Suitable for young people?: controversial children’s literature

The book in the centre of New Zealand's most recent children's book controversy (cover image courtesy of Ted Dawes)

The book in the centre of New Zealand's most recent children's book controversy (cover image courtesy of Ted Dawes)

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.

6 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Kerryn || August 6th, 2013

    Some commentators have suggested that YA fiction, which inevitably includes books with challenging content as per ‘In the river’, may be more appropriately placed in the general book awards. I think many critics had difficulty accepting the fact that ‘In the river’ was judged the Children’s Book of the Year. It is probably fair to say that YA fiction has more in common with fiction aimed at adult readers, than illustrated story books and chapter books for young readers. Some YA fiction is happily read by both teenagers and adults.

  2. Comment made by Anne Smith || August 6th, 2013

    The problem is that people have an unrealistic and false view of children and childhood, as a time of innocence and lack of experience. Children’s vulnerability and need for protection are emphasised over their agency and ability to cope with challenge in their lives. Ted’s book provides young people with a safe place to read and reflect on the realities of life for some teenagers. It respects young people and treats them as coping social actors rather than the vulnerable victims portrayed in some criticisms.

  3. Comment made by Johanna Knox || August 7th, 2013

    Kerryn, yes, I know what you’re saying. The Children’s Books Awards used to be called the Children’s and Young Adults Book Awards I think, which – while more of a mouthful – was a lot clearer!

    The two titles that Into the River won were Young Adult Fiction category winner, and New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year – so the word ‘children’ actually isn’t in either of its titles, only in the event name. I personally think it’s highly appropriate to name the overall book of the year award after Margaret Mahy as her work spanned all ages from early childhood to young adult.

  4. Comment made by Johanna Knox || August 7th, 2013

    … But as to whether to include YA books in the adult book awards rather than group them with the children’s book awards – that’s a huge question – and would be an interesting and complex discussion I think!

  5. Comment made by Kerryn || August 7th, 2013

    I have just bought a copy of Into the river, and am looking forward to reading it. I was very moved by Kim Hill’s interview with Ted Dawe a month or so ago, and this, more than the publicity, made me want to read his book. The interview is here

  6. Comment made by Kerryn || August 9th, 2013

    I just noticed that the sticker on the book says ‘Children’s Book Awards book of the year’ – glad I didn’t make that up!

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