Radical Writing for Children and Young People

Radical Writing in Children’s Books – an interesting subject, I hope, but what does ‘radical’ mean in such a context? Going to the OED (volume VIII, 1914) I learn it means ‘of or pertaining to a root or roots’ and ‘going to the root or origin’. Looking at a more contemporary definition I see it takes on the meaning of ‘supporting change’. It is this sense of change – of writing that widens horizons and presents the potential for new ideas; writing that doesn’t pigeonhole its audience that Kim Reynold’s identifies in her article ‘Discovering Radical Writing for Children and Young People’. 

What is particularly interesting is to realise that radical writing is not confined to a limited subject area. The Little Rebels Award highlights this as Fen Coles and Catherine Barter demonstrate, talking about how the award began, has grown and the range of authors and titles that have won it. Here we see books that are fun, that take young readers on adventures, that introduce them to history – books to enjoy and inspire, but that also present ideas and challenges across a variety of fields. One particular area is our current climate crisis and the need to create a better environment for humans and the natural world. This is of particular interest to Gill Lewis (herself a Little Rebels winner) who strongly believes that the best writing for young people about this subject is radical and can help change attitudes, empowering young readers to think and act. She illustrates this by directing attention to books that will do just that. 

Radical writing, however, is not a new phenomenon. As Jane Badger demonstrates Anna Sewell in writing Black Beauty created a truly radical book that helped change attitudes – and can still do that today. While we may no longer see horse-drawn cabs, it can still direct attention to our treatment of animals in our care. More recently, Robert Leeson was a truly radical writer, pushing the boundaries in what might be presented in children’s fiction at the time as well as working to ensure that the gatekeepers – librarians and teachers – were challenged in how children’s literature should be judged. Ann Lazim’s article reminds us of the breadth of subjects that Leeson tackled, subjects that are still very much in the forefront of radical writing today. 

And finally a radical book, a radical character, Alice. June Swain reviews and comments on the current exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, ‘Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser’: An ‘immersive and mind-bending journey down the rabbit hole’. First published in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland introduced the world to a character, who for the first time in children’s literature had independence and agency, who questioned and acted for herself – a character who has over a century inspired not just other writers, but film makers, designers – and countless readers. 

Ferelith Hordon