Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Curious Incident and Coram Boy

I've managed to catch up with two great pieces of literature for young people: 'Coram Boy' by Jamila Gavin and the stage version (at the National) of 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'. I had read the latter but inexcusably had missed out on 'Coram Boy'.

Get this out of the way first: I was utterly absorbed, engaged and deeply moved by both. These days, when this happens, I'm uninclined to go in for any kind of nitpicking. They both did their job. I cared about what was being played out. I brought many different kinds of experiences and voices from my own life to the play and the book and the result was in both cases a kind of revelation. I felt I was making discoveries or that discoveries were being made for me, or both.

One theme that binds the two pieces together is the question of 'agency'. By and large children's books ensure that children are the people who make things happen. Put it this way, if you take the totality of children's books as against the totality of children in real life, then it would be fair to say that this child-agency happens vastly more often in the books than it does in real life. However, it does happen and I suppose you could say that children's books are a place where this kind of thing is given pride of place. In fact, this is one of the reasons why children enjoy them. It offers those children and young people who read them, a glimpse of how people like them in some kind of a broad way, could bring about change to their circumstances. So, being involved with these two pieces, at the very moment there is a discussion in the press about whether 16 year olds are fit to vote or not, offers a clash of views.

With these two pieces, there is an added dimension to the usual issue of agency: the young people involved are precisely those who are constructed by society as people who have not, and should not have agency or control over their own lives. So in 'The Curious Incident', it's a boy marked out as 'disabled' or 'autistic' and more often than not defined in terms of what he can't do rather than what he can. One line or theme in the book tells of how he forces those around him (and, by implication, us) to consider him in terms of what he can do. In 'Coram Boy', the view spreads wider to looking at 'children' as a caste of people who, if they are poor and/or black are frequently sold, enslaved, brutalised and  massacred. Within that and within the mechanism of the story, three different children are the motors for change and redemption: a boy who is in some undefined way 'disabled', described by others as 'stupid' and constructed within the book as being part of his natural surroundings; an African boy who has been plucked from slavery in order to be made into a kind of pet doll for high society; an illegitimate boy who has been saved from death or (if he had survived in 'society') constant vilification for having been born in sin.

Neither piece offers a uniform view of adults as stupid, evil and wrong. But nor does it show them as people who are universally right, moral or in control. Interestingly, both hold out the prospect of the 'good adult', the teacher, the benefactor, the self-sacrificing, caring professional, middle- or upper-class adult who indirectly enables the despised children and young people to survive.

This figure hovers over a lot of fiction for children and, you could argue, is the ghost of the writer, creating the terrain on which the 'true' potential of the child can show itself and overcome the problems. In some ways, this is the hidden drama that goes on in books or plays like this: will their viewpoint and/or sense of understanding or sensitive responses win out in a society or culture that is causing such oppression, hurt and death to young people?

I'm not sure how much of that hidden drama is obvious to young readers. Thinking back to my own reading, I can remember that once I was inside a book and, let's say, 'in trouble' alongside and on behalf of, or in league with the book's main child protagonist, like that child or young person I would look around to see who was the most likely person I could trust and who might help me. That's a slightly different perspective than the one that says the book is a place where differing views of how my hero (and, by implication, me) could be helped or hurt by adults in the real world.

As an experiment, you could line up, say, some hundred or so books for children and young people and grade them in terms of the 'agency' afforded to the young people. So, up one end (high percentage of agency (!)) you might have 'Emil and the Detectives' and  'Where the Wild Things Are' and up the other, with a low percentage of agency you could have, let's say, 'A Wind in the Willows' where the two most child-like of the creatures (Mole and Toad) can't really solve anything.

This is not to say that 'high' equals 'good' and 'low' equals 'bad'. I just think they do different kinds of work in different kinds of ways.

Anyway, thanks to all concerned for 'Coram Boy' and 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' including of course Jamila Gavin and Mark Haddon!