to raise concerns about injustice, inequality, or discrimination. This might be done through writing that promotes equality and peace, or discredits stereotypes, or encourages readers to become aware of the many challenges facing the health of the planet and the wellbeing of people in all parts of the world.
The winners of the Little Rebels Award provide a good sample of recent radical writing. The first Award went to Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between. This is a moving graphic novel, written and illustrated by the author. It tells the story of Azzi, a refugee girl who has to leave her country because of war. She and her family undergo a dangerous and exhausting journey to reach this country, but this is just one part of the refugee experience. They have to learn a new language and manage the systems and legal requirements of their new country. The family is not warmly welcomed by the community around them; things are no better for Azzi at school. But they persevere, and gradually begin to make progress and become accepted.
Azzi’s story is the story of refugee children across the centuries; sadly it is as topical today as it was during crises such as the Great Depression and the Holocaust. Sarah Garland did not just write a story based on news reports, however. She did considerable research, interviewing adult and child refugees, reading memoirs, talking to teachers and others who work with refugee children. This is an important feature of radical writing: it must be based on reliable information and informed world views and told powerfully so that readers want to find out more. In this case, the comic-strip style illustrations help establish setting and convey the stress and alienation the characters feel without the need for too much description, meaning the book is able to be understood by readers of different ages.
In 2014 the Little Rebels winner was Gillian Cross’s After Tomorrow. This novel cleverly turns the familiar perspective of the refugee story on its head to give those who are lucky enough only to have been spectators of refugeedom some sense of what it might be like. The novel is set in a not-too-distant future in which all the banks have crashed and the UK has become chaotic. Food is desperately short, and bands of thieves raid homes, stealing whatever food there is. Violence is ubiquitous. After one such raid, Matt and his family decide to join the other refugees who are fleeing to France in the hope of finding a better life. Just as they are leaving their mother has to stay behind and this begins a series of separations and challenges that test the family in every possible way. The point of the book is not to create fear, but to make readers think about economics and ethics; about why we are so dependent on banks and how quickly a society can descend into lawlessness. It also asks readers to think how they would want to behave if they were similarly tested. It does this by requiring those of us who normally feel protected from the crises in other parts of the world to recognise that without addressing some fundamental aspects of culture, we too could be forced to seek refuge in another part of the world.
Gill Lewis’s Scarlet Ibis was the 2015 winner. This radical text is concerned with mental illness, animal welfare and the plight of child carers and children in care. It tells the story of Scarlet, who looks after her mentally ill mother and a younger brother who loves birds but struggles with people. Eventually Scarlet is placed with a foster family who understand that she is still the lynchpin of her family. Birds weave the book’s multiple storylines together and provide a moving backdrop for a story that focuses attention on the courage, loyalty and competence of children. As Scarlet Ibis shows, some children are already changing their worlds.
A very different kind of book is the most recent winner of the Little Rebels Award. This is the picturebook, I am Henry Finch, written by Alexis Deacon and illustrated by Viviane Schwarz.
Instead of focusing on politics or social issues, I am Henry Finch is a deceptively simple looking book that can be enjoyed by even tiny children even though it explores the relationship between thinking and identity in some very sophisticated philosophical ways. It asks questions about how we think and how we know we think and how we can change ourselves through thinking. Henry has been living his life as one of a mass of finches who all do the same things all things at the same time in the same way. Sometimes they disappear inside the belly of The Beast. And then Henry starts to think – and to become aware that he is thinking. With thinking comes responsibility. He takes on The Beast and for ever changes finch life as all the other finches discover they too are individuals with their own desires and aims.
Given the many serious problems that are currently affecting how we live: conflicts, global warming, unemployment and the instability of global finances, it has rarely been more important for the rising generation to be well-informed, to learn new skills, and to be prepared to help with the work of making the world safer, fairer and more sustainable. Each of the Little Rebels winners – like all radical children’s literature - assumes that readers want to be challenged intellectually, emotionally and politically. Creators of radical children’s literature recognise that young people are citizens with abilities, responsibilities, and problems, and they aspire to help them make the most of their potential. Logically, then, they also believe that children have something to say. The power of digital media means that children and young people can now have their say. The time has come when children and young people can be radical writers and illustrators as well as radical readers.
Readers - and children and young people they know - are invited to respond creatively to this article. Send in your stories and illustrations to us and we will publish the best ones.
Azzi in Between is £6.99 and I am Henry Finch is £5.99 from Letterbox Library, www.letterboxlibrary.com, which also stocks many other fine books for little rebels. Letterbox Library also run the Little Rebels Award for Radical Children's Fiction on behalf of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers (ARB). You can keep up to date with all of the award news here: https://littlerebelsaward.wordpress.com
Kimberley Reynolds is the Professor of Children’s Literature in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University in the UK. Recent publications include Children’s Literature in the Oxford University series of Very Short Introductions (2012) and Left Out: The Forgotten Tradition of Radical Publishing for Children in Britain, 1910-1949 (Oxford University Press, 2016).