A couple of weeks ago the results were released for the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, which are the most prestigious awards for children’s books in NZ. The winner of Book of the Year was Into the River, by Ted Dawe, which also won the YA category. Since then, there has been a firestorm in the NZ media and book world. Why? Because the book is about a boy who falls through a society’s cracks. An intelligent Maori boy who goes to a good city school on a scholarship, but struggles to find his place in surroundings very different to those in which he has grown up. And the book portrays that fall through the cracks realistically. With swearing, sex and drugs – narrated in tones that many would find explicit. Many bookstores have withdrawn the book from sale, explicit content stickers have been sent out and Family First are accusing the award judges of ‘loosing the plot.’
I haven’t read the book yet. I’m planning to, but have so many other things on my to-read list right now that it’s not going to be picked up straight away. So in many ways, I can’t and won’t judge. But I do have some questions to ask.
1. How many of the books critics have actually read it? Into the River is self-published (loving that a self-published novel won such a major award by the way) and before the announcement had fairly minimal exposure. As one of the award's judges rightly points out, content is all about context: "There's a massive difference between, 'Hey, look at this exciting world of sex and drugs and rock and roll', and 'Look at the damage being done to this young man because our society can't find a place for him to stand'. And within that context, hard-hitting material is crucial; it is what makes the book authentic, real and important."
2. How is it any worse than what 15+ year olds see on TV and in video games on an everyday basis? Why is it different because it’s in text? I think there seems to be some misunderstanding that because this particular title won a 'children's book award', it's aimed at 6 year olds. YA novels ARE NOT children's books and Into the River became the overall winner after first taking out the YA category. (As a sidenote, this article makes some great points about other misconceptions about YA)
3. Where do we stop? From my workplace’s perspective, if we put an explicit content sticker on this book we also need to put it on The Hunger Games, where a teenager is viciously mauled by dogs (while still alive) until killed as an act of mercy. We also need to put it on The Fault in Our Stars, which is arguably emotionally traumatising for many. We shelve Rachel Caine's books in the YA section.
As I say, I haven't read Into the River yet, so I can't really judge its content accurately. But it's a good question to ask. . . . how far can YA books go in terms of content? Can they go as far as adult's books go? (and as someone who recently processed a whole pile of new erotica at work, they go pretty far). Should they be treated like children's books? Is there a hard and firm in between? Does the fact that Into the River is set in the real world and depicts real vices make it different to fantasy equivalents?
I'd love to know what you think! Both on Into the River (if you happen to be a Kiwi) and on the issue in general