When Into the river by Ted Dawe won the young adult fiction category at the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards in June – and scooped Book of the Year – controversy broke out on social media and in the mainstream media. The book contained several paragraphs of sexually explicit writing. Its detractors called it pornography, while supporters said it served not as pornography but as a description of the emptiness of sexual connection without emotional investment.
Into the river was also criticised by some for presenting a bleak, disturbing side of life generally. Others argued that young adult literature as a whole should portray a full spectrum of experiences – and that we need books that reflect the varying realities of New Zealand teenagers’ lives.
It wasn’t the first time sex in a young adult book had caused ructions. In 1998 Paula Boock’s novel Dare, truth or promise also won both the young adult section and the supreme prize at the awards, drawing condemnation from people such as Graham Capill, who believed its subject matter – a romance between two teenage girls – was unsuitable for its audience. The blue lawn by William Taylor, which explored a romantically charged (but not sexual) relationship between two teenage boys, had likewise been criticised when it won the 1995 Senior Fiction Award in New Zealand.
It’s easy to spot recurring themes here, and studying the controversies surrounding particular books can provide important cultural and historical information. That’s one reason controversial books are a focus of the National Children’s Collection (NCC) at the National Library of New Zealand.
Mary Skarott, research librarian children’s literature, explained to me: ‘Part of the role of the NCC is to provide a resource for research into children’s literature, both now and in the future. For this reason, books that caused controversy are a valuable part of the collection, as they provide something of a social barometer of views at the time they were published – i.e. how new books were received, and the debates they triggered, is an indicator of what was and wasn’t thought to be acceptable in books for children.’
It’s not just controversies around new books that reveal social mores and divides. Skarott says, ‘Books that have been available for a time can become controversial as societal attitudes change, for example books containing sexual and racial stereotypes (Enid Blyton being the classic example).’ So, while most libraries eventually ‘weed’ such books, the NCC holds onto them.
Washday at the pa (1964), by Ans Westra, is another controversial book in the collection. It was removed from schools after issues were raised over its portrayal of Māori living conditions. One photograph in the work caused particular offence, as it showed a child standing on an oven. Te Papa’s Collections Online site goes into greater detail.
Another controversial book, Our street, first published in 1949, was Brian Sutton-Smith’s semi-autobiographical tale of a group of boys in post-war Wellington whose exploits included lying, getting into the cinema without paying, and burning down a rival gang’s fort. According to this biography of Sutton-Smith: ‘Conservative representatives of local Education Boards and Headmasters’ Associations condemned Sutton-Smith’s depiction of salty language and rough-and-tumble play in his publications, but members of the Labour Party praised them for meeting a national need for stories about the country’s children.’
Te Ara’s story on children’s literature is coming up in our next theme: Creative and Intellectual Life.