Today, on the spur of the moment (procrastinating really), I googled an author whose work I admire. His name is KP Bath, and he wrote a middle-grade book that I think is terrific, The Secret of Castle Cant. By terrific, I mean that I have it on my desk, which is where I put books that are so good that I study them periodically to see how they're constructed. Castle Cant has a kind of inventive humor that is hard to maintain without feeling forced and it's full of great characters and descriptions and situations. I loved it, and I wanted to see what else KP Bath had written (aside from the sequel, which I haven't read).
But instead of learning about KP Bath's other books, my google search led me to this deeply disturbing news story. In sum, KP Bath has been charged with one count of distributing, receiving and transferring child pornography, and two counts of possessing it. While he has not been convicted of these charges, it certainly doesn't look good.
There's no doubt in my mind that Bath's career as a children's book writer is over, whatever happens. But what struck me as I read the story was the quandary I suddenly faced as a reader. I want to read that sequel! Should I? Can I? What is my relationship to a book whose author has done (or is accused of doing) something despicable?
Other people clearly don't see this as a dilemma. On Amazon, some readers have reached their own conclusions. "The author of this book was arrested a few days ago for possession of child pornography. Might want to keep that in mind as you enjoy this book," writes one reader. (Or is that person a reader? Has he read Bath's books? Would he post a different comment if he had?) "This author is being accused of child porn. Please take all author's books out of the circulation," posted another. On the news sites, of course, the comments are far more dire -- most of the people who posted don't just want Bath's books out of circulation, they want him dead.
In general, I don't like our society's obsession with writers as personalities. Writers, if they're doing their job, should be dull. We write all day. All the interesting stuff is happening inside our heads, not outside. And there are plenty of writers whose work I love who have turned out to be terrible people. Ever read a biography of Tolstoy? I don't judge art by how much I do or don't like the artist as a person, I judge it by the work.
Yet something seems different about this case, and I've turned it over and over in my mind trying to articulate it to myself. And the answer I came to is that the basic premise of children's literature is that the author is an advocate for children and for childhood. Children's books exist because children's book authors believe that children are not the same as adults, and that they deserve a literature of their own. The best children's literature embodies a kind of promise to children: that we will neither condescend nor exploit, that we storytellers will be true friends to our readers, that we will tell them the truth as we understand it -- not the literal facts, but the underlying, pure truth of honest storytelling.
By exploiting children off the page, Bath broke the unwritten vow he made on it. I'm sad about that -- I loved his book. But I won't end up reading the sequel after all.