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Jennifer O’Connell: Margaret Atwood is not the biggest threat to your children’s wellbeing

Yes, schools should be a safe place, as the callers to Liveline insisted. But safe does not mean sanitised

I’m deeply suspicious of people who preface their arguments with “as a parent” or “as a mother” as though it confers on them some greater moral authority, a deeper capacity to appreciate the horrors of the world, or a finer grasp of reason and logic.

There was a lot of “as a parenting” on Liveline this week, as callers returned to one of our evergreen cultural flashpoints, the topic of dangerous books.

The latest treacherous literature coming your child's way is the "inappropriate and explicit graphic . . . or offensive sexual material" which makes up "52 per cent of senior cycle novels and 15 per cent of junior cycle novels", according to research carried out by a Donegal teacher, Wendi Drinan.

One of the books she identified as problematic is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Liveline caller Aisling’s daughter is “very disturbed when she’s reading it” and so her mother doesn’t think it should be on the Leaving Cert course at all. Aisling has not read The Handmaid’s Tale herself, and if she was aware of the irony that the lead character lives under a regime which does not allow women to read, she didn’t say so.


Another novel, The Lauras by Sara Taylor, which was reviewed by the Irish Times as "brutal, darkly humorous and captivating", was in the dock for "normalising and validating paedophilia", according to Peter. A young woman, Chloe – who, unlike Peter, had actually read it in its entirety – disagreed with this analysis.

“By us reading this book and being able to analyse it, we have developed the skills in our own lives to analyse relationships that may turn abusive . . . the second we start censoring any dark topic in a book means it becomes something that can’t be talked about,” she said, going on to tell Peter that you can’t keep your kids wrapped up in bubblewrap. Such sense, and not even from a parent.

‘Sexual agendas’

If you thought Amazon reviews could be harsh, the ones on, where Drinan published her research and several of the Liveline callers seemed to have derived theirs, really don't hold back. The Handmaid's Tale is "a dystopian, feminist tirade . . . I certainly do not want my daughter exposed to this kind of filth," writes one mother. Sebastian Barry's Days Without End gets the following damming verdict: "a good writer but I do not feel that my child's English class is the place to be promoting particular sexual agendas." The Lauras is condemned with the fatal blow: "My husband is livid."

Great novels – especially ones that deal with difficult themes – can help children to think critically and make sense of the world

And here are the concerned parents on Nobel Prizewinner Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go: “Why the continual emphasis on sex, sex, sex ??! There is a time for everything and sexual liaisons, diseases, pregnancy etc can be explored AFTER these precious teen years thank you very much!” (The problem, it seems to me Helen, is that leaving it until after the teen years might be too late.)

It is tempting to see this panic over children's literature as an Irish echo of culture wars simmering in America. The culture war increasingly swings both ways there: Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird has been deemed offensive by both sides at various times, and is currently banned by school boards in California over its use of racially offensive words. Other books on the American Library Association's frequently challenged list, include John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, the Harry Potter series ("for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells") and the Captain Underpants series (its crimes include "encouraging disruptive behaviour" and "including a same-sex couple".) In the US, as here, the debate is never really about books: it's about power, hierarchy and control of education. It may not be a coincidence that the debate is re-igniting here just as the Catholic hold on schools is loosening.

It did appear to be a coincidence that the discussion happened on the airwaves the same week they were full of alarming insights into the kind of things that can be procured on the darknet. There was no reference to it on Liveline, despite the apparently genuine fears being expressed by parents over the corruption of young minds.

The list of things you can get on the darknet includes images of child abuse, stolen credit card numbers, counterfeit money, hacked Netflix accounts, stolen subscription credentials, drugs and pornography. (If you think your children couldn't or wouldn't know how, I once tried to access the darknet for an article. Armed with the technical prowess of the average 40-something, it took me less than 30 minutes.)

At a time when unfettered internet access has become a fundamental human right for the average Irish nine-year-old, if the next generation is going to learn, as Drinan put it in a letter to Education Minister Norma Foley, how to "have sex with their step-mother, desecrate a corpse [or] perform oral sex", they're probably not going to get it from a novel. You don't even have to go to the darknet if uncontrolled and uncontextualised access to all of humanity's dark impulses is what you're after. If you have a smartphone, which 89 per cent of nine-year-olds do, it's right there in your pocket.

Yes, schools should be a safe place, as the callers to Liveline insisted. But safe doesn't mean sanitised. Great novels – especially ones that deal with difficult or challenging themes and make readers uncomfortable – can help children to think critically and make sense of the world, especially when they are read and discussed in context in a classroom. Some alleged "agenda" being pushed by Margaret Atwood or Sebastian Barry or Kazuo Ishiguro is not the greatest threat to children's wellbeing. Instead, it's their parents' willful blindness. Take it from me as a mother.