This evening I attended “Monsters Under the Bed” at New South Wales Writer’s Centre featuring Kate Forsyth, Matt Finch and Nyssa Harkness. It was an interesting discussion on the portrayal and purpose of fantastical baddies. The entire evening was fascinating but I thought I’d just quickly share the point that stood out the most for me.
Darker social realism is generally read by fairly safe and secure kids not children with horrific problems (paraphrased from what panelist Kate Forsyth said in response to an audience question, unfortunately I did not get the exact quote which was far more eloquent). Children with real problems often prefer the escapist nature of Fantasy. Now that isn’t to say that safe secure kids don’t like Fantasy, because plenty do, but that forays into realistic darkness is generally too painful for children suffering abuse and so they prefer Fantasy. This really interested me as a teacher who has sat through many conversations with colleagues who actively put down Fantasy as pointless and silly. It is these kinds of attitudes that prevent our most at risk students reading what they will enjoy and actually need. Some healthy escapism is what these children crave, yet we insist on adding salt to their wounds. They need a world where good can triumph, where monsters can be overcome, a place that shows that in the end anything can be conquered. Unfortunately literary snobbism has perpetrated schools and we often insist that children read material that further depresses them, further abuses them and further increases their sense of helplessness. Even as the teacher in the classroom I find it difficult to teach a particular text on the gang rape and murder of a girl I knew. I’m in my 30s, the incident was decades ago, yet I walk out of each lesson where I am forced to engage with that text sickened and shaken. A fellow teacher of mine slid further and further into depression having to face this text daily that she too knew intimately that she didn’t just leave the school but the entire country. I can only imagine how traumatised my students are who have recently been raped or had a family member raped. To force students to endure something so close to their personal life and so recent to them seems absolutely barbaric. So is it time that us English teachers got off our high horse and allowed our students to engage in texts that could actually heal them rather than further traumatise them? Or should we continue on our preference of dark “realistic” literature? Is it really better plotted, structured, characterised or written? Or are we simply being snobs and forcing our preferences onto youth for no actual good reason? Food for thought for writers and teachers alike.
Thank you to the New South Wales Writer’s Centre for hosting such an interesting discussion topic with such insightful panelists, Matt Finch, Nyssa Harkness and of course Kate Forsyth who inspired the topic of this blog.