Thursday, December 03, 2015

Lynne Reid Banks - In the News

Back in November, The Guardian awarded David Almond its children's fiction prize for his novel, A Song for Ella Grey, which is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.  

I haven't read that novel, but I learned about it earlier this week when colleagues in children's literature began talking about a letter Lynne Reid Banks had written to The Guardian, objecting to the book being selected for its prize. (Banks is the author of The Indian in the Cupboard and its sequels. Readers of AICL likely know that there are many problems with that book. From the idea of a white child having life/death power over a Native person and responsibility for the care of that person, to the stereotypes that are throughout the book, the list of what-is-wrong with the series is long. I've written a little about it but am, today, thinking that I ought to do a chapter-by-chapter look at it.) 

Subsequent to the letter Banks wrote to The Guardian, BBC's Radio 4 invited Almond and Banks to be on its Today program. I listened to, and transcribed the program, for those of you who might want to know what was said but are not able to listen to the archived segment. 

Yesterday, The Guardian published a handful of letters others wrote in response to Banks. Among them is one by Perry Nodelman, who wrote:
But some people not yet 12 experience lesbian desire, and/or swear or drink; and others live with older people who drink, swear, and feel no need to hide their lesbianism. I assume, then, that what Banks really objects to is fiction for young people that diverges from a supposed norm of ideally innocent (and heteronormative) childlikeness. Such fiction rarely represents anything like what most young people experience, and exists mainly to assure adults that childhood is actually more innocent and ideal than it usually is. Those who chose Almond’s more honest novel as a prizewinner should be lauded for not sharing in this sad game. Perhaps novels about younger young people might win more prizes if writers could figure out how to make them less dishonest about the lives of “people up to the age of 12”.
Early in graduate school, I read Perry's books and articles on children's literature. His thinking has been important in my thinking, precisely because of what he said in his letter above about honesty and the lives of children. 

As I think about what Banks said, I think she's stuck in that dishonest space Perry writes about, and in some way that I've yet to put into words, it echoes Meg Rosoff's objections to Myles Johnson's Large Fears. Here's my transcription:

BBC Radio 4
Audio available till 12/31/2015: 
Banks/Almond interview begins at the 2:45 hour mark

Moderator: David Almond is a celebrated writer for children and teenagers and he’s just won the Guardian children’s book prize, which is a big prize, for his novel, A Song for Ella Gray. Now, the novelist Lynne Reid Banks, first famous for The L-Shaped Room and then, author of many books, including The Indian in the Cupboard, for children, that sold many, many copies, went out and bought the book, as a result of that winning The Guardian children’s book prize. In fact, she bought two copies for her twelve-year old grandchildren. Then, having looked at them, she went back to the shop and handed them over because, and she said this in a letter to The Guardian itself,
In the first five pages there is lesbian love, swearing, drinking, and enough other indications that, once again, this is not a book for children.”
Well, Lynne Reid Banks is with us, and David Almond joins us from our Newcastle studio. I suppose, David, to defend yourself, we’ll talk to you in a minute. Lynne Reid Banks, were you surprised? Were you shocked? And if so, why?

Banks: Well, I was surprised because I’d read David Almond’s really beautiful description of how this book was inspired by the Odyssey and how this had worked in schools and I’m certainly not…

Moderator: And you’re an admirer of David’s writing…

Banks: A great admirer. He wrote Skellig. He’s done some wonderful books. What I’m quarreling with is The Guardian, for giving this prize under the name of a children’s book award. If only there were a separate award for teen aged, young adult writing, then he should have won it, I’m quite sure. I haven’t read the book yet because I am so disappointed that its obviously not suitable for what I call and categorize as children, which are people up to the age of 12.

Moderator: I suppose we’re getting into a categorization argument, aren’t we, David Almond, but just explain who you were thinking of when you wrote the book, what kind of age? I know you don’t target it in that way but what kind of age do you think the readers would be?

Almond: When you write you really don’t think about the target age. You think about the characters you’re writing. You think about the drama that’s involved in the story. The drama is described, narrated, by a teenager of about 17. So I had a sense that yes, maybe the main readership would be of that kind of age.    

Moderator: What they call young adults in bookshops?

Almond: Yes, young adults. But this book is being read by 12-year olds, 13-year olds, and I’m getting fantastic responses from them. They recognize something about the beautiful troubling drama of growing up.

Moderator: Give us a little extract. Could you? Just to give us a feel and then we’ll talk to Lynne Reid Banks again about her feelings. Just tell us where we are in the story and just give us a few lines.

Almond: This is right at the start, where Lynne wrote about and Claire and Ella are on a sleepover together and Claire is telling the story. 
“We were in bed, the two of us together. Ella turned to me, and she was smiling. “Claire! I’m in love with Orpheus." "But he hardly even knows you bliddy exist!" She pressed her finger to my lips. "I keep on hearing his song! Its like I’ve known him forever! Oh, Ella, it's destined! I love him and he'll love me. And if you hadn’t called me that day and told me to listen," she kissed me, "none of this would have happened, would it?" I pulled me clothes on. She kissed me again. Thud went my heart. Thud.

Moderator: Well, that’s pretty powerful writing, Lynne, isn’t it?

Banks: I think David Almond is one of the best writers for young people that we have. But 17 year old adults are not children and although, of course, I didn’t expect him to say ‘thank you so much Guardian, I reject the prize’ because this book is not for children…

Moderator: Let’s not have an argument about The Guardian. Its quite interesting… What are the problems. If you go into a bookshop these days and people often comment on this, is that books are categorized by age.

Banks: No, they’re not. Are they?

Moderator: Yes, I’m afraid they are and it drives authors mad because 10-12, 8-10, 12-15…

Banks: Oh I see what you mean…

Moderator: Children’s don’t think like that, do they?

Banks: No but I think if you would append the word children to a prize as is also with the Carnegie Medal which is the highest award we give here for children’s writing, and if year after year you give it to dark, dystopian, violent, in some cases, downright cruel books, I don’t know quite where people who are writing for children, which of course David Almond has also done, where do we come in? We don’t seem to have a prize of our own anymore.

Moderator: Well, David, you’ve won the Carnegie Medal yourself, for Skellig, I think, what would you say about a parent who is listening to this who may have an 11-12-13 year old who reads a lot and is quite emotionally secure as you can be at that age, and hear this discussion and say ‘hmmm this is the rewriting of the Orpheus story by you, its pretty steamy for a 12 year old… Should I buy it or shouldn’t I?”

Almond: Well of course I’d say… (laughter)

Moderator: Asking an author to say ‘don’t buy my book' yes, tricky one but you know what I’m asking you…

Almond: Absolutely. But the Orpheus story itself is such a powerful, elemental tale. When I was a teacher I used to tell the Orpheus story to 9-10-11 year olds. They were totally gripped by it and this is just a new version of that story. And the thing about children’s books is if you go into the children’s book department you will find all kinds of wonderful, experimental, creative, energetic books. That’s where people should be looking, and not thinking about where should we categorize this book or that book. This is an amazing world. People really believe that books can change peoples lives.

Banks: And they can.

Almond: And they can.

Moderator: A lovely moment of agreement. Lynne Reid Banks. David Almond in Newcastle, thank you both very much indeed.            


Kate B. said...

I wonder how Banks's grandchildren would have responded (or did respond) if she asked them whether they would like to receive and read this book, with a factual summary of its subject matter and a personal accounting of her concerns. In my experience, twelve-year-old readers are VERY diverse in their interests and "worldliness", and also very good at self-regulating their own reading (sometimes to the point of judging/censoring their peers with different comfort zones).

If nothing else, I suppose I'm glad that Banks has signaled to her grandchildren that if kissing similarly-gendered people makes their hearts thud, she's probably not a safe person to discuss it with just yet.

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley said...

Mostly what struck me is that Lynne Reid Banks didn't read the book she's criticizing. She read small excerpts, but not the whole book. I don't think anybody has the right to criticize a book extensively until they've read it. Full stop.

Kerry Neary said...

I think Banks said she criticized The Guardian for awarding it as a children's book. She did not criticize the book but commented that it was better placed with a teenage reading audience.