Our Dark (Curriculum) Materials

There’s an article on The Guardian today getting a fair bit of traction, by Alice Pung, along the lines of “teens can handle dark topics” and I have to admit, it’s been bugging me all day.

Look, I know I am eleven hundred and twenty years old (give me a frickin’ beer, thank you Buffy fans), but really, haven’t we had this discussion? Like, every ten years or so?

I don’t have any argument with Pung herself. (I love her memoir writing, but I am in a minority of people who weren’t all that enamoured of Laurinda—it was too mannered for my taste, the characters unconvincingly self-referential). But she hasn’t been around YA for very long as a writer, and I doubt she’s been observing trends in the reception of YA and children’s books as an on-going concern.

Well, I have. And she’s right. There was a stink about “dark YA” back in the 90s when she was at school, and it did (in this country) focus largely on John Marsden, but it was mostly in the media and schools and teachers then, as now, pretty much just got on with doing what they always do—choosing the best materials for the interests and abilities of their students. And that included, by the truck load, classroom sets of John Marsden novels, including So Much to Tell You.

And way before Marsden, there was a stink about The Outsiders and after Marsden it was about The Hunger Games and there was that time that a judge let someone off a swearing in public charge on the somewhat sarcastically made basis that if the CBCA Book of the Year could have the ‘f’ word in it, society had declined so far that we could hardly expect standards of common decency to prevail, and then that abortive (pardon the kind of pun) attempt to ban Judy Blume’s Forever, because if it’s not “darkness” it’s sex and witches and look, honestly.

I remember an infamous Sydney Morning Herald take-down of the CBCA Book of the Year awards where the commissioned reviewer, who had no expertise in children’s literature, wrote with dripping disdain how disreputable the books in the older reader category shortlist were, and that he’d rather his (then) 9 year old read Wuthering Heights, ignoring the fact that the Older Readers category has never been for 9 year olds, and anyway, WUTHERING HEIGHTS?! But it was this kind of commentary that lead to a whole raft of “won’t they think of the children” talkback outrage. And it wasn’t the schools, or teachers, leading the pack. Then, like now, though, it was the schools and teachers copping the flack.

The truth is, we don’t have a significant censorship problem in this country (indeed, outside of individual school policies and BOSTES guidelines, we don’t have a mechanism for the kind of systematic censorship we see from school boards in  the USA). So let’s not beat one up, especially on what appears to be no more than a single anecdotal incident. Many kids and YA authors and yes, even teachers can cite anecdotes of schools asking them not to speak on certain topics, and parents requiring their children not to read books with certain content (ref. my previous comment on sex and witches). And sure, teachers and teacher-librarians will sometimes make choices about what’s going to cause them the least grief, depending on their school community, and what system they’re working in, and a whole host of other influences, but let’s not make them the problem, when by and large they’re just not.

And yes, I know and indeed have long argued that the price of our [mostly] censorship-free system is eternal vigilance and I will continue to argue that. I am well aware of specific incidents at schools, such as Will Kostakis having a school visit cancelled after he came out, and it goes without saying that I completely condemn such acts of prejudice and protectionism (of what, I have to ask—do these schools seriously think kids don’t know about queer people?). Frankly, I suspect that these kinds of incidents are way more common than we get to hear about, and are far more worrying than any suggestion that schools or teachers are shying away from difficult/challenging topics such as violence, environmental degradation, drug use, mental health or political issues.

(And without getting too political myself [oh who am I kidding], I’d like to stack up these incidents to see how many of them happen in private versus public schools.)

I’ve been in and out of schools for 31 years now (longer if you count my years as a prac teacher and before that as a student), so if you’ll indulge me, here are a few anecdotes of my own:

  • My Year 11 teacher (1980) telling us that the main problem with Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers was that he didn’t get laid early enough, and then musing out loud about how old she was when she lost her virginity. My head may have quietly exploded on the inside, but we all just took it in our stride and no-one came in and carted her off to a re-education camp for naughty teachers.
  • Classroom texts for junior high school students in the 80s and 90s (pre-Marsden) included Go Ask Alice (faked, but with explicit discussions of sex and drug use) and books by writers like Maureen Stewart, which were largely issues-driven and designed to largely as cautionary tales and which certainly explored what could broadly be described as dark topics. My main objection to those books that they were on the whole pretty badly written, overtly didactic, and did nothing to deter kids anyway, except from enjoying their English classes. (Seniors studied The Year of Living Dangerously, speaking of The Killing Fields.)
  • The only challenges I remember when I was a young teacher was from conservative religious parents who didn’t want their kids reading ab out magic or the supernatural. I remember one Christian family not wanting their child to read A Wrinkle in Time, apparently innocent of its original conception by author L’Engle as a Christian allegory. The parents’ wishes were accommodated by the school, just as they were when my then maths teacher partner had to make concessions for a student who wasn’t allowed to learn about gambling, despite the fact that the whole point of teaching them about gambling was to teach them how entirely the odds were stacked against them (much as reading Vicki’s Habit was meant to teach them not to take drugs, although I would suggest, far more effectively).
  • The school where I am currently working, which is 7-10 only, teaches The Giver, The Hunger Games and The Accident by Kate Hendrick. All by any standards could be classified as dark. Year 10 has been doing a unit on concepts of justice, using the film A Time to Kill and some pretty challenging related materials, while across in history they’ve been looking at the civil rights movement.
  • JC Burke’s The Story of Tom Brennan is commonly taught right across the country—it’s an HSC text for Standard English students in NSW and deals with extreme teenage drinking, death, mental illness, plus it includes a sex scene.

My point is.

It’s not schools or teachers who are shying away from anything; indeed, as my friend and colleague Sam, a Head Teacher of English I once worked for says, “we’re bloody drowning in dark books.” And for once, it’s not even an issue in the wider community or media. (No doubt they’re too busy making spurious connections between marriage equality and anti-bullying programs and leaving the poor English faculty alone.) And, as always, the kids are just fine, self-censoring where required and just maybe having the stuff they heard and read elsewhere balanced and challenged in the classroom.

Because the kids are all right, the books are fine.

And so are the teachers.

Now give me a frickin’ beer.