Love in children’s literature : the pain, the glory, the wonder

It’s a big old subject is love. Love changes everything. All you need is love. Love in media simply is. It’s one of the core tenets of our humanity, of our experience, and so we talk about it. We share it. We are inspired by it. We are made by, reshaped by and broken by love.

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Forever : Judy Blume

ForeverForever by Judy Blume

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have I ever told you about my love of Judy Blume? She, along with my equally beloved Paula Danziger and repeats of Mash on Sky One, form a substantial part of my introduction to Americana. That world of summer camps, of wise-cracks and heartbreak, and of corn-dogs and schools with PA systems.

And that world of love.

To be honest, eighties children’s literature didn’t really have love. Didn’t have sex. Children appeared like clouds on a rainy day. They were sudden, unexpected. Lessons wrapped in the form of a baby, morals kicking and screaming as you tried to change its nappy.

Blume and Danziger (and also when I managed to smuggle Lady Chatterley’s Lover out of the adults section in the library) were my introduction to love. Sex. Intense, madly, neurose-ridden sex. Heartbreak. Loss. Hope. All tied up in books that involved people being people and no mention of a pony anywhere. Truly it was a foreign literary land!

And now, finally, I have read Forever.

The lack of a star needs to be explained first. There’s elements about this that have dated, substantially, and that should be recognised.

But oh, oh, this book. This challenged and censored and banned book is still so very brilliant.

This is the summer of Katherine and Michael, fallen into an intense relationship. It’s a slim book and one that hinges on the fact that they’re forced to spend the summer apart, at different holiday sites. Will their love – their ‘forever’ love – last?

I love Judy Blume. Have I mentioned that? She writes Sex as sex. It is not Seexxxhcchmmmaaghhgiigglegigglelolz. It is not SEXY SEXY ME YES. It is just sex.

And Blume mentions gonorrhea! GONORRHEA. Tell me another children’s book that does that, even today! And she mentions it in the matter-of-fact, natural way that it should be mentioned. (Keep the bogeyman in the shadows and it remains the bogeyman, bring it to the light and it’s nothing but a word, an instance to master and to be beaten).

Forever is such a book. Such a brilliant book that is like the elder sister you always wanted to have. Like Just Seventeen back in its heyday when it told me *everything* about everything. Like that time when you sat down with your friends and finally figured out about tampons and sanitary pads.

Like that time you grew up.

(Can we say we were Blumed? Can we say that? Can we say that being Blumed has made us be the powerful people we are today? Can we make that a thing? Because it really, really should be.)

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Why books do not prepare us for real love

Yes! I have a theme! Three posts officially make a theme! I promise this will stop after Valentines Day :-)

Alain de Botton in his weekly column for the BBC is discussing “Why books do not prepare us for real love” View the colum here

While it’s not specifically children’s literature related, it does throw up some interesting issues. Firstly is it the job of literature to mirror what happens in reality in a very literal sense? Fiction is purely that – fiction. A book which discusses “real” marriage is a factual text.

Fiction explores the what-if. Fiction explores the magical and the extreme and the world we’d like to live in but we can’t. We should celebrate this and accept it. There’s nothing wrong with losing yourself in a book.

Fiction makes you appreciate the real. Fiction is escapism. Fiction is fiction. It is a warped mirror we hold up to society and should never be expected, either by the reader or the writer, to be a literal representation of events / life.

What makes me fall in love with a book?

I’m continuing the slightly awkward theme of love (dude, two posts make a theme okay) and I wanted to talk about what makes me fall in love with a book. What makes me think – this is it, this is the one, this is the one thing that I want to do for the next three hours and the life outside can stop and the world can wait because right now I just want it to be about me and this book? Reading is like that. It’s a very personal relationship between you and another.

Surprise me. I want a book that doesn’t tread the boards of repetition. I want the heroine to fall in love with her best friend rather than the bad boy first. I want the heroine to fall out of love and realise sometimes it’s not just about being one of a couple. It’s about being yourself.

I want funny. Make me laugh. Make me laugh with a little sideways look at life. Appreciate the farce and the high drama of teenage life. Teens are as self-referential as the rest of us. Don’t make them cardboard cut-outs that react to an anvilicious plot development.

Don’t get all self-conscious. Right now I’m reading a lot of things about gifted kids. A lot of these kids may be gifted writers. It’s too close to home. I read these and can’t separate the story from the author. It’s too close to home. Plus, you know, it’s a book. It’s not a counselling course.

No vampires. Seriously. Please?

Don’t shy away from the harsh. Jacqueline Wilson is excellent at this. She’s honest, truthful and very very powerful. Bad things happen. The world isn’t kittens and rainbows. But we’ll get through it. The joy of humanity is that we keep on fighting. Surviving. Make your characters do the same.

I’d love more books with GLBQT teens as well but not done in an Oh Look At My Public Service Announcement Masquerading As A Novel way. These kids exist. They’re not represented in a vast amount of kid lit and that’s a massive shame.

God, I would die of happiness at a really good school story. Something that’s not all nudge nudge wink wink innuendo but it’s full of the love, and the lust, and the massive awkwardness that define teenage years for so many.

And .. finally … on a terribly fickle note …  I’d love some good bookjackets. Can somebody remember that a lot of people buy books based on their cover? The cover is that initial note to the browser – it’s the thing that calls them over – and frankly writers deserve better than some of the stuff that’s out there (Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days is brilliant but the cover’s appalling!). C+ book designers, you can do better ;)

Ten children’s books about love

Booktrust recently published a list of ten kids books about love. The full list is available here.

I’ve not read all of them but I was instantly intrigued.

What’s love? How do we define love? How does a child perceive, experience and learn what love is? How is it represented in literature? Is love a necessary experience for a character to experience?

I’m intrigued by the representation of love in books for the very young. In this particular pre / emergent literacy age group, the texts have a duel  readership. The child and the mediating presence of the adult. Is it then, that in these books in particular,  the representation of a happy loving relationship becoming a didactic message for the child to mimic and model their behaviour on  or is it a side-wink to the adult reader that says we’re indoctrinating your child in the “right” way to think?

Ps – Regardless of all the above theoretical pondering, anything by Louise Rennison still remains Officially Brilliant and Worth Of A Read Regardless Of Age.