Edwina Wyatt ponders the limits of darkness in literature for young readers ...,_Saturno_devorando_a_su_hijo_(1819-1823).jpg

What is and what is not an appropriate subject for a children’s book is a highly political and contentious subject. Let’s call this 'the danger of ideas in fiction'.

There seems to be a widely-held belief that if a child encounters a dangerous idea in a story, perhaps a character doing bad things, they will not have the power to form their own view on the moral integrity of that behaviour or distinguish fiction from reality.

They will ascribe to those values. Confuse parallel possibilities with the world they inhabit.

Perhaps it is the preservation of innocence or protection from pain or sorrow that is our primary concern. This is a valid and fair consideration when choosing books to read to children: we want our children to feel safe, loved, hopeful. But is it also true that sometimes our best intentions and efforts to censor and protect can present a different type of danger?  Is it possible that we are writing our own fears into stories and imposing them onto the child? Does the vigorous ‘shaping’ of children’s literature have the potential to do readers a disservice?

We need to ask, what is it that we are trying to protect children from? Is it possible that we are in fact trying to protect the self from being revealed to the self?

Author Hanya Yanigahara explored this possibility in her closing address at the 2016 Sydney Writers’ Festival titled, ‘The Conversations Between Words’. ( festival/id985898011?mt=2&i=1000370734507 ).

Here, her gaze is not turned to writing for children, but rather the relationship between the writer and her reader. She begins by discussing Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, the most famous of his Black Paintings (1819-1823).

Yanigahara posits that visual art illuminates but literature exposes. That as readers we are made to be co-creators; made to reach into the hidden places of our own pathologies. When confronted with darkness or ambiguity, our minds forage, often retrieving something rotten and unpleasant - our own ‘black imaginings’ as she puts it. Perhaps revealing the unpleasantness of yourself to you; we become vulnerable to ourselves.

Fiction is the lone form of storytelling in which the human imagination is allowed to run wild. Unregulated and unharnessed. This makes it singularly frightening. Fiction implicates us, the reader, in a way that other forms of art don’t.” 

With so much focus in education on teaching children how to be resilient in the face of adversity, perhaps challenging, honest literature can foster this in a way that is not didactic or purposeful but rather entertaining, soulful and illuminating. 

The best stories are those that pose questions but do not answer them. Of little interest are stories that tackle ‘issues’ or include strategic tokenism for the sake of it. Story must be king. And when a story ventures to probe the human condition, then it is essential that the narrative and in turn the imagination, be unfettered.

Yanigahara also insightfully ponders the literary sadist, saying that writing that is designed purely to shock or repulse because the writer can, seeks only to test limits and provoke, making it nothing more than cheap pornography. She adds that pornographers desire only to create a reaction - to dare you to look for the spectacle of it which renders the literature meaningless and lazy.

But meaningful darkness creates empathy. And to not include it, to omit the violence of life in literature is to deny that it is a part of life - the stuff of being human. An act nothing short of, ‘…artistic irresponsibility. A covering of the eyes and silencing of the tongue because of some specious idea that there are certain territories into which fiction is not supposed to wander. But it is not only the fiction writer’s right, but the fiction writer’s duty to not just wander but to march into those territories.”

At Dirt Lane, we love to wander…

We invite you to march.

 (c) Edwina Wyatt 2017


(c) Nathalie Minne

(c) Nathalie Minne

Aesthetic richness triggers inner symphonies of tremor and upheaval, often so dense, layered, intricate and nuanced that it challenges articulation. Yet aesthetic response can be and is articulated by those whose sensibilities and vocabularies have been honed to do so. The language of aesthetic feeling is no mystery: aesthetically rich material triggers automatic responses that already exist in latent form, and all we need is a few moments of reflection in which to isolate, explore and name them … with the help of a ragged, old-fashioned thesaurus. Aesthetic richness, therefore, can be an effective catalyst for the development and refinement of emotional intelligence. It should surely be the foundation stone of education, and the raison d'être of illustrated narrative for young people. Sadly, young people are more often presented with conceptual constriction than with aesthetic riches.

The concept of diversity, for example, has narrowed to focus on race and gender, and can be used synonymously with ‘multicultural’ and ‘LGTBIQ’. Diversity in children’s literature, furthermore, while ostensibly aiming to foster a more just and inclusive mindset, and despite being offered in literary and artistic formats (as opposed to thou-shalt-and-shalt-not dictums), is often presented in purely conceptual ways, with little consideration of the fundamentals of formal aesthetic principles. We are, as the result of several generations of disregard for formal aesthetics, largely ignorant of the underlying essentials of text and image that make narratives profound and memorable, independently of their content, and that ensconce new ideas most effectively in the mind.

Progressive ideas that are communicated with direct appeal to the conceptual realm encourage readers to appraise content using the Central Executive Network system of their brains. This system thinks in a conscious, goal-directed, segmented, linear, list-like way. Formal aesthetic properties, on the other hand, are imparted via non-conscious brain systems, by-passing concept and aiming straight for the emotions. They are apprehended holistically and spatially, and are dealt with by the Default Mode Network – a non-goal-directed system that operates during wakeful daydreaming. The DMN is a brain system that aesthetically savvy creators can manipulate in ways that concept-driven creators cannot.

And this brings us to potential controversy: to enrich or not to enrich?

If progressive ideas are most effectively imparted by manipulating aesthetic and emotional responses in profound non-conscious ways, what might then be the danger of socially regressive ideas also being imparted in the same profound and memorable way? Perhaps we censor conceptual material to suit our agendas for young people's thinking, or perhaps we avoid offering any kind of aesthetically powerful material to the young, on the basis that it can be potentially harmful, and instead ensure that content is delivered within safe, approved and non-threatening parameters. BUT how effectively do bland aesthetics impart ideas? And how do they contribute to emotional intelligence?

Real progressiveness would be to enrich young people’s lives with exposure to profound beauty, richness of emotion and diversity of feeling. Let’s dare to offer them aesthetically resonant literature of all kinds, and allow them to draw conclusions based on their own emotional wisdom. True diversity already exists in the heart. All we need do is inspire young people to experience it.

© Margrete Lamond 2017


A Sunday-morning browse through this and that sometimes reaps rich rewards, serendipitously joining hands to encapsulate the Point of Everything. In the case of this morning, the Point of Everything-Dirt-Lane.

In Maria Popova's Brainpickings we find an inspiring line from American poet, critic, essayist and short-story writer Laura Riding: "A child should be allowed to take as long as she needs for knowing everything about herself, which is the same as learning to be herself".

In The Guardian Weekly George Monibot wonders why our schools continue to teach children to become useful cogs in a machine, when actual machines are increasingly taking over the tasks of useful human cogs. "Our schools teach skills that are redundant and counter-productive. Our children suffer this life-denying, dehumanising system for nothing."

Again in The Guardian Weekly, Linda Rodriguez McRobbie reminds us that "the more emotionally provocative an experience, the more likely the neurobiological systems involved in making memory will ensure you remember it", and that the point of memory is not to hoard data, but to gain wisdom: "past experiences ... make you more adaptive in the here and now".

Hence the urgent and abiding need for a broadly diverse, deep, rich, layered, nuanced and challenging range of emotional representations in both words and images.

The current trend for warm, sweet and "awww"-inspiring picture-books - in which theme, message and plot may vary, but in which the same emotional bandwidth is generally replicated - does our young compatriots a disservice. Books are where we (both young and non-young) experience scenarios and feelings in a safe way, and perhaps also learn something while we are at it. But if the message is regularly conveyed via the same emotional bandwidth, to what extent will the neurological processes identify a given message-experience as a standout emotional event to be remembered for future reference?

Young readers need aesthetic objects (books, words, pictures) that nudge, tweak, awaken emotions beyond their immediate experience, experiences that leave them wondering and curious, perhaps even vaguely discomfited. And then they need the timeand hands-off support that allows them to ponder, to feel, to roam their internal selves in their own ways and at their own leisure, allowing the vivid aesthetic-emotional experience to become a vivid memory from which to draw deep and lasting wisdom.

At Dirt Lane Press, this is our ultimate aim.