A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
When Murder Most Unladylike was doing the rounds of publishers, the most common (and totally understandable) response went along the lines of ‘We like this, but murder? For children? It just won’t work.’ Secretly, I had the same worry. I knew what I’d liked as a kid (death and plenty of it), but I was a pretty weird child. Kids weren’t all so dark, were they?
Four years later, it’s pretty clear that we were all wrong. Murder works. Breaking that taboo is something I am proud to do, and keep doing, because the more I go into schools, the more I see that kids are gleefully fascinated by death. They love exploring it, not because they all want to become murderers when they grow up, but because they know how bad it is. They’re scared of it, so they want to think about it.
One of the most interesting things that I’ve discovered is that the children most comfortable dealing with death are the youngest. While Year 6s and 7s can be merciful, Year 3s and 4s are ruthless. Part of my standard school talk involves creating a crime story with my audience, and I always brace myself for some really nasty crimes when I’m working with younger years. A few months ago, for example, a Year 4 group decided that the murder victim should be a child … and the murderer was her younger sister.
But what works for seven year olds just won’t fly for this particular adult. I know perfectly well that I wouldn’t want to even try sneaking that kind of plot past my editor. Not because I want to pretend to my readers that children in the real world don’t die, because they know that perfectly well already. Not because I couldn’t write that book, or because I think that book shouldn’t exist. It’s because I’ve drawn a personal line in the sand. I want kids to be able to read my books when they’re ill, or when they’re upset, or when they’re afraid. I don’t want to break the comforting connection I have with my readers.
What I’m realising more and more is that a children’s fiction ‘taboo’ is one that’s more for authors and publishers themselves, and is on an entirely personal basis. As adults, we want to shield children from the world – but the truth about children is that they dive into life whole-hearted. If they can Google it, they will, and some horrors they don’t even need to Google. Terrible things happen every day, to their friends, their families and their teachers. We are really shielding ourselves from realising just how little we can really protect the kids in our care, and how eager those children are to prove themselves big and brave enough for anything.
I believe fundamentally that children’s books aren’t just fun adventures. They let children imagine taking charge and exercising power over the world. They show children why boundaries exist, and what happens when they step over them. And most importantly they allow children to explore how the world can hurt them – and understand that although it is full of dark things that seem terrible, with the right help they can be defeated.