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  • Blanka Grzegorczyk

Children’s Fiction and Terror


Children’s Fiction and Terror

Children’s play, children’s imagination, children’s literature – these are perhaps some of the last spaces that most people associate with the impact of terrorism and counter-terrorism on contemporary society and culture. Yet stories abound of young people dealing with terror-related collective traumas by playacting them—from Western children re-enacting scenes from the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, and later the November 2015 Paris shootings, with their Lego (toy) bricks and figures to children in Gaza playing games of Arabs versus Israelis. Examples of children’s intellectual and creative engagement with terrorism and its effects include child-authored texts such as a prize-winning speech by the British Muslim primary school pupil Sara Hussain in the form of an imagined conversation with the Manchester Arena bomber in reaction to his possible justifications of the attack, which a close friend of hers survived.

Faced with the task of comprehending the incomprehensible, young people growing up in the shadow of terror, and under successive state responses to terrorist attacks, have repeatedly turned their imagination to the terrifying reality and aftermath of such events. But for many of these children, it is the reactionary policies of successive governments that have brought into focus the re-ordering of the world around the battle lines drawn after 9/11 and 7/7. If a post-9/11 recognition of the precariousness of bodies and borders has led many in the US to a belief that America needs stricter disciplinary measures and a more authoritarian government to keep an eye on things, concerns about terrorism have developed rather specifically in the British context, since most of the attackers responsible for the London bombings of 7/7/2005, or “London’s 9/11,” as well as the Manchester Arena suicide bomber were British-born. Such revelations led to the introduction and later ramping up of anti-terrorism laws that have stifled public debate, and among their other widely criticized measures, have forced education providers and local authorities to play the game of “Where’s the Terrorist?” while interacting with children. Accordingly, at a moment when one in three British children aged nine to sixteen are reported to be primarily anxious about global forms of terror, nursery and school-aged children in Britain have faced threats of being referred to counter-extremism programs for owning a toy gun, using the word “eco-terrorists” in a classroom discussion about environmental activism, or drawing a picture of their father chopping a cucumber, mistaken by staff for a “cooker bomb.”

Terror and Counter-Terror in Contemporary British Children’s Literature

The profusion of children’s fiction that comments on the new world orders following 9/11 and 7/7, as well as on the declaration of the US-led “war on terror” and its global repercussions, bears witness to the fact that terrorism and counter-terrorism have prompted a major rethinking of the ties that bind us in our local communities and global environments. Terror and Counter-Terror in Contemporary British Children’s Literature comes out of an attempt to map these connections and reinventions for those interested in how such writing provokes, guides, and encourages a new engagement of the child reader’s imagination with ethical, political, and embodied lives. This approach seemed to me to be a much needed riposte to successive government responses to the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks and to the media’s mobilization of negative stereotypes of Muslim and immigrant communities as dangerous others. The books I examine, such as Nicky Singer’s The Innocent’s Story (2005), Anna Perera’s Guantanamo Boy (2009), Catherine Bruton’s We Can Be Heroes (2011), Malorie Blackman’s Noble Conflict (2013), and Muhammad Khan’s I Am Thunder (2018), speak a counter-narrative to the two-tribes rhetoric at the same time that they present violence as the “common parlance” of both terrorists and governments. Young readers are then invited not only to move beyond terror and into desirable futures, but to activate their political energies in order to oppose all forms of injustice and violence, including the violence of the state. At a time when the new habits of speaking up have already incubated youth-led protest movements that call for action on climate change or demand an end to police brutality and gun violence, it is crucial that we pay attention to how young people are posited as and encouraged to become agents of resistance in fiction.

Terror and Counter-Terror in Contemporary British Children’s Literature is about what changed in the connection between children’s fiction and terror after the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, and about why the responses to these events have endured through contemporary writing for the young. It is an attempt to ask how children might understand the newly disarticulated global conditions around them better through their reading, understand where they could stand as actors in precarious and suspicious times. These works are shown to move through endurance and into resistance, which manifests through a range of channels, from the use of cyber-political resistant practices following the politically sanctioned murder of an ethnic minority teenager in Nikesh Shukla’s Run, Riot (2018) to the protest-performance of trauma by schoolkids going barefoot in the snow-covered cemetery to take a stand against racism in Sita Brahmachari’s Tender Earth (2017). The study’s five chapters are organized around the traumatic effects of terrorism and counter-terroristic responses, the greater vulnerability of certain groups of people in an age of terror, the importance of subcultural affiliation as a means of coming to terms with the reality of Britain’s post-9/11 world, the processes of and resistances to radicalization, and the possibility of realizing a worthwhile form of multiculturalism rooted in communal values and solidarity against oppression. The critical principles that underpin my comparative analysis of the wide-ranging responses to changing configurations of Britishness due to the effects of terrorism and the wars against it are drawn from postcolonial and critical race theory, terrorism studies, discourses of trauma, vulnerability, and subcultural resistance, and cosmopolitan ethics. In the book, rather than following the UK government’s counter-extremism strategy, which draws on a rhetoric of national identity and British values, I offer children’s literature as a starting point for post-terror healing and peacebuilding. From fictional representations of trauma, through post-migrant, subcultural, and dystopian writing, to the cosmopolitan children’s novel, the various cultural forms examined in this study gesture towards a new future of intercultural alliance. Anticipations of such a future, and these novelists’ shared conviction that child vulnerability and resistance need not be seen as opposites, is what writing for the young brings to the discussion on the relationship between fiction and terror.

Blanka Grzegorczyk

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Blanka Grzegorczyk teaches at the University of Cambridge and Manchester Metropolitan University and is a member of the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge. She is the author of Discourses of Postcolonialism in Contemporary British Children’s Literature (Routledge, 2015) and Terror and Counter-Terror in Contemporary British Children’s Literature (Routledge, 2020). She is also currently co-editing, with Farah Mendlesohn, a special issue of International Research in Children’s Literature dedicated to children’s engagement with the political process.

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