In my glory days, as a meandering student of literature, back when the thought of doing an MA in English did not cross the same synaptic path as the thought of how much it might cost, I decided that studying children’s literature as part of aforementioned MA, might be diverting. I spent many a happy hour cradling badly-made coffee, using search engines other than Google to find obscure journal articles on the impact of muscular Christianity on Victorian children’s fiction and reading stories about goblins, ghouls and misbehaving youngsters. Imagine my delight when today, whilst perusing Twitter updates, I discovered the much awaited Bailey Review on the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Children and a Guardian article on how teenage fiction is “rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity”, according to Meghan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal.
Where to start? Perhaps I’ll begin with the fact that the Bailey Review doesn’t explicitly mention children’s exposure to young adult fiction, which can contain sexual content. It focuses on what Bailey calls the “wallpaper” of sexualisation; children are bombarded with sexual imagery on a daily basis. His target is the world of advertising, commercial exploitation by popular fashion labels and the padded bra. It would seem that Reg Bailey obviously doesn’t think that the reading of young adult fiction contributes to the sexualisation of children. Or, more likely, he is as dismissive of the importance and impact of reading as some of the families of my students. Who knows? Not many adults are even aware of what goes on in the murky world of children’s literature; some parents will buy books for their children with absolutely no knowledge of what the book is even about, let alone whether it contains material that might be regarded as inappropriate for children of a certain age.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that society could attempt to eliminate the sexual content of adverts, to force shops to sell clothes made for actual children, not ‘adultified’ children (a term Bailey coins in the review) and to place ratings on music videos, but that we would still be left with books that contain adult themes, adult scenes and ideas. No doubt, even if we cleansed society of the scourge of premature sexualisation, children may still find what they want in the form of some young adult novels. They would be driven by the same urge that compelled my teenage friends and I in the very-early nineties to smuggle a battered copy of Judy Blume’s ‘Forever’ into school and flick through the well-thumbed pages to the rude bit, where the protagonist has sex for the first time.
It wasn’t that long ago that a student in my form group brought a book to me, almost furtively, and said: “Look, miss!” She was holding what one might term a ‘mis-memoir’, a scurrilous tome written by some poor soul whose purpose was to expose, in all its ugliness, a lifetime of abuse by a step-father. The student showed me the section where the step-father forces the child to commit gruesome sexual acts. I admit, for the first time, I considered whether I could in any conscience, censor this child’s reading. It bothered me to the extent that I shared my dilemma with three sage colleagues, all English teachers. Lo and behold, a proper debate ensued, with two of us advocating the immediate removal of the book and two advocating a quiet chat but no active censorship of the book.
In the end, after some thinking and grappling with my conflicting ideologies, I decided to speak to my tutee about whether the book was appropriate for her age. I stopped short of telling her not to read the book. Today, I am glad this was the path I chose. I should have remembered all along my halcyon days of studying Victorian children’s literature. I knew, back then, that children’s literature reflects the society in which is created. It is a moral force, rarely gratituitous without reason, serving to allow children to experience mishap and mayhem without actual danger. I should have realised that my tutee’s fascination with the awful details allowed her to process the fact that ugliness exists in the world without facing it herself in reality. Is this any different than children reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with all the violence and threat therein, where the moral lessons learned by the characters were more explicit than they are today? I recall some Victorians were outraged by what they deemed depraved – the amputation of Cinderella’s ugly sisters’ toes comes to mind.
It is, therefore, a marvellous thing to see that the Bailey Review has not addressed the issue of young adult fiction. It cannot be sanitised, or censored, because in itself, it exists to create a child that is aware of danger, but is not necessarily subject to it. I would much rather children were reading about adult issues than not; I believe the role of the English teacher is to remind students that literature is powerful, problematic and needs discussion. It is enormously important that parents engage with the content of books they buy for their children and talk to them about the issues raised inside the covers. It might make for a more informed, more capable, more resilient young adult, who knows how to deal with the big issues that will inevitably have to be faced at some point.
In saying all of this, I’m not a huge fan of padded bras for nine-year olds. I mean, that’s just wrong.