Terence Blacker: A good story is always better than a sermon

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The Independent Online

Now here is a creative writing exercise. You are, like so many people who have followed the great Cinderella story of the age – how JKRowling became a princess in the kingdom of authors – about to write a book for children. Your task is to make the central character a very brainy and important and influential female academic, whom we shall call Dr Claire Etaugh.

Your heroine has just visited the European Congress on Psychology in London. There she delivered a paper that was so clever and interesting that it was reported in the following day's newspapers. She had been talking about children's books and how women are portrayed in them. After looking at 60 picture books written over the past three decades, she had reached some shocking conclusions: 85 per cent of the female characters in the stories were stereotypes, either rosy-cheeked, kitchen-bound housewives or, if granted any degree of strength or self-reliance, were inevitably evil, witchy types. There were almost no women who led busy professional lives and yet also managed to bring up children.

These were bad, old-fashioned attitudes, said Dr Etaugh. "They certainly do not reflect reality." Off you go then, class. Your exercise is to write a short, fast-moving story for young children in which Dr Claire Etaugh is the protagonist. Your first decision will be whether to reflect reality by making her a complex, sincere gender studies expert who juggles the demands of a busy academic career with the full and emotionally valid home life of a modern woman. On the other hand, would she play better in your story as a bossy teacher-type who likes nothing better than to stand up on a platform and tell other people what to do without ever doing it herself?

Neither alternative, I admit, is going to be easy – there's something about this character that does not lend itself too well to fiction – but, as you start your story, you may find something alarming is happening. Your imagination is drawn to the unkind stereotype; however hard you try, you find the personable, responsible, real Dr Etaugh is a trifle dull.

Here is your problem. If you were writing for adults, no one would dream of demanding that your attitudes should be contemporary and liberal, that you should include morally responsible public service messages. The idea that your story should, above all, "reflect reality" would be palpably absurd.

But, as soon as you write for younger readers, a mighty cohort of experts and analysts peers over your shoulder and scrutinises the product of your imagination to ensure that no unacceptable attitudes have crept in. The criteria and methodology of these sniffer-dogs of appropriateness may be suspect – they might even make pronouncements based on 60 picture books chosen at random off library shelves. Yet their impulse is invariably the same – away from the dangerous freedom of story, towards the dreary limitations of a sermon.

The fact is, when you write a brief and simple story, a certain amount of stereotyping is inevitable, maybe even essential. Smugly, I can claim to have written a series of children's books whose heroine is every bit as politically correct as Dr Etaugh – she's a witch, but insists on being described as a "paranormal operative" to avoid old-fashioned attitudes.

Yet, surrounding her and the children whose lives she enters are a host of unfair adult stereotypes: a timid librarian, a stupid policeman, hopelessly incompetent teachers, parents who are snobbish, over-ambitious or who bicker with one another.

Now and then I receive complaints, but then anyone who writes anything for children receives complaints from the great army of the concerned. In the end, class, you trust your readers and your own imagination, and ignore the advice of anxious experts with their busy moral prescriptions.

terblacker@aol.com

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