Saturday, March 08, 2008

Are you a Socio-Economic Writer?

Sounds like a silly or weird question. Let me explain. In the past two days, there's been this synergy thing (I'm using the current buzz word) where several things I've been reading and thinking about have all come together. I have to warn you that I am about to leap up on my soapbox:

1. I've just finished a crime novel called Sanctum by Denise Mina. Mina was recommended by my friend G, and when I went to the bookshop, this was the title I selected. One of the elements of this story (which uses a really interesting diary/truth/lies quandary as its plot) is the point about who receives the most media attention. Is it the most attractive, middle-class victim? Because the lower-class, poor, drug-addicted or prostitute victim often gets short shrift from the media, thus leading to less public interest in their case and less assistance to the police.

2. Today's Melbourne Age newspaper has a large article about exactly this thing - Maddy McCann (the little girl who went missing in Portugal last year) has received a massive amount of media attention, and this has been fed by donations to the search mission by people like Richard Branson and J.K. Rowling. Whereas Shannon Matthews, who went missing (presumed abducted) on 19 February, has had little media attention because she is one of seven kids by five fathers in a very poor family.

3. Apparently critics are currently having another go at Jacqueline Wilson, asking why she has to continually write these depressing stories about kids in single parent, poor families who go through horrible experiences.

4. And me, small voice in a far-flung land (so to speak) is wondering how my editor is going to feel about another story featuring a child from a family that is basically broke and struggling, and who can't afford to give the kids what they want or need.

They are all good questions. I don't know enough about JW to say why she writes about the characters she does, but my guess is that, even if she doesn't come from a background quite so dire herself, she's met a ton of kids who do, who write to her, and who tell her their stories. She's giving them a voice, telling their stories, showing the world what it is really like as a kid to live in that part of the world where lack of money rules your life, where you can't be guaranteed a roof over your head, where you also can't be guaranteed a parent who can care for you.

While I feel deeply for children in the Sudan and Palestine and any other country where kids are suffering because of adults who are more concerned about killing each other than about making sure their kids actually grow up, there are huge numbers of kids in our so-called affluent Western world who are living miserable lives and who deserve to have their stories told too. No, we don't want a bookshelf full of misery stories, but there are kids out there who need to read stories that reflect the realities of their own lives and that give them hope.

Which brings me to the other whinge that critics often regurgitate every so often - that these dreary, doom-filled stories just make the kids' lives more miserable. I have yet to read any children's or YA book (apart from Dear Miffy, which has its own message) that ends so badly that the child or teen reader might come away feeling totally depressed. There is a huge difference between a realistic ending that offers some hope (and kids can tell the difference - they know when you are fudging it or making it happy-happy just for the sake of it) and one which sends you into the depths of despair. I don't know any children's writer who says they deliberately create horrible endings. JW always says her books are full of hope and strength and happy endings (just not endings where you win Lotto).

So I guess I need to go on writing stories that reflect what I know - that despite the media reports, not every child has a computer and Playstation and mobile phone of their own, simply because they can't afford it (there are some sane parents still out there too!!). Not every family can afford meat on the table every night. Not every family has working parents. There are many families where unemployment is the norm, where eating bad food is the norm (because it's cheaper), where single parents are the norm, where parents who can't speak English properly have to use their kids as interpreters (how likely are these parents to indulge in reading books to their kids every night?).

If you want to think further on the realities of life for kids in families below the poverty line, try reading What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George (article contains spoilers). Then read some Jacqueline Wilson books. Yes, kids love fairy books, and no, they shouldn't be unnecessarily exposed to stories about awful life situations. But pretending to your kids that the world is full of goodness and light is not helping them to understand what it is to live in our world today, and deal with the crap that will inevitably come their way. It is absolutely astounding what kids are capable of when they understand how other kids in the world are suffering. Your kids, too, can learn compassion, understanding and how to help others, simply by reading books about kids less well off.

So if you want to write books like that, books with meaning, books that will help kids cope and help them to become compassionate, caring people, go for it.
And as for you, Mr Rudd, cutting carers' benefits and old age payments - may you grow old and disabled before your time. You'll be getting a letter from me.

1 comment:

Kristi Holl said...

Sherryl, this is the most wonderful post!!!! I couldn't agree more. And yes, stories of kids who struggle against tough odds but have HOPE in the end mean a lot to kids. I did a quick check of the books I've saved since childhood. I was never an orphan, but I have half a dozen orphan books about girls who find happy families to take them in--after much rejection and tough things to overcome. Classics like LITTLE WOMEN and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES are about wonderful heroines overcoming tough things with courage and love. They are great role models for kids today! So many of them have tough situations to overcome!