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The pleasure of finding things out


'Ben is me!': why kids like Ben
Doris Lessing Writer
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This book, as I discovered much to my surprise, is liked very much by adolescents. As I'll go to a school and I'll find a teacher saying, 'You know, the kids like this book very much'. I used to be surprised, and now I'm not. And I get letters from Germany and France, etc, saying, 'I teach The Fifth Child. It's always a great success, the children don't know what to think'. This has this quality. So I am... I never understood it... Ben is a very clumsy, awkward, unlikeable creature – if you take him as a member of a middle-class family. If you see him as someone who would be perfectly at home in a cave on a hillside 50,000 years ago, he's not peculiar at all; he's just in the wrong place. And when people said that Ben was evil, I've never understood it; he just was... he didn't belong, that's all. And we can't tolerate people who don't belong. We don't like them at all.

Well, so there I am in a North London school not very far from here... and what was interesting was that the pupils were all black and brown and Asian. There were about three white. Now this... if you're not used to this idea, it's quite... you have to get used to the idea – I was quite shocked. I thought, then what must this place be like to live in, where you have different cultures side by side? So there was a class – a literature class – and a teacher who said, 'The kids love The Fifth Child'.  So there I am with the kids and they say they love The Fifth Child. And there is an extremely beautiful girl – and a plum-blossom fairy, I tell you, a most beautiful girl, who says, 'I love The Fifth Child – Ben is me! Ben is myself!' And I said, 'Now come on – Ben is not a beautiful girl, you know'. And she said, 'I am Ben!' And I thought, well, what are adolescents? They're clumsy, they're awkward, they can't get along. They know that they're... that they'll never, never grow up, they don't fit into anything, so they identify with Ben. And that is why, at last, I discovered why kids like Ben.

British writer Doris Lessing (1919-2013) was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her novels include 'The Grass is Singing', 'The Golden Notebook', and five novels collectively known as 'Canopus in Argos'. She was described by the Swedish Academy as 'that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny'. Lessing was the 11th woman and the oldest ever person to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Germany, France, North London, The Fifth Child

Duration: 2 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2007

Date story went live: 21 October 2011