Harsh realities in children's books

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The BBC's Mark Coles reports on the rise of so-called ?misery literature' for children, books that depict real-life tragedy, including events such as the Iraq war. Are trauma and despair the right stuff for kids' books?

MARCO WERMAN: The goings on in Afghanistan are standard fare for a news broadcast such as this one but increasingly war and other human hardships are finding a home in, of all places, children's literature. Some argue that young readers get a raw deal from bleak books of trauma and sadness. Others think differently. One is British writer Michael Morpurgo. His new book is called, ?Running Wild.? It's about nine-year-old Will whose soldier father dies in a roadside bomb in Iraq. Will and his mother head to Indonesia to grieve in peace. They arrive just before the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 does. Here Michael Morpurgo reads a passage set just before the wave strikes the coast. Will's sitting on the back of an elephant named Oona and looking out to sea.

MICHAEL MORPURGO: The sea was so still now. It seemed almost unreal. It seemed to me as if it was breathing in, then holding its breathe for something to happen ? something fearful. It made me feel suddenly anxious too which was why I kept turning around now looking for mum. I still couldn't see her. I began to feel myself being gripped by a rising panic. I didn't know why but all I wanted to do was to go back. I wanted to be with her. I had to be sure she was safe. That was the moment Oona stopped.

WERMAN: Will's mother drowns in the Tsunami. Now this has not traditionally been the kind of tone you find in children's books but the BBC's Mark Coles reports that it's happening more and more these days.

MARK COLES: Many children's writers make their hero an orphan. I mean could Harry Potter have had his adventures if his mom and dad still lived? Probably not. But this kind of graphic realism based on what has actually happened to some families ? father's killed in Iraq, mothers dying in the Tsunami. Isn't it quite hard for children to read about? Should we perhaps be offering more spiffing adventures of the sort that Enid Blyton used to write?

MORPURGO: The fact is we all know that life is full of tragedies. As I was growing up I was very protected from the world around me. It was the tradition then that you don't tell them things until they're ready to cope with the world. The problem is now you can't protect children. They see every night on their televisions the world of adults and that world is full of problems, wickednesses, grief. And they see it. So how are they supposed to deal with it if they haven't got the emotional equipment to deal with it?

COLES: Veronique Tadjo is a francophone writer from the Ivory Coast. Her latest book, ?Ayanda the Little Girl Who Didn't Want to Grow Up? also features a character whose father is killed in a war. So why?

VERONIQUE TADJO: I'm sure you're aware of what happened Ivory Coast and the major conflict we had that almost turned into full-scale civil war. A lot of children have been traumatized by this and are still living the consequences of what happened. Okay this particular loss was due to war but it could be through AIDS for example or it could be through another disease or an accident. So we have to deal with loss all the time and we forget that children also have to deal with loss.

COLES: Both Veronique Tadjo and Michael Morpurgo write fiction based on modern-day fact. Michelle Paver is the author of a popular series of books set in the Stone Age. She thinks the distance from today's reality helps her readers cope when she writes about violence, death, and loss.

MICHELLE PAVER: I think you can take a lot as a child particularly if it's in a context where you think well that probably wouldn't happen to me. The child reader will think, "Oh gosh this is disturbing but it's 6000 years ago." So there's that slight sense, I hope, of safety.

COLES: But what about when the story isn't hidden in any kind of fiction at all ? when the grim reality is almost like a misery memoir? Adeline Yen Mah is a Chinese-born writer who turned her own life story of being abused and bullied by her stepmother into the bestselling children's book, ?Chinese Cinderella.? Here she reads from a passage where she watched her two-year-old sister being beaten.

ADELINE YEN MAH: Thoroughly exasperated she gave a stinging slap across her baby's face. Little sister only cried louder. Deliberately and viciously Niang now set about beating her daughter in earnest. Her blows landed indiscriminately on little sister's ears, cheeks, neck, and head. Everyone coward as the punishment went on and on. The grown ups avoided looking at each other while we children shrank into our seats.

COLES: Adeline's story does have a somewhat happy ending in that although the stepmother went unpunished Adeline escaped to England and became a doctor. Still it's difficult for an adult to read let alone a child. But Adeline said she felt compelled to write her story for children in the hope that she might reach fellow sufferers of abuse.

YEN MAH: I decided to write my story as a child and to tell them to hang in there. It makes a greater impact to know that something is true and actually happened and is not invented.

COLES: But in today's world aren't nice stories nice? Do happy children from happy families actually need to hear about war and death and what do they get out of reading this kind of gritty realism. Michael Morpurgo again.
MORPURGO: One of the things that books can do I think better than anything else is to teach us to empathize with other people. And if it's a powerful and successful story you are so deeply involved with someone else's life and if this person is going through great difficulty and great tragedy and you're sharing it with them it's going to effect you deeply. I don't think it's going to traumatize you. It's taking you to places emotionally where you haven't been before. This is what books can do. They can ? these ridiculous words on a page ? can take you emotionally to places that you're never going to forget.

WERMAN: Author Michael Morpurgo ends that report from the BBC's Mark Coles. You can find information on all the books Mark mentioned at The World dot org.