Tag Archives: children

Strange Names

JusticeTerry Pratchett’s novels include a variety of characters with strange names. Many of them live in the mountain kingdom of Lancre, where people do things their own way. And where “Chlamydia” is regarded as a pretty name for a girl (but hard to spell, so the girl got called “Sally” instead), or three brothers get called Primal, Medial and Terminal (educated family). Or consider the gravedigger in Ankh-Morpork, Legitimate First (“can’t blame a mother for being proud”).

But does this ever actually happen in real life?

Snopes thinks not, taking the view that such stories are thinly veiled racism, or any other -ism, deliberately poking fun at minority groups. Which in some cases, they may be – but that is not to say that things like this don’t happen.

My husband went to university with the daughter of Mr and Mrs Harbour, whom they had named “Pearl”. A pretty, old-fashioned name, yes – but obviously Mr and Mrs Harbour didn’t think about the years of teasing their poor daughter would endure when they decided to have their little joke. Another classmate’s name was originally “Starshine” (my husband was born in the 1960s…) but she had changed it by deed poll to “Stella” when she hit 18. As a teacher, he still comes across some fairly awful things that parents do to their children when they pick a name. “Theresa Green”, for example. Or “Kitana” which is quite pretty, but more embarrassing if you know your parents tried to name you after a Japanese sword but didn’t check the spelling. Then, there was the poor girl called “Creamy”.

But usually, it’s not quite at the level of “Chlamydia”.

This week, a case in the Court of Appeal caught my attention because it dealt with exactly this situation. A mother had decided to name her newborn twins, a girl and boy, “Cyanide” (the girl) and “Preacher” (the boy). “Cyanide”, said the mother, was a pretty name for a girl, and besides, because Hitler and Goebbels killed themselves with cyanide, it was associated with positive things. The midwife contacted social services with this information, concerned about the effects on the girl twin if she was to go through life named after a deadly poison. And so it reached court, and then eventually the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal (bench of three judges sitting) decided that the court had inherent jurisdiction to hear the case, and that it would not be in the girl’s best interests to be named “Cyanide” – considering how cruel children are, and also that in the 21st century, we use our first names much more frequently than in the past. It’s now very difficult to go through life being “Ms Smith” – first names are the norm, and if yours is embarrassing, that’s a problem. Interestingly, they also considered the boy’s name. The judges decided that although “Preacher” was an unusual name, it wasn’t the sort of name that would inevitably expose its owner to ridicule and bullying. However, because children often ask how their names were chosen, it would not be fair to the girl twin to find out that while her brother had been named by their mother after a respected member of society, the court had had to stop their mother naming her after a deadly poison. You can read the full judgement here: C (Children) [2016] EWCA Civ 374 (14 April 2016). The court therefore decided that both twins should be named by their older siblings.

So yes, people do give their children embarrassing and/or inappropriate names in real life, for a variety of reasons. Some parents have reasons which seem to them to be good (like the mother whose daughter is not going to be called “Cyanide”) and others seem to be motivated more by “oh how cute and amusing” without thought for what it must be like to go through life introducing yourself as “Pearl Harbour” or “Theresa Green”.

From the point of view of an author, this is great news. You can give your character a name that will torture him/her every day of his/her life and know you are being absolutely realistic!

Writing for children is not second-best

OK, here we go.

J.K. Rowling (I think we all know who she is) has just published her first novel for adults.

It’s getting extremely mixed reviews.

I haven’t read the book, and quite frankly, I don’t intend to. Rowling appears to be trying to deal with Issues (Lots of them. All at once), and quite frankly, I get enough gritty realism in my day job without having to go through it when I’m trying to relax with a book as well. However, I acknowledge that there is a place for gritty realism in books, and that fiction can be an excellent way of bringing problems to people’s notice and discussing things that would otherwise not get discussed. So, fair play to her.

Poor J.K. is suffering from the appalling disadvantage of having written seven wildly successful children’s books, and – even more damningly – having had this success without the de rigeur apprenticeship of slaving away over a hot word processor to produce book after book that no-one’s ever heard of before she got her Big Break. From unknown to bestseller – no wonder half of the literary world hates her. Jealous? Of course not.

However, the mixed reviews may not be entirely due to the fact that the poor woman could have found a cure for cancer and achieved world peace and people would still be bitchy. There may be some truth to the less-than-effusive reviews. Some of the criticisms may well be merited – long-winded (yeah, I can believe that), at best when talking about and relating to children (definitely)… and so on. I’ve read the Harry Potter books, and whatever you might think about them and their literary merit, J.K. knows kids. I’m young enough to remember being eleven, and old enough to know how eleven looks from the heady heights of Grown Up. And J.K. gets it absolutely spot on, right through the series. And not only does she write her kids well, she knows what kids want to read.

So, having established that – whatever you might think of the storyline – Harry Potter demonstrates that she’s an exceptionally good children’s writer, why does she want to write for adults?

Well, obviously it could be that she just wants to write for adults. The woman is allowed to have her own ideas and ambitions, obviously.

On the other hand, could it be the perception that if you haven’t written for adults, you’re not a ‘real’ author? Not a serious author. I mean… kids’ books? Anyone can write a kids’ book, right – it doesn’t have to be great literature. It’s only for kids.

I don’t agree. I think writing for children is a speciality in its own right, and just as difficult and demanding as any other. Some authors can do both (Terry Pratchett, for instance). Some authors, however, are outstanding children’s writers but just their style just doesn’t cross over to adults. Diana Wynne Jones springs to mind – her children’s books are wonderful; the characters and plot fit precisely. Her books for adults, however, to me, feel…. thin. Simplistic. As if she’s just taking her usual style and added sex.

Margaret Atwood has apparently tried to write for children and not been terribly successful, as have some others. This does not surprise me. Writing for children and writing for adults are two entirely different things; it’s almost like writing for two different species. It’s certainly equivalent to writing for two different cultures. Most people can only get the hang of one culture properly.

J.K. Rowling, having established her undoubted talent as a writer for children, should be happy with that. If she truly wishes to write for adults, then of course she should do so – if she writes for the joy of writing, who are we to gainsay her? If she has a story she simply must tell, then of course she should tell it. However, she should also bear in mind that the rest of us don’t actually have to read it.

But if she is making the move into adult fiction simply because she feels she ‘ought’ to, that this is what is needed to make her a ‘serious’ author, then she should think again. Children are not second-class citizens; writing for them is not the province only of those who don’t have ‘what it takes’ to write real books. Writers for children arguably have the most difficult and most essential job of all – to instil in children a love of reading. Once a child loves reading, they’ll love it for life. But to start that process… now, that’s the trick.

I hope that J.K. Rowling does not find the mixed reviews of her first adult novel too discouraging, and that she does finally find her true place as an author – wherever that turns out to be. And when she does, I hope she feels the pride she deserves in what she has achieved.

Give the kid a book

There was an article in the Independent today about how children are reading less nowadays, and how this is a bad thing, and giving suggestions on how things might be improved.

Well, I have to say, it was a breath of fresh air, because for once the writer was not demanding that schools, and teachers, take responsibility for yet another failing of parents. Interestingly, the author also recommended buying an ebook reader – because more than one person can read the same book at the same time, they’re easy to keep tidy, and you can adjust the font size.

I agreed with everything she said – reading is a habit that you have to get into, and children do have to be introduced to books.

But I would go a little further – let’s just have a look at the kind of books we’re introducing kids to, shall we?

Have a think about what books you were given to read at school in English lessons. Mine, as far as I can remember were:

Moonfleet, JM Faulkner.
Smith, Leon Garfield.
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte.
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde.
Macbeth, William Shakespeare.

All important literary books. All pretty heavy going, if you’re not a reader. You could say, yes, I was in the top set and could cope – but then, not being a reader is not wholly the province of the less intelligent. Are these the books that would persuade a child who was not usually a reader that reading was a fun thing to do? Personally, I don’t think so. My sister certainly didn’t think so. I remember her saying “If they picked a book that some people liked and some people didn’t, it wouldn’t be fair. So they pick books that nobody will like.”

What a comment on the education system’s book choices for children!

I remember the bottom set got to read The BFG (Roald Dahl). Oh, how I envied them. I remember thinking that it really wasn’t a great encouragement to work hard: work hard, get into the top set, and they’ll make you read Moonfleet. On the other hand, if you doss about and end up in the bottom set, they give you a fun book like The BFG!

If we have a problem with children not reading, then we should give them books that they’re going to enjoy. Yes, parents should be taking care of this, but, as usual, some parents won’t, so the only place little Josh or Molly is going to get books is school. And if they’re not readers, the only time they’ll read is when they’re made to, and that’s English lessons. In English lessons, they’re a captive audience. We can introduce them to reading books that say ‘reading is fun’; ‘reading is exciting’; ‘reading takes you to places and introduces you to people beyond your wildest imagination’.

So what do we give them? The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Now there’s a book that would probably put me off reading, and I’m kind of the definition of “I think, therefore I read”. Literary merit, yes, in spades, but is it the kind of book that says “You had fun with me… you could do that again – look, the school library’s just down the corridor”?

If you’re faced with reluctant readers, you need to give them something fun, something they’ll enjoy, something that’ll make them want to read more. Then once you’ve persuaded them that reading per se isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it’s fun, then you can introduce them to the more serious stuff.

Here’s my really quick list of kids’ books I think are good, in no particular order:
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Say no more.
Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett. All the best of Pratchettism, but for kids. And besides, the main character is called Tiffany.
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy.
Anything by Roald Dahl.
Anything by Diana Wynne Jones.
This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger.
Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books – a little dated now, possibly, but she obviously understood children, and remembered what it was like to be a child. And that hasn’t changed.
Juniper and Wise Child by Monica Furlong.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. And sequels.

I think I’ll stop there. There are also authors who usually write adult books who are now starting to write for children: Simon Scarrow is one; if his kids books are as good as his adult books, they’ll be well worth reading.

OK, so what books would you recommend for schools?

Remember, it’s got to satisfy two conditions:
1. It’s got to be fun to read.
2. It’s got to be well written enough, and deal with enough important issues/concepts, that you could get some English lessons out of it.