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.