'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Saturday 7 December 2019

Guest Post: Claire Zorn on The Necessity of Nonsense

It’s a difficult time to be a child these days. Like the rest of us, children find their lives flooded with imagery and information, a lot of which is highly troubling for a young mind. Studies have found that children are experiencing higher rates of anxiety than ever recorded. Primary school teachers report spending more time looking after the mental health of their students than they do behaviour management. 

And it’s no wonder because according to the messages constantly shouted at children, the world is ending. Not only is every news report filled with reports about the climate change emergency, but every zoo visit or animal information book highlights the level of animal species endangerment and extinction as a result of habitat destruction, rising sea temperatures and pollution. Most seven year olds know that the Great Barrier Reef is dying. They know that turtles are choking on plastic straws and that orangutans have had their homes go up in smoke. They know that glaciers are melting and sea-levels rising.

Add to this the fact that many school communities include children whose families have fled war and conflict. Those who haven’t usually know children who have. These kids are too aware of the morally corrupt behaviours and attitudes which have caused all of these issues. But they are in no way responsible and I do wonder if the constant declarations of the humanity’s imminent demise are helpful for children. There seems to be an increasingly narrow space to delight in silliness, nonsense and absurdity. At least as long as there are so many pressing issues to be aware of.

Of course, there is a place for books which build empathy and awareness but I believe these need to be empowering, otherwise children are left with nothing but a sense of helplessness and the knowledge that adults really should be doing something about carbon emissions.

In No Place for an Octopus I set out simply to portray an octopus in ridiculous situations, like on a rollercoaster or at the cinema. I wanted whimsy and nonsense. That’s it. I don’t know about other writers, but I certainly never set about writing a story because I have an ‘issue’ I want to address. My stories are always shaped by characters, in this case an octopus who wasn’t enjoying his time on a tricycle.

However, as often happens in the writing of a story, more possibilities opened up and the theme of empathy emerged: what you want for someone may not be what is best for them. It’s about being sensitive to another’s needs. A message of environmental conservation did assert itself, but I wanted to create a situation in which the child recognised the problem and was able to make a change themselves. I didn’t want an adult involved at all, the child’s decision-making process had to be entirely their own. 

Because adults are always scrambling for solutions to the problems we create, yet to children the answers are so simple: look after one another, be kind, be loving to others and the world around us.

And for goodness sake, don’t forget to be silly.

Claire Zorn is foremost a writer of young adult fiction, but you don’t have to be a young adult to read her stuff; you could be a middle-aged uncle, or a nanna, or thirtyish professional water-skier with a passion for hot housed orchids. She is the award winning author of One Would Think the Deep , The Protected and The Sky So Heavy. Her latest creation, No Place for an Octopus, released last month. Stay tuned for our KBR review of this quirky picture book very soon!