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Thursday 3 October 2019

Guest Post: Julia Lawrinson on Questions of Morality

JuliaLawrinson’s new novel, Maddie in the Middle, is the story of schoolgirl friendships, peer pressure and the notion of right and wrong. 

When Maddie makes friends with new girl Samara, she finds herself stealing chocolate to raise money to help Samara’s family. But when they get caught, Maddie ends up taking the blame. 

Did Maddie do the wrong thing, even if it was for the right reasons?

In this article, Julia Lawrinson explores how far authors should go in providing the answers to questions of morality, and offers some points of discussion for the classroom.

It is a truism that the most didactic stories for children are fairytales: there is good, and there is evil, and good always prevails. These stories are the ones that set up the idea that storytellers can guide young readers into murky moral territory and disturbing material – as long as they lead them out again towards light and truth.

But as children grow older, they learn that life is not always so black and white. And the best way they can learn to tolerate ambiguity, and to work their way through the moral dilemmas that characterise human life, is through fiction.

Kids are often eager to debate the rights and wrongs of the characters they like or loathe in fiction, or indeed any text. Teenagers will have strong views on things they see in their social media feeds, and encouraging them to think about these issues from multiple points of view is a great way of breaking down the polarising nature of online debates.

I still remember reading George Orwell’s 1984 when I was 14. The whole novel gripped me, but the thing that I puzzled over most was the question about morality. In the scenes where Winston is interrogated by O’Brien, Winston maintains that he is morally superior to O’Brien and those creating the society ruled by the Party, because he would not do to others what the Party does to him. But then, when faced with his worst fear, Winston ends up begging O’Brien to torture his love Julia instead of him. This is where Winston breaks. Is he any better than they are, in the end?

When I was in primary school, I loved the Little House series (often known as Little House on the Prairie). The books were set in the United States in the 1880s, and describe the lives of a pioneering family moving west and all the trials and tribulations they experience and overcome. Mostly the series gave a sense of moral comfort. Nasty girls like Nellie Oleson would eventually get their comeuppance, and good prevailed – most of the time.

But I puzzled over the different attitudes of Ma and Pa towards the ‘Indians’. Even as a child I could see that Ma was intolerant, and I found her intolerance repellent. In all other respects Ma was firm, wise and kind, a mother who gently guided her girls to the right moral path. How could one person be so contradictory?

There is a role for books that provide neat and satisfying answers to questions posed in narrative. This is why genre fiction is so popular: readers of crime or romance will know that no matter how uncomfortable they might be through the development of the story, there will be a resolution to soothe the narrative tension. But there is also a place for fiction where readers have to keep working after the novel is finished, to puzzle out what has been presented to them, to find new ways to think in order to accommodate the reading experience.

I support the sentiment of D H Lawrence, who said, ‘The essential function of art is moral … But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind.

Good books give readers new ways to think about how to best live a good life, and how to steer their way to that life, no matter what storms they encounter on the way.

Author of a dozen books including The Push, Chess Nuts and Before You Forget, Julia is a much-loved children’s author and an accomplished public speaker known for her ability to write and talk about controversial subjects with compassion and understanding.

In Maddie in the Middle, Julia is interested in challenging the black and white thinking that tends to be typical of kids, asking them if it is ever ok to do the wrong thing for the right reason. 

Julia says: ‘Shoplifting used to be a rite of passage when I was a kid – it was a thing kids dared each other to do, in the days before CCTV and shop security. So I was surprised when a friend told me her daughter and her friends were doing it, and it was still a thing in their community. I thought about the kinds of things that influence kids to decide whether to do something naughty, particularly in those primary years, and I realised it reflects the decisions people make all through their lives, in their personal lives and their workplaces. So that really interested me’.

Maddie in the Middle by Julia Lawrinson is available online from www.fremantlepress.com.au and all good bookstores.

Teaching notes for the book are available to download here.

This post appears courtesy of Fremantle Press and is reproduced with permission.