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Children’s and Young Adult Fiction and the ‘war on terror’

In response to the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair launched their ‘war on terror’. Ten years on, how have children’s novelists responded to these political events and the climate they have created? Alan Gibbons explores.


n a recent article in The Observer novelist Graham Swift argued that ‘the proper medium for what is of now is not the novel but journalism’. Few would argue. A novel that tries too hard to be ‘up to date’

and ‘relevant’ is likely to fail. Particularly in the age of 24 -hour news a novel can never capture day-to-day reality in the same way, nor should it attempt to do so. As Swift himself comments, Tolstoy’s War and Peace was written some fifty years after the conflict it describes. A novel is not reportage. Swift then goes on to qualify his comments:

‘(Novels are) there to take the long view, to show change and evolution, human behaviour worked on by time. But none of this means that novels, which can never be strictly of now, cannot have their own kind of “nowness” or have something which actually out-thrills the thrill of the merely contemporary. They can have immediacy.’

This immediacy is what I intend to explore in my examination of recent responses in children’s literature to the background of the ‘war on terror’ launched by George Bush and Tony Blair in response to the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001.

Dealing directly with terror

Every novelist has a different ‘take’ on the relationship between their narratives and characters and the social and historical context in which they unfold. The echoes of the Napoleonic Wars barely feature in the work of Jane Austen whereas the Luddites form an important part of the backdrop of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley. Neither approach is of itself superior, merely different and difference is one of the positive aspects of literature, the almost limitless interpretations individual writers make of the world around them.

In common with most of my work, my latest novel An Act of Love deals very directly with the events of the war on terror. It opens with eighteen-year-old soldier Chris Hook standing on a parade ground in his native Yorkshire. His phone buzzes and there is a text from his childhood friend Imran Hussain. The message is as simple as it is chilling:

‘There’s a bomb.’ The novel then alternates between the pair’s present

4 Books for Keeps No.189 July 2011 (Photo by Neil Kendall)

Twice shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, Alan Gibbons is the winner of The Blue Peter Book Award 2000 ‘the book I couldn’t put down’ for Shadow of the Minotaur. He is the founder of the Campaign for the Book.

day attempts to thwart the suicide bomber who is waiting somewhere in the barracks to detonate an explosive vest and the events from the start of the millennium onwards which brought the two boys to this moment. I hope I have steered well clear of the danger of writing reportage, but the characters do develop in an organic relationship with the epochal events changing the world around them. The events of 9/11, the street riots at the start of the decade, the emergence of far right populism, the appearance of extremist groups on the fringe of the Muslim community and the great march against the war in Iraq all feature prominently as does Chris’s almost accidental decision to join the Army and serve in Afghanistan.

The novel is firmly set in a realistic tradition. There are elements of the thriller and liberal use of flashbacks. The action ranges from Yorkshire to Helmand and back. I employ both the first and third person and I have multiple narrators. Whether by choice or by instinct – and I suspect it was a mixture of the two – I found myself reflecting the almost kaleidoscopic way most of us develop our understanding of the social and political events that contextualise the smaller dramas of our everyday lives. That interrelationship is at the heart of my book.

If the personal dramas of Chris and Imran were to be authentic, the detail had to be accurate. I conducted interviews with young British Muslims, serving soldiers and read numerous books about terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the development of what some people called ‘political Islam’. But, remembering Swift’s warning about reportage, the research had to supplement the narrative and give it authenticity, not overwhelm it. Every writer has their own way of achieving artistic distance from the material with which they are working.

First responses to the ‘war on terror’

Nicky Singer does it with what she calls: ‘maximum suspension of disbelief’. In one of the first responses to the war on terror, The Innocent’s Story, her protagonist Cassina is blown to pieces in a suicide bombing. Singer told me: ‘I thought I was more likely to find a “truth” in a highly fictionalised world than in a naturalistic one.’ This led to another choice – to invent the religion followed by the bombers in the story. Singer said: ‘The other advantage of an invented religion is that you can draw parallels. My religion has an equivalent of “jihad” but only to make it clear that, far from being exclusively associated with “holy war”…the predominant meaning…(is to)…get closer to god by overcoming bad desires.’

The Innocent’s Story was originally judged ‘too political’ for publication in America, but won well-deserved acclaim for, in one critic’s words: ‘raising questions of faith, loyalty and responsibility’. Singer’s treatment of the raw material of the war on terror is about as different to mine as it is possible to imagine. It is also triumphantly successful. She has achieved ‘nowness’,

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