Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Philosophical Places

There has been a burgeoning of interest in philosophy for children in recent years, all part of the process of seeking to develop children’s thinking skills. Many of its advocates have argued for a fourth ‘R’ in the school curriculum in which Reasoning is taught alongside Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

Stories are an important device for engaging children, not only do they provide enjoyment they also help children to begin enquiring and exploring philosophical ideas.

As a secondary school teacher I run a philosophy club and my group of philosophers all of whom started in Year 7, aged 11, seem to have grown up very quickly. Too young for Gaarder’s brilliant Sophie’s World and too old perhaps for the philosophical stories for children, Bernard Beckett’s Genesis and August are possibly the answer to my question of what can they read?

Genesis takes the reader to Plato’s Republic -- a post-cataclysmic world isolated away from the rest of humanity -- and puts them into a Socratic dialogue between a board of examiners and a young student - Anaximander. In the claustrophobic context of the examination, Anaximander questions the official history of the Republic and the role of her long-dead hero, the philosopher-soldier Adam Forde.

August puts the reader into a different philosophical rule, that of St Augustine’s City of God in another post-cataclysmic world. This time the dialogue is between Tristan, a philosopher struggling with questions of freewill, and Grace, a street prostitute, whose life is more of a question of survival. Trapped upside down in a car wreck, alone, hours away from daybreak and the chance of a rescue, August’s dialogue tells the alternating stories of their lives.

It is tempting to brand Genesis and August as ‘Philosophy for Teenagers’, but there is a subtle difference in resisting this and identifying these books as Young Adult Philosophy. The books are written to be accessible to teenagers, with the length of story and the choice of language. The dialogical format of the books and the pace of the story however requires a more patient reader and at times, important passages need to be re-read. In fact I want to re-read Genesis and August and refresh my knowledge of Plato’s Republic and St Augustine’s City of God to fully appreciate the subtly of the books. The philosophy is the foundations upon which the story is written, shaping the story rather than it being a story with some philosophical insights. Moreover the books, particularly August, include more adult content.

Unfortunately I do not have my answer for my teenage philosophy group. Some members I can identify as having the maturity to read and fully engage with Genesis and August. Others may not. Perhaps I am missing the point. Whether you are a child, teenager, young adult or adult, the joy of philosophy is always to read a story and ponder for any amount of time, whatever philosophical musing it stirs, great or small.

Genesis and August by Bernard Beckett are both published by Quercus.

Theodore Boone, Strattenburg’s youngest lawyer ...

13 year-old Theodore Boone comes from a family of lawyers. When he is not in school, and often when he should be in school, Theodore can be found in the town’s court rooms. His friends and even teachers ask him for legal advice.

The first book in the Theodore Boone series has deservedly attracted much praise. Brilliantly written both books have compelling plots and great characterisation. Taking crime fiction in a new direction, possibly even introducing a new literary genre - the legal thriller for teenagers. It is however the moral ambiguity in John Grisham’s writing which, for me, makes the stories refreshingly different from my own childhood reading material of great young sleuths like Nancy Drew and The Secret Seven.

In Theodore Boone’s self-titled debut novel for example, the perfect murder seems to have been committed in Strattenburg and a guilty man could go free. Theodore has to wrestle with his conscience, torn between keeping his promise to an illegal immigrant and ensuring justice for a murdered wife. Whereas in The Abduction, the latest novel, Theodore’s best friend April is kidnapped supposedly by a notorious criminal just escaped from prison. Theodore must find a compromise. Does he telling the police and his parents the truth in order to save April?

The moral ambiguity in the story is exemplified by Theodore’s uncle Ike. Ike had been a practising lawyer in the Boone family firm before committing a crime for which he served a prison sentence over several years. No-one will explain, to Theodore, why. Disbarred Ike makes a living as a tax accountant but likes to use his friends to keep himself in contact with the law, friends he describes as “closer to the street”. Characterised as an aging hippie, living alone and needing a caffeine fix every morning Ike is an unlikely, but fallen hero. He also seems to represent the slippery slope that Theodore himself could easily fall down: someone prepared to justify the means to satisfy the end.

Theodore Boone is a great new series, presenting young adults with a more complex and subtle understanding of the law. It is a game with rules, not necessarily to follow, but to be played.

Theodore Boone is out now, published by Hodder. Grab yourself a copy and be prepared for a thrilling read.