Issues in children’s books: is there such a thing as “sick lit”?

I have to apologise for giving this week’s post the sort of evasive, euphemistic, mealy-mouthed title I normally despise; but I wanted to write about the sort of books that are very often one-off, defiantly difficult and – when they succeed – unmatchably moving. Then it turned out that, for once, I’d tapped into a bookish zeitgeist, as the Daily Mail named and tried to shame the young-adult phenomenon of “sick lit”, drawing together  disparate tales of teenage cancer and self-harm to make a wobbly case of Eeugh, It Shouldn’t Be Allowed.

The most interesting thing about the Daily Mail article, to my mind, was the reaction: firstly the 90% of comments eloquently contradicting its author and defending in particular John Green’s The Faults in our Stars, of which more later, and then Green’s own cogent case for teen readers being rather more sophisticated and discerning than we tend to credit. I was sad to see Amanda Craig, whose judgement I respect, called as a prosecution witness: I can well believe that, as a prominent critic, she is sent plenty of boundary-pushing and outright-distasteful material, but she would be the last to argue that children’s literature shouldn’t engage with difficult subjects. It’s all in the handling, as the lion-tamer might say…


Let’s admit it: in the tradition, children’s books have never shied away from difficult subjects. Those gilt-bound classics, The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, Heidi and The Wizard of Oz pack in the subplots: miscarriage of justice, social ostracism, dire poverty, deaths by epidemic, paralysing grief, chronic illness, orphanhood… In the Narnia chronicles, it becomes apparent that all the heroic children of The Last Battle have in fact been killed in a railway crash; and Roald Dahl gleefully explores all kinds of material, emotional and intellectual deprivation, the better to show his child heroes and heroines overcoming them. Why do we allow all this death and despond – shouldn’t childhood be carefree? Amanda Craig makes a good case for children’s books as a way to experience the unthinkable: as it were, I can’t imagine my own father/mother/sister or brother/friend dying – but if they did, would I feel like this and react like this, or how might I act differently and would that be any better? At their very best, children’s books about difficult topics are all about developing understanding and empathy – and at their very best, I do believe they can achieve this more subtly and efficiently than 90% of SEAL-focussed lessons, assemblies, sermons and the like.


For some children’s authors, dealing deftly with the difficult topics is practically hard-wired: I think of Frank Cottrell Boyce with his absent or barely-coping parents, or Anne Fine with her sparkily-dysfunctional families and all-too-perceptive children. In my previous post on Anne Fine, I didn’t touch on Up on Cloud Nine which is a prime example of dancing around a taboo (try explaining yourself when you snort with laughter, and someone asks What Is It About, and you have to say: a teenage boy who jumped out of a window, maybe on purpose). Stolly lies in hospital, unconscious with multiple fractures, while his barrister father continues to be busy and self-important and his flaky stylist mother is unreachable on a photo-shoot in Nicaragua. Only his best friend Richard is there to recall Stol’s unique, uncomfortable brilliance and – inadvertently – the loneliness, fragility and frightening curiosity that led to his landing three storeys below in a (probably life-saving) jasmine bush. Cloud Nine could well be the most life-affirming book ever written about teen suicide; ever-thoughtful, it might also be the funniest.


Another former Children’s Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson is an author who has a name – and a huge reputation – for tackling difficult subjects: unknown, absent or struggling parents, domestic violence, bullying, homelessness, bereavement, disability… Like Judy Blume thirty years before, she’s a writer more loved by her young readers than their parents: she creates characters to care about, then writes about them simply, believably, in everyday language (which is by no means as easy as it looks). Even in a book like Vicky Angel with a clear fantasy element – schoolgirl Vicky, killed in a road accident, returns irrepressibly to haunt her mousy best friend Jade –  there are plenty of sharp and true observations on the nature of bereavement: the way near-strangers will appropriate a tragic death; the listlessness; the way grief makes you snap at the kindest of your friends (even when not prompted by a mischievous ghost); the social and emotional minefield of the funeral lunch; the turmoil of acknowledging your late friend’s flaws. Vicky was no angel: cheeky and lively and excellent company as she was, Jade now comes to realise the ruthless hold Vicky had over her, and finally begins to stand up to ghost-Vicky and make her own choices. Wilson doesn’t deal in pure fairytale endings, but there is always kindness and hope where it’s most needed, and here at last there’s comfort for both Jade and ghost-Vicky.


Losing your best friend in an accident is grim enough, but Annabel Pitcher took on the barely-imaginable in (Carnegie-Medal-shortlisted) My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, focussing on a family that is tearing itself apart five years after ten-year-old Rose was killed by a terrorist bomb. Rose’s brother Jamie, now ten himself, is a compelling narrator, clear-sighted and matter-of-fact and almost unbearably resilient as his mother leaves them for “Nigel from the support group” and his father sinks into joblessness and alcoholism, while Rose’s twin Jasmine, whose reluctance to eat goes unnoticed by everyone except Jamie, attempts to hold what’s left of the family together and step out from Rose’s long shadow. In a beyond-black-comedic touch, some of Rose’s cremated remains are kept in an urn on the mantelpiece – every attempt to scatter them ends in bathos, and they return to the mantelpiece for Jas and Jamie’s dad to insist on the morbid rituals of token Christmas stockings and slices of birthday cake. Spitting toxic bile at the Muslims whom he blames for Rose’s death, Dad moves the children to the all-English Lake District, and Jamie endures the small-minded bullying of a new school where his story isn’t known (“Your records haven’t arrived from your old school yet”,) and the unthinking torture of having to write about happy summer holidays and looking forward to Christmas without admitting the awful reality. Only one person understands, is genuinely kind to him and faces down the bullies… Sunya, the only Muslim in Jamie’s class; but how can Jamie be Sunya’s friend without his father finding out, and the terrifying consequences of that? If My Sister… sounds almost unreadably harrowing, it would be but for Jamie’s brilliant voice: wry, honest, without self-pity or bitterness, never losing hope.


Here’s one thing about the difficult topics: whatever the DM might suggest, authors rarely do treat them lightly or cynically. I can’t begin to count the number of disposable, derivative, underwritten fairy-princess, fancy-dress knight or lovable pirate yarns (how astonished the real-life pirates would be!) that I’ve read in the last few years; yet it’s hard to recall a properly bad children’s book about real trauma, whether bereavement, terminal illness, disfigurement or disability. Perhaps they do exist, and mercifully sink without trace into the slick-lit swamp; perhaps publishers and editors contrive to save us from the more dreadful examples, or perhaps authors write the books they can and must, and the inadequate don’t take on stories beyond their competence. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine any hack coming up with the premise of a book like Freak the Mighty in pursuit of a fast buck: the unlikely friendship between Max, the big angry kid with learning difficulties and a notorious family history, and Kevin with his stunted, crippled body, boundless mind and inimitable voice. Separately they are feared, bullied and despised; together they become Freak the Mighty, heroic and unstoppable. Everything will work out for both of them when advanced surgery succeeds in making Kevin bionic… won’t it?


Admitted: that was a shameless Usborne plug, and here are two more. Call me Drog’s Parker doesn’t have the same order of Issues as others in this post, only the everyday war of attrition that is having divorced parents, and an absent father with old-fashioned ideas about the value of a tough military education (but it’s such a cracking story that I needed an excuse to write about it). Everything changes when Parker finds a compellingly hideous hand-puppet in a garbage dump, tries the puppet on and then can’t either take it (him) off or make him shut up. Vain, self-important, bullying and insufferable, Drog nevertheless has a habit of articulating everything Parker might think but would never dare say – and no-one will ever believe that it’s not Parker himself speaking (sometimes even the reader has doubts). How can Parker possibly get rid of Drog before he alienates Parker’s entire family and few remaining friends? Beautifully summed up by the Evening Standard as “It’s like Punch doing child psychiatry. Quite brilliant.”


Mockingbird takes on two Issues at once, with an assurance that would seem like madness if it weren’t that author Kathryn Erskine has direct knowledge of both: the impact on a small-town community of a high-school shooting, and the particular trauma for a ten-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome and her distraught father. Caitlin’s elder brother Devon used to anchor and shelter her, especially after her mother’s death from cancer two years earlier, until the day he became a victim of the shooting. Her father is close to breakdown, and Caitlin is more or less on her own as she attempts to navigate the bleakly different landscape of school and community, in which she has to make terms with both fellow victims and relatives of the perpetrators. Caitlin’s perception and absolute honesty make her a genuine and likeable narrator while not glossing over the gaffes and unintended hurt they occasion: we see just the unbearable love and pain her father feels as Caitlin meets a rhetorical question with a literal answer. Even so, it is Caitlin who finds the practical means for them both to clamber out of their morass of grief. A deserving winner of the US National Book Award.


Nobody dies during the year of Wonder, but sometimes August Pullman’s experience feels as bad or worse. R J Palacio brilliantly recontructs a fifth-grade year from six compelling viewpoints: not only the precocious, much-loved and alarmingly-disfigured Auggie, but also his protective and not-entirely-saintly sister, his classmates, his sister’s boyfriend and estranged best friend… Auggie is home-schooled and effectively cocooned until his mother decides he is ready for actual school, a sympathetic and carefully-prepared prep school where everyone’s good intentions unravel nonetheless, and Auggie is sharp enough to see through the staged friendships and ill-concealed fear and disgust of his fellow students. He is lucky beyond imagining to have his close family and one loyal, determined friend, Summer. Once again, what makes Wonder both bearable and compulsively readable is Auggie’s bright, necessarily brave voice, self-aware but never self-obsessed, and funny when you least expect it. I had a certain British reserve about the very uplifting ending (does any school body really combine such high-mindedness and open-mindedness?) but I really couldn’t grudge it. No question, Auggie deserved it.


The Fault in our Stars is definitely beyond the scope of this blog, recommended for 15+, but as one of the prime suspects in the “sick lit” case, it surely deserves a dispassionate look… something that may be hard to come by for a book that has found so many ardent fans. Hazel Grace and Gus meet in a believably awful cancer support group, where Hazel is a reluctant regular attendee and Gus a first-time visitor, supporting a friend who faces surgery that will remove his cancer but leave him completely blind. Far from “weighing up if she has enough time to fall for him before she dies” as the DM claims, Hazel likes Gus’s company but fends off closeness, all too aware of the hurt she will cause in dying to those who already love her, like her parents. It’s a compelling, wrong-footing story that for me had one admirable flaw: the teens were just too articulate: poised, eloquent and analytical not only in their heads (arent’ we all?) but also in their conversations and phone calls. On the other hand, Hazel’s many wry observations of cancer’s realities, from tokenistic “cancer perks” to the guardedness of all strangers over the age of five, and from the desolation of hospital playgrounds to the saccharine stereotypes of Facebook tributes, ring all too true. One thing is certain: The Fault in our Stars didn’t earn its bestseller status by playing for it with a worthy theme, like Kate Winslet pursuing her Oscar in Extras; it has taken huge amounts of inspiration, observation and empathy as well as understated writerly craft to bring Hazel and Gus briefly and so brightly to life, commending them to hundreds of thousands of young-adult and adult readers in the process.

It’s been quite a week. I heartily recommend all the above to you, but for your sanity and general happiness I really would not suggest reading them one after the other.



  1. […] sigh of someone who has spent a week closeted with every kind of human trauma and misery (see last week’s post), and is now settling into the familiar magic of a Diana Wynne Jones book – usually to be found […]

  2. […] with Sedgwick up against R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, which you may recall I shared with you in the “issues” post, as well as Sally Gardner’s bleakly brilliant Maggot Moon, which already has a Costa […]

  3. […] R J Palacio: Wonder A home-schooled boy, frighteningly disfigured, goes to public (state) school for the first time. A slightly too-good-to-be-true ending doesn’t detract from the huge insight and empathy and clear observation of the whole. […]

  4. […] in the “issues” books that were once a staple of the library market when it existed. I posted last year on contemporary “issues” books and the prime example, John Green’s The Faults in our Stars, […]

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