Requiem for a Beast tells a wrenching and deeply personal story of a young man who goes outback to work as a stockman, where he tries to come to terms with his family's past, the terrible treatment of indigenous Australians, and his own internal conflicts. The story is told in words and pictures, sometimes separately and sometimes in combination, and also in haunting music: it includes a CD composed by the author, to be played while reading the book.
It's a challenging book to read because of the disturbing nature of the story it tells, and the sense of impending horror that pervades it. But it is not all bleakness - Matt Ottley's glorious oil paintings are a song to the beauty of the Australian landscape, and there is hope for reconciliation, for human goodness, in the story as well. I think it's a hugely well-deserved prize.
But - surprise surprise - the judges' choice has attracted a frazzle of controversy. I haven't followed it terribly closely, but it appears that the complainers are up in arms because the book contains explicit language and themes unsuitable for young children. See this article for example, where a commentator is quoted saying:
"There is no warning. There is nothing on this book which says it contains things that may not be appropriate for children. All there is is the big gold star from the Children's Book Council, which most parents will take as a recommendation".Now this strikes me as not only silly, but lazy as well. Matt Ottley's book is aimed at adults and older children (who are still children, just not the the smaller variety). It is not aimed at the younger age groups, as any parent, teacher or librarian can tell by simply looking at the blurb, or flicking open any page of the book. But the commentator's assumption is that a picture book - especially if it wins a prize - ought to be presumed suitable for young children, unless clearly indicated otherwise with a big warning sticker on the cover.
This assumption suggests two things to me:
First, an unwillingness to take responsibility when choosing books for one's children. If you are going to borrow or purchase a book for a child, surely you should have a quick look at it first, and decide whether you think that (a) it will appeal to the kid in question; and (b) it is appropriate to their age and level of understanding. If you abrogate this responsibility, it is a bit rich to complain that nobody else picked up your slack by warning you about what was plain to see - if you had cared to look.
Secondly, this attitude suggests real ignorance about the huge developments in picture books for older readers. You just can't assume that all picture books are aimed at littl'uns, any more than you can assume that all TV cartoons are suitable for this audience. Where was this person when The Arrival swept numerous awards in both children's and general book categories?
At the heart of this silly moral panic is something I find particularly tiresome. It's a proprietorial belief that the literary space of picture books is a protected zone solely for young children - and therefore if you dare to "pervert" that space by making a picture book (or one of those degenerate "comic books") that isn't suitable for younger kids, then it is your responsibility to protect them - and apparently their parents - from the risk of stumbling across your "dirty" work.
Too ridiculous for words... let alone for pictures!
Onward Matt Ottley!