A Monster Calls for Breakfast

There was a bit of a hoo-hah this morning on the BBC Breakfast programme – a discussion about Young Adult fiction being ‘too dark’. It’s not yet been put on the BBC website, so I thought I’d post the transcript.

So, ‘Young Adult fiction – is it too scary for our little diddums?’ In the red corner was Patrick Ness, winner of practically every award going for ‘A Monster Calls’. In the blue corner GP Taylor, bestselling author of Shadowmancer and ‘the most frightening children’s book ever written’, Vampyre Labyrinth (brrrr!).

For the record I think kids should read whatever they want, no matter how dark. And if it’s written by an intelligent, talented writer like Ness or GP Taylor, all the better.

When I was a teen, books that actually spoke to you in this way were incredibly rare, so I’d seek out things like Catcher in the Rye or American Psycho (not that I’ll be reading that to my kids anytime soon).

Today teens are really well catered for, even if much of it features Vampires (or is that Vampyres?). So I was a bit shocked when Taylor announced that he thought there should be an age certification system printed on these books, to help parents protect their children.

Ness countered him well, pointing out that it was his duty as a writer to engage with kids about the issues they are thinking about anyway.

The reaction on Twitter came down firmly on Ness’s side. See what you think.

BBC Breakfast Programme 9th July 2012 7.40 am.

Presenter: Remember when books for young people featured heroes having jolly adventures before heading home for a nice cup of cocoa? Not any more.

Recent research shows the modern children’s literary hero is more likely to be abandoned, alienated and have no home to return to. Are these books darker than they should be? We have got two children’s writers with us.

Patrick you have two books that have won big prizes in consecutive years, Monsters of Men and A Monster Calls. Is your writing too monstrous for children these days?

Patrick Ness: Good grief, absolutely not. What I always say to this question, all you have to really do is to read what teenagers write themselves, and I have judged competitions for short stories that teenagers have written, and it is darkness beyond anything I would come up with, beyond anything in my books.

Teenagers look at the darkness all the time. If you are not addressing it in your fiction, you are abandoning them to face it themselves.

Presenter (to GP Taylor): You have written a book which has been called ‘the most frightening children’s book ever written’, and you’ve changed your mind about what you now want to write?

GP Taylor: Yes, I have. I wrote the Vampire Labrynth. I did not read it when I wrote the book. People who are reading it are saying this is the most frightening thing that has ever been written for kids. I have changed my mind, I think children’s literature has gone too far.

Presenter: How did you go from writing something really frightening and thinking it was appropriate, and then thinking, I wish I had not written it?

GPT: It started from writing adventure stories. I got dragged into it. I was going to a lot of schools, I was seeing what kids were writing, and I thought it was what they wanted to read. I wrote a book about vampires that was very dark and scary, and very realistic where people said, this is too far, I thought I have crossed the limit. I want to go back and write books like Shadowmancer and Mariah Mundi again.

Presenter: Patrick, many years ago, we were reading jolly stories about groups called the famous five, and the Secret seven, where they would tumble over the meadows together, play with sticks and drink lots of ginger pop, and have jam sandwiches.

PN: Are you 95 years old, are you sure that’s a fair representation of your childhood? Everybody always brings up Enid Blyton, but the Children’s book world today is vastly different. There didn’t used to be this teenage field 20 years ago.

This came up out of a survey of prizewinners. But that is not right, that is like judging all of literature by the Booker Prize winners. It’s as vast and varied as adult fiction. I do not think that you can say all children’s literature is one way.

Presenter: What do you think of GP Taylor’s point that perhaps we should not allow teenagers do lead us into the darkness.

PN: I do not think they are leading us into the darkness. It is possibly irresponsible not to try to address darkness, because it is not like a books exist in a vacuum, people look at the news, they look at pornography on the internet, they look at violent films on the internet. If Children’s literature is not addressing that and is just look at the world as it should be why would a teenager read you?

I think if you tell the truth about what is difficult, that their lives can be dark and hard, that when you tell the truth about what is good, about love and hope and friendship, they will listen to you and take it more seriously because you have not lied about what is difficult.

Presenrer: Several people pointing out that fairy-tales are quite grisly, children being eaten by Wolves, pushing cannibals into ovens, cross trolls that hide under bridges

GP Taylor: It goes beyond that. There was Oliver Twist, who was abandoned by his parents, the famous five, whose parents were quite neglectful. But there was always safety, they never went as far as they do today.

I think the way forward is a certification system the way they do in films.

Presenter: You are also a vicar. Does that inform your opinion?

GP Taylor: Not at all. I like writing opinion? Not at all. I like writing horror films for a living. That is what I love doing. But for children, we have to be really careful. When it has got an 18 certificate for adults that is a different thing.

PN: I think certification on books will only cause younger children want to read them. When it’s got an 18 certificate for adults that will make 12 year olds want to seek it out when their parents aren’t around. I don’t think it works.

GP Taylor: We have to have a guide for parents so when they go into bookstores or online they know what’s age appropriate for their children.

PN: this is a kind of handwringing. I do not think it addresses the problem. It is effective politically. It says ‘oh what about the children good heavens’. But children are great self censors, they know what they want to read. If you do not give them what they want to read they will find it somehow.

It is not just horror novels that make teenager’s lives miserable. They are seeking out novels which tell the truth about grief and loss and so on.

4 thoughts on “A Monster Calls for Breakfast

  1. Found this very interesting. I haven’t read any recently published teen fiction, so don’t know how Patrick Ness, for example, compares, but certainly some of the teen fiction I read in the late 1980s was dark. Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence is one example, particularly the first section which provides a terrifyingly real account of the effects of nuclear war, fallout and radiation sickness on a family living just outside Bristol. Other nuclear apocalypse/plague aftermath fiction we read at school, including Z for Zachariah, and Empty World, both described as sci-fi on wikipedia. All three of these novels resonated with me for years. Perhaps people’s fears have changed – nuclear war seemed very real to me in the 1980s.

    Books like the Secret Garden are also pretty dark. It starts with a cholera outbreak that kills the rest of Mary’s household in India, leaving her alone before she gets shipped off to her uncle in Yorkshire. There are lots of abandoned or unwanted children in ‘classic’ children’s fiction. I also loved reading Jacqueline Wilson in the 1980s – think it’s the same author – who wrote things like Waiting for the Sky to Fall, and other books in which family relationships are definitely weird.

    I suppose I’m trying to say that I don’t think that much has changed, really. Maybe I should read some of this new stuff and see what I think


  2. Thanks Stick, I’d forgotten about some of those books. Remember that we read Z for Zachariah at school, and then loads of upsetting holocaust fiction, things like Primo Levi, which definitely weren’t for children. The teachers clearly thought they were suitable for our age range and an important part of our ’emotional development’. If a classification system was introduced, presumably teachers wouldn’t even be allowed to suggest books like that.


    1. This is a tricky issue for me. I don’t think reading choices should be censored and I feel very fortunate that I had free choice of the adult books in my local library with no questions asked and my parents certainly never dictated what I should read. I feel uneasy about classification systems. I agree that children’s/teen fiction should reflect the dIfficulties and darkness of the world. But I’d also say that a lot of books I read as a child and young adult were upsetting and worrying, sometimes dispropoportionately so. I was a particularly anxious child, so probably not representative, but sometimes I needed to read for comfort and go somewhere safe (and still do), and probably we all need to balance the darkness with something lighter


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