Dare You? new anthology challenges notions of children’s gothic [Review]

Posted by Chloe Buckley on November 12, 2013 in News, Reviews tagged with , , , , , ,

Dare You: A Gothic Anthology by gifted young writers
Edited by Charlotte Cubitt
Publisher: RPA Young Publishers (Aug 2013)

Review by Chloe Buckley

Since its inception, gothic fiction has been at the heart of a debate about what is and isn’t appropriate reading material for the young. Even the earliest gothic novels were subject to plenty of criticism for exposing impressionable readers to the worst kind of vices and excess. In recent years, some of the terms in this debate have changed, but, as Dr. Catherine Spooner recently pointed out, an anxiety about gothic remains.

During the course of my own research I tend to find that there are as many champions of gothic fiction for children as there are detractors. Writers, reviewers and publishers increasingly extol the virtues of gothic fiction for children: children love to be frightened; scary stories are good for children; gothic is the most apt mode for exploring the darkness inherent in childhood itself; stories for children ought to be scary. Yet, at the heart of all this praise remains the same concern as that voiced by gothic’s harshest detractors: books ought to do children good. Indeed, it seems that the age old premise that haunts the problematic concept ‘children’s literature’ is never far away, that is, that somehow adult producers of books know what is best for child readers.

Dare You? – a collection of short gothic fiction due for release shortly – has the potential to disrupt and unsettle such assumptions. Produced outside the mainstream institutions of children’s publishing, the collection has been written, edited and marketed by young writers between the ages of 12 and 13. As such, Dare you? offers a challenge to the norms of children’s publishing by overturning the very terms on which it operates. Critics and publishers construct the reading child as a consumer, one whose needs will be met by the adults who know best. In contrast, Dare You? positions the child as producer, selecting, crafting and editing the material for themselves. In a reversal of the usual model, whereby adults define the gothic on behalf of an imagined child, Dare You? sees child readers contributing to the development and definition of the genre.

The collection offers some radical challenges both to traditional notions defining gothic and to what is expected of ‘children’s’ fiction more generally and throughout the volume there is a startling range of engagement with the term gothic. Some tales in particular offer a jarring juxtapositions of forms and unsettling genre hybridity. Multivocal and unconventional, some of the best tales in this collection defy accepted notions of what critics and writers think is appropriate even in scary fiction for children: the endings frequently refuse resolution or comforting restitution; the reader is often left adrift and disorientated; there are no safe spaces and barriers are frequently ruptured; shocking body horror erupts at unexpected moments; and children are shown to have the most to fear from those who are supposed to care for them. Traditional notions of childhood innocence and parental love are frequently subverted and most often the stories are told from the point of view of an other, an outsider, dealing in alienation and disenfranchisement. There are thoroughly unlikeable personalities, too, whose presence disrupt the readers’ notions of empathy and conventional morality. Unconventional uses of language abound in this sometimes discordant but always fascinating collection.

As a first publication, Dare You? is not without its problems. In an effort to preserve the individual voices of the writers, eccentricities in grammar and structure have been allowed to remain. This speaks to an ethos of inclusivity and experimentation and, on the one hand, adds to the multi-voicedness of the collection. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel that a sensitive but ultimately more thorough edit might have ironed out some of the more jarring issues with sentence structure and grammar that do, in a few places, hamper the readers’ enjoyment. Likewise, the short and abrupt nature of the pieces allows the collection to showcase a range and variety of fiction, but it also means that there is a tendency towards fragmentation that in some cases leads to under-developed writing. Some of the concepts on offer here suffer from narrative compression, and needed a little more room to breathe. Yet, having said all this, I would hesitate advocating any measures that would detract from the raw power of the collection. After all, the last thing this venture needs is an adult wading in telling the writers what they should and shouldn’t include.

The collection is remarkable in itself as a project entirely conceived of and realised by children with a passion for the gothic. Indeed, it is reminiscent of the kinds of texts that form the very origin of gothic –  folk tales, ballad sheets, chapbooks and the penny blood – and offers something of their disreputable, subversive pleasures. Critics often find it easy to declare what is good for child readers and make sweeping statements about why children like the gothic so much. Adult writers and critics are sometimes too eager to think they know what children’s literature is and does. Dare you? dares them and us to think again.

Chloe Buckley

You can see the original kickstarter campaign for the collection here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1928017805/dare-you-the-gothic-anthology-by-gifted-young-writ

Also see a review of the collection by Dara Downey: https://sites.google.com/a/aetinet.org/richmond-park-academy-website/news/academy-news/dareyoureview

If you want to find out more about children’s and young adult gothic fiction, get involved in the debate with the Beyond Twilight Project at Lancaster University and check out the the Beyond Twilight Blog for regular reviews and commentary.

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