Reading between the lies
A conference in Dublin this weekend will debate the merits of lies and truth in children’s fiction
Illustrator and writer of children’s picture books Yasmeen Ismail. Photograph: Olivia Hemingway
American author Mac Barnett. Photograph: Sonya Sones
Author Annabel Pitcher. Photograph: Shelagh Leech
People who write for children and young adults have a duty to use their fiction to tell the truth, says Sarah Webb, author of both adult and children’s novels. Photograph: Thinkstock
‘The zoo is closed today,” we say to deflect demands for a visit. “That cat is just sleeping,” we explain when passing a feline road casualty. “The elves are watching,” we warn for weeks in the run-up to Christmas. And of course there’s: “Mum and Dad were just wrestling . . .”
Parents may believe in being honest with their children but the truth is most of us lie to some degree. The lies we tell our children are in turns pragmatic and protective and you would be inclined to question the honesty of parents who say they never lie – and their motives, if that’s true.
“I don’t think we can function without lies,” agrees Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin. As adults, pro-social lies are a way of being socially adept. “We lie all the time: ‘Do I look fat in this?’ ‘Of course you don’t’ . . .”
However, the word “lie” probably has connotations that are unhelpful, he suggests.
“You have to see lies across the spectrum: you have a filtered version of the truth, you have a white lie, you have a more significant lie and you have a whopper.”
Most adults find the white lie, or pro-social lie, acceptable but draw the line at fibs that hurt someone or that is calculated deception, he points out. This is what you have to teach children as they grow up.
The consensus seems to be that lies about small things really don’t matter, but you lie at your peril to children about the big things. The key is being age appropriate and judging the ability of each individual child to handle what is being said.
Traditionally, the most challenging topics are around unemployment, sickness, death and separation of parents, says Noctor, the author of Cop On – what it is and why your child needs it to survive and thrive in today’s world. Parents might argue that in telling lies about these they are trying to protect children “but those are ones that children in teenage years and in later adulthood will have an issue with”, he warns.
For example, a parent may face the accusation: “You never told me Granny was so sick . . . I would have gone over to her more; I would have gone to say goodbye.”
Equally, it might be all right to tell your four-year-old that the beloved family dog has gone off to a happy farm but a nine-year-old needs to know that it has died, and to learn to manage the truth.
As parents we have to “wean children into the truth”, says Noctor. Their early years are full of fantasy and imaginary play, through which they learn, but as they get older, their lives must tip more into reality.
Big life truths
“My job is that I lie to children, but they’re honest lies,” is how American author Mac Barnett explains his writing of stories for children. He is one of the international speakers addressing a conference in Dublin this weekend, September 13th and 14th, on the theme of “Conceal and Reveal: Truth and Lies in Children’s Books”.
Organised by Children’s Books Ireland (CBI), the conference is inviting participants to debate when writers of books for children and young adults should tell the unvarnished truth, and when are they justified in telling a white lie?
“All art – fiction, painting, even photography and to some extent non-fiction – are artifice. They’re lies,” says California-based Barnett, in advance of his visit to Dublin. “But the good stuff is good because it provides some insight, evokes real emotion or contains actual wisdom.”
Good art is the only way to present some of the most complicated truths: the ones that are hardest to communicate, he suggests.
“I distrust aphorisms and morals, the truth proffered as a shiny pebble. I prefer stories – gnarled, tangled inventions that conceal a beating heart.”
People who write for children and young adults have a duty to use their fiction to tell the truth, says Sarah Webb, author of both adult and children’s novels. “Young readers are really, really smart and they can tell if you’re not telling the truth emotionally.”
The second book in Webb’s Amy Green series, in which Amy gets her first period, is particularly popular with young girls.
“People often don’t give them direct information about the whole thing,” she says, and factual books about menstruation don’t really go into how you feel when you get your period for the first time.
“I wanted to deal with it in a fictional way, while still trying to make it very truthful,” says Webb, who believes this approach has a stronger impact than facts alone.
“It is a character they are reading about and, hopefully, a character they believe in if you do it right, and they go through the journey with the character.”
Children’s fiction deals with a lot of big issues such as death, points out Webb, who has a new book out this month, The Songbird Cafe Girls: Sunny Days and Moon Cakes, which is about a girl who has the little-understood condition selective mutism.
As a mother of three, Webb readily admits that she “lies all the time” to her children.
“Parenting is a daily juggle but I wouldn’t lie to them about things that matter,” she stresses. Giving them the facts of life is one of those.
“I would try to be as honest as I can without hurting their feelings or giving them too much information at too early an age, snatching their childhood away.” However, as is par for the course for parents these days, she has found herself having to react quickly when they stumble on to something inappropriate on the internet.
In her son’s case it was an explicit take-off of a Thomas the Tank Engine video, which had her explaining that it’s “something that happens between men and women when they are older; you don’t need to worry about it at your age and if you have questions later on we’ll talk about it. But now let’s find another Thomas the Tank Engine video.”
“We’re walking a fine line,” says Ismail, who graduated from the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology in 2002 and worked in animation in London before starting to write. Now living in Bristol, she will be back in Dublin to speak at the CBI conference.
Coming new to the children’s books industry just over three years ago, she found it “puzzling” that even age-appropriate violence was a non-starter.
“I know kids: I have nieces and nephews and they hit each other and their friends hit each other,” she says.
She still has a picture she drew in the early days, of a little boy punching his brother on the nose and then blood coming out. In this illustration submitted to her publisher “I have drawn an arrow, because I was so new to the whole thing, and at the end of the arrow, ‘Is blood allowed?’”
“Of course not!” she says now. “When my editors got that, they must have been horrified.”
While she is not for a moment suggesting picture books should be packed with violence, “I do wonder if we’re coddling children a bit,” she muses. However, she acknowledges that books maybe should be a calm place for those having a less-than-happy childhood.
“I read so many books and I watched so much comedy and I read so many comics: that escapism I think is great,” says Ismail who still, if she’s home alone and “becoming convinced that there is a serial killer outside, I’ll stick on Family Guy or something to calm me down”.
She believes in a truthful message behind creativity and fantasy. “There has to be some sort of anchor that stays on the ground – otherwise a story would just be a mad rambling.”
Ismail recalls how, as her father’s coffin was lowered into the grave, a three-year-old nephew asked, “What happens now that he has gone into the ground?”
“A family friend said, ‘He will turn into a bird and he will come out of the ground and fly away’ and I just thought What? It was the maddest thing I ever heard . . . You do have to get to a point where you’re not just confusing the hell out of them.”
Another conference speaker, Annabel Pitcher, finds it really interesting to consider whether the role of the author of young people’s books is to “be responsible and tell the truth or whether it’s to paint a happy ending”.
Her multi-award-winning debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, deals with a family that disintegrates over the years after a girl is killed by a terrorist bomb in London’s Trafalgar Square. The father seeks solace in drink and the mother abandons her surviving children to go off with her “support worker”.
Pitcher says: “I had to fight quite hard with my original American editor to not have a happy ending.” The editor wanted to change it for the US market and have the absent mother returning.
“There’s beauty in sadness, and I think there’s beauty in unhappy endings. The poignancy is quite important.”
The aim is not to be sensationalist but to reflect the truth, “and I think you can do that and still be sensitive to the fact that you have younger readers”, says Pitcher, whose third book, Silence is Goldfish, will be out next month.
Now the mother of a two-year-old boy, with another baby due in October, she believes telling white lies as a parent is absolutely fine.
“I intend to be honest about other things,” she says. “I don’t want to shelter him too much from difficult things. I think you can explain them in a simplistic way.”
However, having told him just hours earlier “There are no biscuits left,” the little fibs will continue.
The CBI conference, “Conceal and Reveal: Truth and Lies in Children’s Books”, takes place at the Light House Cinema, Smithfield, Dublin on September 13th and 14th. For information and tickets see childrensbooksireland.ie