Saturday, July 6, 2013

Lucia That brown paper bag book for teenagers that everyone's talking about

A book that should be brown paper-bagged and left there to rot has netted writer Ted Dawe a $7500 prize.
Ted Dawe’s Into the River claimed top prize in the annual New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

The author makes no apology for the provocative content, saying the story needs to be told, even at the risk of upsetting parents and booksellers.

One scene describes, in extensive detail, two adolescents having fumbling sex in shallow water.

Award organisers have sent “explicit content” stickers to all booksellers to warn potential buyers.

The 2013 Kiwi Kids’ Good Book Guide lists the book’s target age as 13 years and over but Masterton Paper Plus says the book is only suitable for those over 15.

The Conservative has an excerpt of the "fumbling sex", and has suggested a more appropriate title for the book. I won't post the excerpt here, as I don't even want to look at it, yet alone have to put blockquote tags around it and have it on the blog.

Sue Reid of Masterton has written a review of the book, and found it was worse than she expected it to be.
“Devon (a.k.a. Te Arepa) is the central character of Dawes’ book. He lives on the East Coast of North Island NZ and experiences family / community dysfunction. At age 14 he goes to Auckland and attends a boarding school there.

The school has a ‘pecking order’ of older students (not bullying) but graphic violent assaults carried out on the younger students. Fear and intimidations uphold the social order. It is here that the c-word is used extensively along with f-word (I don’t use these words personally and would certainly not be allowing my children or expect school students to use them, so why should I be reading then in a children’s book!)

Devon meets Steph (a boy) at this school and they become ‘allies-brothers-in-arms’ but Steph is harbouring secrets…and this is where the adult themes really take hold in the book.

Steph is having an affair with his music teacher, Willie, along with having an affair with his father’s work colleague (who is a father himself). i.e. two separate paedophiles sexually abusing a 14 year old.

On a holiday back to East Coast, Devon has a graphic sexual encounter with young single mum (Tania) – twice…the second time whilst her young baby is in the room and who starts to mimic her mother’s sounds of arousal! (yet another scene normalising paedophilia.)

Back to school and Steph takes Devon to see their music teacher Willie during the weekend. Willie takes the boys to an isolated beach and they swim naked, then smoke a joint. The session finishes back at Willie’s house where the boys strip, and photos are taken of the boys (more sexual abuse)….these photos are added to a large pile of photos of naked boys.

Willie is one of the teachers that leads a school camp to Waiheke Island and both Steph and Devon are opportunistic to sneak graphic sexual encounters. The teachers in ‘control’ of camp lead the students in drug taking of ecstasy (drug abuse) and ends with a night swim complete with naked teacher and student engaging in an incident of statutory rape (yet more sexual abuse). No teacher holds any student accountable and it is a vile misuse of a teacher’s position and power.”

This is not the sort of book I could read even for research purposes, but I'm thankful that Sue Reid could read it and wrote a review so that parents could be warned about the book and alert for attempts by adults to recommend it to their children. I know that if a teacher tried to encourage either of my boys (aged 12 and 16) to read it, I would be seriously worried that there might be some sort of attempt at grooming going on and would act appropriately.

However, what I have done is an online search for people's reactions and found a blog post by the chief judge,  Bernard Beckett, defending the book:

[...] This is a story that captures, better than any I’ve read, the plight of the young Maori boy, looking for a place to stand. Our protagonist is smart, ambitious, and eager to please, and when he wins a scholarship to an elite Auckland school, we are encouraged to believe that this is his chance to make his mark. But life is not that simple.

What this book shows, with tremendous skill and courage, is the complexity of the problem these young men face. If you want to better understand the price we pay for depriving young Maori a place to stand, then this is the book to read. It is not didactic, nor is it sentimental. Rather, it forces us to consider the subtle but powerful forces that make a nonsense of the popular myth that all the dispossessed need to do is pull their socks up and make an effort.

If we measure a society’s moral strength by the way it treats its most vulnerable, then this is a book that speaks to the heart of our obligation to be better members of this community. To be more understanding, more open to difference, more willing to accept the part we play in perpetuating the pain.

I want young people to consider this message, and so I want them to read this book. That groups purporting to care about family values should seek to oppose it is perplexing. Yes, there are harsh aspects to this story. There have to be. Without the harshness, we could not properly understand the price that is being paid. This is a book about what happens when a young man is forced to the periphery, that place where the normal social constraints do not reach. And out there risks are taken, and damage is done. This book stands as a call to arms to those who wish to see an end to such needless, racially primed vandalism.

The language, the sexual references and the drugs are as integral to this story as domestic violence is integral to Othello. That is my considered opinion as an author of ten novels, as a teacher for over twenty years, and as a judge who has read this book slowly and carefully.
He then goes on to counter what he considers the major objections to the book:

Now, it may be that you accept this is an important, and indeed moral novel, and you accept that the graphic content is a necessary part of this book’s story, but still oppose it on the grounds that the price we pay for this message is too high. Specifically, it might be that you believe that young adults reading this book will be encouraged to use the less palatable language themselves, or indeed take this book as licence to indulge in the high risk activities that are portrayed. To this, I would only say, trust your children more, and trust yourselves as parents more. It is simply not true that the young refrain from swearing because they have never heard it. There are no words in this book that a teenager will not have heard in the school ground, at the shopping mall, the bus stop or read online. That they will suddenly, at the twenty third exposure, switch lexicons on us, is an absurd suggestion. All teenagers are exposed to offensive language (‘bugger’ was turned into a national advertising campaign) and most of them, most of the time, manage to express themselves beautifully without it. It is the way we raise them, the way we win their respect, and earn our place as role models, that matters.

With regard to the bullying, the drug taking or the casual sex, there is nothing glamorous about the lifestyle into which our protagonist falls. To argue that because the content is there, young readers will imitate it, is fanciful. Nobody opposes books about World War One, on the grounds that we don’t want our children heading off to shoot Germans. Nor are we afraid of our children seeing the bible, least they develop a taste for crucifixion. The way we process content is entirely dependent upon the context within which we encounter it. Read the whole book. Think about it. Then pass it on to a young adult you care about. They’ll thank you for it.

Finally, although you may not agree with my judgement, ours must not be portrayed as a disagreement between the moral and the apathetic. Those of us who believe in literature like this are as driven to make a better world for our children as those who oppose it. Nor is this even a disagreement about what stands as moral, for I too seek a place where the young may move with safety and joy, live in respect and tolerance, and form healthy, nourishing relationships. To the extent we do disagree, it is about the way this book will be read, and more broadly, the way that reading will influence world view and behaviour. These are difficult questions, to be approached with a cautious and open mind, and crucially, with careful study and evidence to support one’s case. Do that, and there is a chance we can move together towards the sort of world we all desire. Turn this into a tribal war, between the putatively decent and depraved, and everybody suffers.
Ok, lots to think about there.  I left a comment on his blog and he has responded, and so I will write another post and include my response here.

Related links: Book too hot to handle for store ~ Wairarapa Times-Age, (Hattip: Bob)
Family Review – “Into the River” by Ted Dawes ~ Family First

The Judges: Bernard Beckett, Eirlys Hunter, Lynn Freeman

About the Awards

4 comment(s):

ZenTiger said...

There was a story in the papers today about an NZQA staffer who had the role of "Cultural Advisor" who visited schools and decided that the prevailing culture should be one of grooming boys for sex.

He was eventually caught and smacked over the wrist for his realistic interpretation of issues all children need to experience and hear about, and the NZQA published a comment, something like:

"We are saddened and disappointed by his offending"

What they should have said was:

"We are horrified and disgusted and deeply shocked by his offending, and we are upset that he did not receive any jail time for sexually abusing minors when he was in such a position of trust and authority."

The novel that you describe above doesn't become a perceptive commentary and salutatory indictment of this culture, it just becomes another example of the problem.

This book sounds like no "Catcher in the rye" and it is disappointing and saddening that it is deemed worthy of promoting this to 13 year old's by giving it this award.

The judges seem hell bent on redefining what is age-appropriate. The fact that 13 year olds are exposed to this constantly is no reason to keep adding to it.

Or to put it another way:

I oppose books about World War One, where the message is that we should be suggesting to our children war is just a natural condition of human kind, and the more they are conditioned to this the better.

Enter another NZQA Cultural Adviser to reinforce the message.

ZenTiger said...

I would like to add that half of the above comment may be unfair, given I haven't read the book and have not assessed it for literary merit.

However, I suspect that I could have been even more inflammatory even arguing from this position of ignorance.

One point I would like to make to explain this, continuing with the WWI analogy, is that it is possible to read many books on WWI and to teach 13 year olds about it, without spending pages and pages going into the horrific stories around trench warfare, and describing in detail the way rats at living flesh, and how soldiers died in the most inhuman circumstances.

Again, to argue they see as much in current movies and such is the argument I hate. It is "other people are bad, so let me be bad too." But it's perhaps worse, because it's done with a self-satisfied smugness that they are doing good by doing bad. It might get their conscience off the hook, but I see it as a symptom of the greater problem - thus, the book moves from insightful commentary to part of the problem.

Even if the author meant it otherwise, putting it in the hands of 13 year olds instead of (at a minimum) 16 year olds has done this.

Ezekiel Benedict said...

Basically, what this means to me is that if a book gets an award like this then I definitely won't allow my children to see it. Mind you, as the gatekeeper in my house I have got rid of tv, don't allow the filthy smut rags like the herald through the door and severely monitor the internet. NOT ON MY WATCH LIBERALS

Lucia Maria said...

Hi Ezekiel, just be aware that schools might not be as discerning as yourself, and teachers might even encourage teenagers to read this book and write about it in class. One of the judges wrote on his post about "teaching the book".

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