‘Sounds a bit serious’ by Andrew Norriss

A fascinating, and moving, exploration of what is, and should be, deemed suitable in children’s fiction by children’s author Andrew Norriss.

Posted on Waterstones’ Blog 11th April 2016 by Andrew Norriss

A couple of weeks back I found myself in the main hall of a large secondary school watching two hundred Year 7’s file in to listen to me talk. One cheery student broke away from his mates to come over to say hello (I always admire the ones that can do that) and then asked what I was going to talk about. I told him I would be talking about how I came to write my latest book, Jessica’s Ghost, and a bit about its themes of depression and suicide. ‘Oh,’ he said, as his smile faded. ‘Sounds a bit serious.’

And indeed it is.

If I had known, when I started writing Jessica’s Ghost, that depression and suicide were going to be two of its themes, I would almost certainly have abandoned it. I had set out to write a light-hearted ghost story about someone who was dead, and was trying to sort out what she was supposed to do next. I presumed it was going to be a comedy, because that’s what I do. I write comedy. Light comedy. With a lot of nice people and happy endings.

The nice people and the happy endings are still there, but the suicide and the depression sort of muscled their way in with a determination that would not be denied. I worried, of course, whether these were themes that were suitable in a story for young people, and I’m still not a hundred per cent sure that they are, but it’s a good book and… at what age does one start talking safely about these things?

The Head Teacher of a girls’ secondary school laughed out loud when I asked her if the twelve year old audience for my talk would even know what depression was. Far too many, she assured me, would know exactly what I was talking about – and the government statistics support that. Apparently one in ten of 12-17 year olds will suffer from clinical depression (that means a depression lasting longer than a month) and if you include the people whose depression is just as real but less severe, the proportion is considerably higher. Maybe, like sex education, it’s better for children to be armed with a bit of knowledge on the subject before they’re hit by its problems rather than after.

I suffered from bouts of depression from the age of about 10 until comparatively recently, and one of the weird things about it, as I told my audience of twelve year olds that day, is that although you think it has a rational, external cause, it really doesn’t. At the time my depressions were particularly bad, I had no health problems, was happily married, with two wonderful children, and a hugely enjoyable career and yet… the bouts of gloom kept getting worse. The medical term for this is ‘endogenous depression’. It literally means ‘depression without a cause’.

There’s a brilliant description by Alan Garner (author of The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) of how, at the height of his fame and success, he came home one day from working on a film, and fell into a depression so deep that he wound up lying on the kitchen settle, face to the wall, almost too miserable even to speak, for two years. I’ll say that again. For two years. I remember, when I read that, how enormously helpful it was to know that what I was experiencing (fortunately on a much less debilitating scale) could happen to someone as intelligent and talented as Alan Garner. And, I discovered, to a good many others.

In fact, one of the most useful things to know about depression is simply that there is a lot of it about, and a story is not a bad way to get this across. It was C S Lewis who noted that the most powerful thing a piece of writing can do is cause the reader to say ‘Oh, I thought that was just me!’ and to help them realise that what they feel is part of a more general condition. To discover that you are not alone, and that others have been through this particular valley and made it out the other side is, apart from anything else, deeply comforting.

So, although this is a topic that, particularly when talking to twelve year olds, needs to be raised with the greatest caution, and although one needs to tread lightly and warily… I think, on the whole, that the subject is worth raising, despite the risks. One of the things I did during my talk, was to ask, very much on the spur of the moment, if any of the two hundred students I was addressing had any personal experience of depression – either in themselves or with someone they knew. If they had, I said, could they raise a hand? Nothing too public. Just a little gesture…

Over half of them, put a hand up.

So, yes, it is a bit serious But it’s important, too.

 

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Top 10 guardian angels in children’s books

Andrew Norriss writes about favourite ‘Guardian Angels’ in children’s books.
First published in the Guardian online 21 April 2016

From PG Wodehouse and CS Lewis to Anne Fine and Ali Sparkes, authors have always had a soft spot for characters that offer a helping hand to their heroes. Andrew Norriss picks his favourites

Aslan: a guardian angel? Here shown in a scene from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I’ve always been a fan of stories with guardian angels in them. I don’t mean angels with wings, like Clarence in This Wonderful Life – although I like those as well – I mean stories where the hero is helped on his or her journey by someone who turns up, frequently out of the blue, with just the right resources and knowledge to help them sort out whatever problem they are facing. They are, in literary terms, the Helping Hand of a benevolent universe.

It’s a device which has become less fashionable in our more secular times. Fewer people still believe in a benevolent universe – there is, after all, so much alarming evidence to the contrary – and we prefer our heroes to prove they can win through on their own resources. Child heroes these days need to be independent and self-empowered.

I’m not sure when or how I came to believe that the universe is, despite all appearances, friendly. But I do. And it’s why, in my own stories, the solution to a problem is often provided by some source beyond the ingenuity and clever thinking of the hero. He or she will certainly do their best, but the solution to the trickiest bit of the puzzle will come from a chance remark, or a bit of help and advice from an unlikely guardian angel type character. As if a benevolent universe knew exactly what was needed, and was offering a Helping Hand.

In my most recent book, Jessica’s Ghost, it is Jessica herself who, despite being dead and barely a teenager, unwittingly turns out to be a guardian angel for the other characters in the story. She is the force from beyond the purely causal, rational world, who, with the occasional quiet suggestion of an alternative possible course of action, changes the lives of everyone around.

You may not agree that that is how things work in real life, but it is certainly how they ought to work…

1. The Railway Children by E Nesbit

The Old Gentleman in this wonderful story is the archetypal example of a guardian angel at work. The children start by merely waving at him, as he passes in the train each morning, but he is the character they later call on to help with the stranded Russian writer, who provides money in hard times and, in the end, obtains their father’s release from prison. The children all play their part but the decisive help comes from outside…

2. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett always knew there was more going on in the world than we could see with the purely physical eye. His books are stuffed with an awareness of the deep forces at work in our world (along with a healthy distrust of the lunacies of organised religion) and Granny Weatherwax is probably my favourite of his many guardian angels. You know, when she turns up with her heavy boots and ferocious glare to lend a hand to Tiffany Aching, that things are going to get properly sorted…

3. The Amazing Mr Blunden by Antonia Barber

Mr Blunden follows all the best traditions of a guardian angel. Clearly human, but somehow not fully from the physical realm, he knows things. He knows what’s going to happen and knows what our hero children should do as each step of the story unfolds. Not that he ever forces anyone to do anything, of course. He just asks that they do as he suggests, and when they do… One of my favourite books.

4. Right Ho, Jeeves! by PG Wodehouse

One of the joys of reading the Jeeves and Wooster stories, is that whatever terrible mess Bertie Wooster might have landed in, you know that his butler, Jeeves, will, without any apparent effort, quietly sort the whole thing out before the end of the story. It’s that trust – that all will, in the end, be well – that makes stories with guardian angels such a comforting read.

5. A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean

The shelves of recent publications are not exactly filled with stories where problems are resolved by mysterious outside forces, which was one reason why reading this book was such a surprise. Cally, in this story, has plenty of problems but it was the idea that she is still protected and watched over by the mother who recently died that qualifies it for a place on the list of books with guardian angels. That, and the fact that it is an utterly delightful read.

6. The Angel of Nitshill Road by Anne Fine

This is, quite simply, one of the best books ever written. The guardian angel – the heroine of the story, the one who changes life for everyone around her in the primary school at Nitshill Road – is Celeste who is somehow imbued with the ability to know exactly the best and most powerful thing to do in any circumstance. She is also one of the funniest, cleverest and somehow most believable characters ever. Utterly brilliant.

7. The Sword in the Stone by TH White

This is the first volume of the quartet written by TH White on the Arthurian legend and incomparably funnier and deeper than the amiable Disney movie. If you’re going to have a guardian angel watching over your early years and growing up, Merlin the magician is not a bad choice.

8. The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis

Does Aslan really count as a guardian angel? Or is he rather more senior than that? Either way, he’s a pretty reliable guide to navigating through life, and I absolutely couldn’t leave the first of the Narnia books off the list. Aslan can show you how best to cope with any problem – even stuff like accidentally dragging a cruel queen from a different universe into Narnia.

9. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

One of the many wonderful things about this book is that it’s not a simple matter of Mister Tom acting as the guardian angel for poor, downtrodden Willie Beech. You could equally argue that it is the old man who is “saved” by the arrival of young Willie. Ultimately, all guardian angel stories are about healing, and this is one of the best.

10. Car-Jacked by Ali Sparkes

I may be cheating a bit with this one, but I didn’t want all the books on the list to come from the previous century, and it’s a very good story. Jack Mattingly, plunged into an unexpected crisis, is guided by a voice in his head called SAS Guy. And that’s where some of the best guardian angels are to be found, of course. Deep in our own minds.

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