It’s dangerous to have a rant after merely reading the synopsis of a book and some reviews. But here’s a rant, anyway. It’s admittedly a rant, and I acknowledge my limited information. This is probably more about me than about the book. Mostly, it’s a knee-jerk reaction by an armchair observer on a topic that’s a pet peeve. Read if you wish to.
Maybe it’s just a personal bias, but I dislike the trend in making kids look and feel older than they are. Kids deserve to be kids. This includes how they dress, what toys they play with, how much homework they get, exposure to adult topics on television like sex and violence – everything should be age appropriate. Nothing should work to hurry a child’s aging process. But there does seem to be a lot of that happening, whether it’s the fact that sitcoms are way more provocative than they used to be (sexuality and/or vulgarity, sometimes merely snark, often no redemptive element) or clothing that is inappropriately mature or books with dolled up tweens and teens glaring at each other on the cover. The news, too, is remarkably apocalyptic with more major natural catastrophes in one month than I used to see on the news in a year when I was a kid. There’s terrorism and hard crime.
The world forces a lot of heavy stuff on kids today. Because it does, kids need to be able to learn to deal with, think and talk about and digest the news of the day and the pressures at work in their lives. So, it’s appropriate that thoughtful people will use media and other educational tools to fortify children for their experience navigating a scary, stressful world.
Despite that, I find it utterly irritating to discover a book called My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece and, apparently, beginning with these lines:
“My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well some of her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her knee cap are buried in a graveyard in London.”
The book by Annabel Pitcher is about a family’s misery and turmoil after losing a daughter in a terrorist attack. Sadly, this kind of thing happens. It’s not unreasonable to deal with it in writing, even in writing for kids. But those lines? Do they seem right to you for a child’s book? Even an older child?
Writers are supposed to grab their readers from the beginning, but is this the healthiest way to reach the juvenile age group? Must we grab so tightly for that demographic? So dramatically? Surely there’s a way to deal with this real issue without relying on techniques that could give an adult a nightmare just from the first lines.
And then there’s the covers. On one that I saw, here, a small boy is holding his finger to his mouth in a ‘shhh, I’ve got a secret kind of way.’ In another, the cartoonish cover is a lighthearted sky blue with a white line-drawing of a mantelpiece with a decorative pot (urn, as it were) on top. Neither cover belies the remarkably heavy themes that the book seems to deal with.
I say “seems” because I haven’t read the book. What you are reading now is an impromptu rant upon a first encounter that definitely rubbed me the wrong way. And, because I’ve seen other books with story lines and thematic elements that would never have existed when I was a child not too many, many years ago, it surprises me and annoys me immensely.
A new world needs new literature for kids, yes. But how do we address that need? Is it possible that we take an admirable willingness to deal with such subjects as loss of a sibling and combine it with an adult style of storytelling that doesn’t serve the purpose of edification of the young as much as it exposes them to (unnecessary) stylistic sophistication? And the imagery and drama that come with that?
I first found out about this ‘juvenile’ book on a blog whose owner, while admiring the book, felt it was targeted to a too young age group. So that possibly colored my first impressions of it. And I readily acknowledge that I haven’t read the book and that, after a cursory look a few different book sites, the reviews of it seem to be great.
Really, this is just my opinion, but I find the first few lines pretty revolting for a juvenile audience. For high schoolers and adults, this sounds like a fine read tackling prejudice, death, terrorism and family dynamics. But a ten-year old?