Who burns books?

I haven’t blogged for 4 months, as between my last blog post and this one, both my elderly parents have been in hospital a total of four times as inpatients ( add a few more as outpatients and a few more as GP visits), and my mother has died. So it has been hard. However, it’s a new school year, and at the Nosy Crow Conference we were encouraged, as writers, to blog frequently, so here is my first post for a while. Perhaps the fact that it starts with a story about my mother is significant.

When I was a teenager my mother took a book I was reading and burnt it. She took it from me and threw it deliberately in our coal fire in the sitting room. I didn’t want her to. I asked her not to, but she did it anyway. I remember watching it catch fire, the pages curling and the book disintegrating in the flames.

Now, I am assuming that you, as a reader, felt shocked by that paragraph. I hope so. I am assuming that you love books and think, like me, that burning them is wrong. I am assuming all sorts of things about you. You, looking at my twitter account and my blog, and maybe having read ‘Girl with a White Dog’, or even having met me, assume all sorts of things about me.

I think you might be assuming things about my mother and my relationship with her too.

I missed James Dawson’s recent talk about diversity in children’s books and publishing, but my lovely agent Anne Clark went, and emailed me the following links:




I thought what he said was great.

I was really glad to see that James listed categories of people we need to see more of in our books. I was proud that quite a few of them are in ‘ Girl with a White Dog’ , but I was particularly interested, in terms of future books I would like to write, in his inclusion of different faith groups.

You see, my mum threw my book in the fire because of her faith.

It was ‘The Thornbirds’ by Colleen McCullough

Here is a review of it by Germaine Greer, no less.


You can see that Germaine has serious reservations about it.

So did my mum.

Mum hadn’t actually read it. The book had come into our house by way of a cheerful person, a Roman Catholic Irish woman like Mum. We had been on pilgrimage to Lourdes with her. She had read it and loved it. She had, I think, lent it to me after mass one day.


My mum still burnt it.

I have no recollection as to whether she ever explained this to the other Irish lady. I think she was too embarrassed. My mum was a shy person and, as I said, the lady in question went to the same church.

What she knew, beyond all doubt, that she had to protect me, her only daughter and youngest child, from this book. It had a teenage girl having sex with a Roman Catholic priest in it. The sex was bad enough. But the addition of the celibate priest having an affair made it intolerable for my mum. It was sinful, and if she let me continue to read it she would be sinful, and neither of us would get to Heaven.

I was quite enjoying it.

Normally my mum gave my books away to charity shops and jumble sales, where I bought yet more. So many lovely books came and went in our house, as I read so many.

But this book was different. She felt she couldn’t give it away as it would corrupt others. Even if she threw it in a dustbin it might be picked out by a dustbin man and still be readable and he might be corrupted too.

So she burnt it.

And I understand.

I don’t agree. I would never do that to any of my teenagers. She was wrong. But I understand.

And I didn’t agree with her at the time, but we didn’t have a big row. To be honest, I wasn’t allowed to have big rows anyway, but in this case, even though I really disagreed with her, I could see that Mum was doing it out of love. I was mainly worried about explaining about it to the lady who had given it to me, but she moved back to Ireland soon after and the problem was solved.

My mum didn’t burn it in a triumphalist way. She burnt it because she was very anxious and she couldn’t bear what it had inside.

In the course of researching for ‘Girl with a White Dog’ I printed out some horrible things, and although I kept all my history books, I remember destroying some vile anti-Semitic stuff – it was a selection of recent anti-Semitic tweets a Jewish writer had collected in one place. I pressed ‘print’ to read them, thinking I would file them in my ‘Girl with a White Dog’ file. The printer is another room and I was shocked at how many pages had printed. Believe me, anti-Semitism is alive and kicking online today. Reams of vile hate spewed out. I read them and felt sick and shocked. I was going to keep them in my files as evidence when I went to speak to schools, but they were so horrible I felt they shouldn’t really be repeated or shown to children. I hated the fact that I had wasted paper on them. I was going to write lists on the back of them, but I felt contaminated by the presence of those words in my home.

So I shredded them. And if I had had a fire I would have burnt them too. And I was relieved to physically destroy them and that nobody else could read them. They made me feel physically sick.

The Anti-Semitic tweets for me are truly evil. ‘The Thornbirds’ is not a particularly great book (I’ve read it since!), and I understand Germaine Greer’s reservations, but that’s all. I was an adult who had read the tweets. I was a teenage reader who was prevented from reading a book. It’s very different. Obviously.

But that wasn’t what it was like for Mum. For Mum, I wasn’t just reading a ‘naughty book’. I was risking separation from God. That’s pretty huge. For Mum, I was staring Hell in the face. And she didn’t want me, or her to go there. She felt our family, our home was contaminated by the book’s physical presence.

So, I understand.

And I think that if writers and publishers are to follow James Dawson’s advice we must be prepared to make ourselves feel uncomfortable, to try to understand, and help children understand, things we don’t agree with. Things we utterly oppose even. Without condoning them. And we all need to understand people who are different from us in order to dialogue and live in a democratic society. That’s what I tried to do in ‘Girl with a White Dog’. It was very difficult, and I needed my agent and my editors and lots of versions, to help me depict but not condone racism, but I knew then, and I know now, that it is vital.

Some books are destroyed even before they are written.

Some books are self-censored, or seen not to be publishable, when they really should be out there.

If we write diverse books including different cultural views – if we think that is important – we have to recognise that it is sometimes going to be really difficult. We can’t have ‘diversity-lite’. It isn’t just the nice, easily empathised with bits of different cultures which need to be depicted if we hope that our writing will somehow produce a more empathetic society. I still think there are taboos even in discussing & depicting true cultural diversity. Even amongst the lovely people who don’t burn books. Perhaps especially amongst the lovely people who don’t burn books.

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