In the world we live in today, there’s a general sense that, even if the legalisation of cannabis hasn’t quite crossed the Atlantic, our lives are pretty shocking compared to, say, the Victorian era. Children are no longer to be seen and not heard (though I travel on a school bus and I wish they were), and nobody bats an eyelid at a woman in short shorts, unless said woman is especially tattooed or especially hot.
It’s a rule of the same culture that most kids born into a ‘good’ home are, to some degree, protected from the darker sides of film and literature. This was not so much the case with me. My father, as an English teacher, took great pains to encourage me to read critically acclaimed books, regardless of their apparent suitability; I particularly recall reading, aged seven, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. There are some images in there that imprinted themselves into my brain even when I reread that book years later. It’s not overly violent, but it’s graphic, it’s nasty– and I believe it did me good.
A couple of times a book messed with my head so badly that I had trouble sleeping. A particular chapter in Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, The Cave, gave me nightmares, and on rereads I always skipped that chapter. To this day I’ve only read it once. Then, at the tender age of ten, I discovered Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses books. For some reason they were in the library of my primary school. My good friend cheesybrainc turned me onto them- I was hooked- and I have vivid memories of the two of us sat in a freezing playground, leaning at horrible angles to read our one copy of the book at two different places.
Those books changed my life. I’m not saying they were great books- though I certainly thought so at the time- but they shocked me, and I needed that. Five years on, I still recall some scenes perfectly- there’s one where the narrator beats his girlfriend to death, and it was the most brutal thing I’d ever read. Me and cheesybrainc were gleefully horrified to find a sex scene that included the word ‘bum’. In the fourth book, there’s a scene with four naked men sitting round a table bagging cocaine.
As the years passed I realised just how lax my local library is about lending restricted books to tweens. I read A Clockwork Orange aged thirteen- at that point my mother finally caught on to what I was up to and confiscated my copy, but I’d finished the book two days before, agape with horror most of the way through.
What’s my point here? Just what it says on the tin- a little disturbance is good for kids. Books are not there to make us feel good- well, they sometimes are, but they shouldn’t all the time. There seems to be a notion amongst parents that children are fragile little flowers, withering at the first breath of foul wind, but I consider myself, at sixteen, a strong and whole human being. I am fully aware of the extent of human cruelty. I have not become used to it- that’s another stupid myth, that if kids are exposed to this shit too young they’ll turn into psychos.
Here’s the deal: we are not what we eat. Nor are we what we read. Kids can handle more than their parents think. Coming from a Christian background, I’ve heard of a couple of parents who ban their tweenage daughters from reading Jaqueline Wilson; this is disgusting. Frankly I think JW is a horrible writer, with the exception of The Illustrated Mum, but I used to love her books- and I know of kids who’ve been helped get over their parents’ divorces and suchlike by them. It’s idiocy to ban books because they portray parents in an irreverent manner. It’s idiocy to ban them because they encourage kids to hang their knickers on top of fir-trees. It’s idiocy to ban them at all- I don’t care whether they were written by Jodi Picoult or Adolf Hitler. People, and particularly kids, must have the freedom to make up their own minds. Otherwise they can never become strong adults.
I’m not saying that kids should be free to go out and read Fifty Shades Of Grey at the age of five. There are books that you naturally discourage children from, though I don’t personally view erotic fiction as harmful. (Aged fourteen I accidentally bought Anne Rice’s pseudonymous Sleeping Beauty Trilogy. I’d just finished Interview and wanted to read more of her. Imagine my surprise. On discovering my mistake, I did the obvious thing: I brought the giant white omnibus into my five-person music class and my friend George stood on a table and read out choice extracts while we all dissolved into laughter at sporadic intervals. I got two books in before deciding that erotica as a genre is predictable and boring- the experience left me more puzzled than scarred.) And clearly nobody’s going to want children watching gory horror films.
A word on this. Due to the mixed blessing of an overactive imagination, I rarely watch horror films. The Supernatural episode Bloody Mary messed me up so bad that I couldn’t look in mirrors for weeks; I still freak out in the middle of the night sometimes. But worse than this was a film that I was forced to watch in school aged thirteen- The Woman In Black. It’s rated 12, but I’ve seen 18s that didn’t scare me like that did. I really had nightmares after seeing that. On going to the bathroom at night I would get so creeped out- we have this light-switch that swings menacingly to and fro- I’m serious- and the shower curtain is translucent- so, obviously, I was always glimpsing dark shapes moving behind it. In fact, three years on, this still affects me.
Would I rather that I hadn’t watched the film? No. I firmly believe that when we experience something, second-hand or otherwise, that leaves that kind of impression upon us, we discover something about ourselves on some level. The Woman In Black has had an effect on my writing, I’m sure. I know what scares me now. It’s hard to explain- but I feel a little less naïve for having watched it.
What I’m saying is that children should have the freedom to decide for themselves what media they want to consume. People seem to think there’s some kind of toughening-up process that happens during adolesence. Yes, there is, and you know what it’s called? Independence. Freedom. The responsibility to choose for yourself.
There’s an awful lot of moaning among adults about the illiteracy of kids these days, and it seems to me that they have no-one to blame for themselves.
Give the kids a chance. Take it from one of them: we’re stronger than you know.