Authors defend unsettling book that will have different covers for its child and adult editions
Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent
The Observer, Sunday 5 July 2009
The word "slut" appears in the first line of Margo Lanagan's new book, Tender Morsels. The next few paragraphs describe an unsettling sex scene between a witch and a dwarf. For some parents this will simply be an upfront way of indicating the challenging content of an interesting novel for young people, for others it will signal the end of children's literature.
The novel, published this month by Random House, is a lurid reworking of Grimm's Snow White and Rose Red fairytale and also contains a gang rape and a frank description of a miscarriage. Within the book industry, the new title from the Australian author is already being described as uncompromising and controversial.
Publication of Tender Morsels in this country is leading to renewed calls for a clearer system to let parents know about the nature of the books that their children are reading. Anne Fine, a former children's laureate, said: "If you look at online reviews, nearly all the parents think it is quite unsuitable. Many of the children loved the book but among the girls, a lot of them found it frightening or even repulsive.
"I have to wonder generally whether a children's publisher does not sometimes have a responsibility to stop and say that although a shocking new book will make money, and even be popular, it does not have what the Americans call 'redeeming social importance'."
Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, believes the front of a book should offer a good clue to the buyer. "Book covers can tell you a lot," he said. "A book with a cover illustration by Nick Sharratt, who does many of Jacqueline Wilson's covers, tells you a lot about what is inside, while a book cover by Ian Beck, one of my favourites, tells you this is a different kind of book."
Designers at Random House have given Lanagan's novel one cover illustration for younger readers, while another has been chosen for the adult edition being published by Jonathan Cape. Pullman feels the mysterious cover portrait picked for a young audience is likely to draw readers in without giving much information. He does not believe, though, that children's writers should steer clear of tough material.