Prominent children’s authors are incorporating issues of terrorism and government propaganda in their books, a Monash University study has found.
Dr Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario examined children’s books and movies including J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series and Disney movie Lilo and Stitch.
She also analysed the way these authors questioned ideological and political motivations.
“Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince and Stroud’s Ptolemy’s Gate were released in 2005, just after the terrorist attacks on London in July. Both books question government propaganda,” Dr Do Rozario said.
“In Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, the magical world’s response to terror is increasingly reminiscent of contemporary Western governments. For instance, a purple pamphlet, ‘Protecting your home and family against dark forces’, resembles Australia’s ‘Be Alert Not Alarmed’ campaign advice regarding suspicious behaviour. There is the sense of bureaucratic compulsion to guard against fellow citizens.
“Harry and his mentor, Dumbledore, though, dismiss bureaucratic measures as ineffective in ensuring security against villains such as Voldemort and the Death Eaters.”
Dr Do Rozario said children’s books, particularly those from the United Kingdom and Ireland, were well ahead of most adult books in writing on 9/11 themes and aspects of terrorism.
“These authors present an acute understanding of the ambiguities of war and terrorism,” she said.
“They are not writing on what is literally happening, but through their storytelling they reflect that not everything is black or white, or as simple as ‘good versus evil’. Readers are shown the importance of questioning what is going on – of looking at all sides of the issue.”
She later told Radio National’s Kate Evans this was “a good thing – it’s encouraging children to question.”
Ms Evans wondered if these authors are particularly prescient, but points out that “political and contemporary themes in children’s literature are nothing new: in the Cold War a lot [of books] had alien invasions and threats of nuclear weaponry, Bedknobs and Broomsticks was set in WW2, Lord of the Rings can be seen as that whole anti-modernist statement.” She asked whether if was more possible to deal with such themes in fantasy writing.
“More literal realistic literature can’t quite deal with those big difficult questions because it’s bound by what’s happening in the real world” Dr Do Rozario replied. “You can’t portray George Bush in a certain way, but you can portray a Muggle Prime Minister who is invented, and question that way.”
Now, that’s a bit of a stretch. I’m fascinated by the fact that my niece and all her friends are reading the best-selling Parvana books and other really quite harrowing stories about life in our war-torn world – quite the opposite to Dr Do Rozario’s theory about realism.
Ms Evans quite rightly went on to remind listeners about the animals in Animal Farm. There’s nothing astounding about children’s authors dealing well with contemporary issues, or indeed with young readers wishing to engage with them.
Fiction helps explain the world, and writers can use it to explain or expound to their heart’s content. Sometimes it works, because the engagement is genuine – see, for example, the arguments about “mudbloods” in Harry Potter – sometimes it sounds hollow (Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small bangs on about girl power so much even this die-hard feminist wanted to slap her). Hopefully we’re well beyond the era when good versus evil is a simple equation.
Young readers know perfectly well when they are being spun a line, or a moral, and when the author is trying to understand and analyse with the reader the mysteries of real and imagined worlds.
At least, I hope they do.