May 22, 2015

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, This One Summer

From a recent column.

 

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There’s a particular kind of light I associate with memories of childhood—a sort of mellow golden glow that is probably the result of the time of day one would spend out (after school and a certain amount of lounging about; before it got dark) and the latitudes at which that childhood was spent. It’s both a personal association and a general one—it’s at the root of that one Instagram filter that everything seems to use, so that it’s suspiciously easy to make anything seem immediately pregnant with yearning.this one summer 2

I mention this because in This One Summer Jillian Tamaki seems to go out of her way not to use that shortcut. The result of a collaboration between Tamaki (art) and her cousin Mariko Tamaki (words), this graphic novel is the story of two girls on the cusp of teenagehood and one summer holiday. It’s illustrated entirely in indigo and white (the kindle edition, in which I originally read it, ruins the effect by making it merely black and white); if it’s softer than pure black and white, the cool colour scheme denies any unearned nostalgia and creates the effect of something much more detached. This does not at all mean the same thing as emotionally distant, as we learn, but it does easily fit the content of the book. Because none of the events that happen in This One Summer happen to Rose, our preteen protagonist, or her “summer cottage friend” Windy and yet Rose in particular is transformed by them.

Rose has spent every summer since she was five with her family at the cottage on Awago Beach, spending most of her time with Windy, who lives nearby. Things are different this year—Rose’s mother has, in recent months, become closed-off and hard to live with; her parents are fighting, partly as a result of this; all their daughter really knows is that her mother wants or wanted to have another child. Rose has become interested in boys and has a crush on the older teenager who works in the local shop and who appears to have impregnated his girlfriend.

this one summer 1The Tamakis’ earlier, brilliant, graphic novel Skim also took for its subject sensitive young characters who come face to face with questions of sexuality, gender and mental health. This One Summer feels different in tone to me precisely because its characters are at one further remove—to some extent Skim’s title character is also an outsider and observer, but Rose and Windy’s trying to piece together the two interwoven stories are in territory they have no way to navigate. Sex is new—Rose is terrified and intrigued, Windy is still mostly grossed out. It’s too easy for Rose, with a crush on an older boy, to assume that the older girls he’s interested in are “sluts”, just as it’s too easy for her to blame her mother for the situation at home. To this adult reader, at least, those moments are both familiar and uncomfortable—and such a reader is to some extent assumed. Though this is a book about young adults, and accessible to young adults, something about the framing and the narration (perhaps it’s just that summer holidays are always in the past, perhaps it’s the frailty of these adults) allow you to assume a much older Rose telling the story.

The two stories (those of Rose’s mother and the pregnant teenaged girl Jenny) come together finally in what might be a little too pat a way. But Rose seems to need that structure—all along this has been a quest for answers. It doesn’t matter that the reader probably worked out at least part of what was bothering the adult characters. This One Summer captures better than most things just how inexplicable the journey into adulthood is.

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May 15, 2015

Insufficiently radical crayons

Although that title makes it seem as if I’m blaming the crayons for the grossly unequal power structures they inhabit, which is clearly unfair. Anyway, here is a column about Daywalt and Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit, which is not about crayons quitting, but about their bodies and labour (identical, in this scenario) being exploited until they die.

 

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Crayons give you power. This is something of which Harold, the protagonist of Crockett Johnson’s 1955 book Harold and the Purple Crayon, is well aware. Harold is able to create around himself the world he wants to see, simply by drawing it. His purple crayon brings whatever it draws to life, be it the moon, a tree, or his own house. Art is powerful and Harold can make art and so there is no limit to what he can do.

We’re not told whether the crayon feels quite the same way.

pink dinosaurThe protagonist of Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit does know how his crayons feel about his use of them, in some detail. Duncan finds a stack of letters from the various colours in his box of crayons, each of them telling him of their grievances. The Red Crayon is convinced that it works harder than any of the others, and that it gets a particularly raw deal on holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. The Purple Crayon has no objections to a life spent drawing dragons and grapes, but does request that Duncan colour inside the lines rather than wasting its labour outside them. Grey would like to make less elephants, Pink would like less gender stereotyping (the only reason it has been used at all is that Duncan’s sister borrowed it once), Peach has been stripped by Duncan of its paper wrapping and feels that its modesty has been outraged. Black would prefer a starring role sometimes rather than being always relegated to the outlines; white isn’t sure why it is being used at all, and Beige’s major complaint appears to be that it is boring, which is hardly Duncan’s fault. Only Green, Yellow and Orange seem to be happy, and the latter two are in the middle of a longstanding argument. All of these letters are written in the colours of their own crayons, and accompanied by the illustrations invoked in them; large grey mammals, Santa riding a fire engine, pink monsters and beige wheat.

But then there’s the letter from Blue, and it is terrifying. Blue is Duncan’s favourite colour, and has been for some years now. He uses it to draw water and clouds and sky. Red may complain that it is overworked, Grey may complain about having to fill in vast areas of elephant-skin, but it’s obvious to the reader that they have a less hard time of it than Blue. Blue is too exhausted even to stand up; it is a mere stub of a thing. Blue doesn’t have much time left.

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Because The Day the Crayons Quit is a misleading title. The crayons can’t quit in this world, even if (after Orange and Yellow put aside their differences) they unionised. This isn’t a story of taking back power, it’s one in which the powerless beg their master to reduce their suffering (or, in Green’s case, suck up to him. Green’s a collaborator). Should Duncan choose to ignore the letters, what can the crayons do? The more he uses them, the closer their lives come to ending. They recognise where the power in this relationship lies. Even Blue, who ends its letter begging for a break opens it by pandering to Duncan’s feelings, and telling him how much it has enjoyed their collaborations. The fact that the letters are written in crayon takes on a new significance—surely for a crayon this is akin to writing in blood?purpdrag

“Poor” Duncan, we’re told, “wanted his crayons to be happy”, and so he does accede to their requests; the picture at the end of the book features orange whales, pink dinosaurs and a green sea. But what of Blue’s insistence that he needs a break? Well, he’s been spared the sea and sky, but in this picture the land is blue, a bus is blue, a hippo is blue. Duncan may be merciful … but he may not. We’re left to wonder how much of Blue is left, whether he even survived this final picture.

Duncan’s teacher gives him a gold star for creativity.

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May 13, 2015

Jared Shurin (ed), Irregularity

A review of this in a recent issue of Vector.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been reviewing a couple of children’s literature shortlists recently and I’m so bored of having to stick “this is a very white list of authors, isn’t it?” into my reviews of things [and it's such a dull thing to keep having to write (always stuck somewhere unobtrusive, because it's such a ubiquitous annoyance that it's never the most interesting thing about the book)]. I’m not sure what Irregularity‘s excuse is; I had a related complaint with another Jurassic London anthology last year.

Some good stories in here– Rose-Innes and Roberts in particular. As a whole I was insufficiently whelmed.

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Irregularity (edited by Jared Shurin) was published to coincide with the Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. This connection sets the collection in a very specific context—the 17th-19th centuries in the history of science, the age of enlightenment. Most of the stories sit comfortably within this framework; the earliest, Richard de Nooy’s “The Heart of Aris Kindt”, is set in 1632; the latest, Simon Guerrier’s “An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought”, in 1854.

The focus of the anthology (helped along by, to put it mildly, not the most diverse list of contributors) makes it inevitable that the majority of these stories are of Northern Europeans doing science in Northern Europe. But the age of enlightenment is also the age of empire (what did we think they needed all those ships for?), and occasionally this fact comes into play in these stories as well. The fatal game in Rose Biggin’s story is played out in Port Royal, and the role of empire is explicit in Roger Luckhurst’s “Circulation”, which is proper Victorian horror. It’s also the disturbing undercurrent to Henrietta Rose-Innes’s “Animalia Paradoxa”, one of the strongest stories in the anthology. Rose-Innes’ unnamed protagonist is in search of a spectacular new animal for the collection of a rich patron in France, but he’s prone to thinking of the African men he’s hired to help him as collectibles as well.

As is often the case with a themed collection, a number of the stories here are variations on the same central idea—that ordering and knowing and mapping and exerting power upon and destroying are all inextricably bound up in one complex knot. (“’He’s mapped us,’” says a character in Rose Biggin’s “A Game Proposition”, “in a tone that meant murdered us.”) The strongest of these is E.J. Swift’s “The Spiders of Stockholm” in which a young girl befriends the spiders that live under her bed, only to unwittingly kill them one by one as a visiting scientist tells her their names. This is basic fairy tale logic—to know a thing’s true name is to have power over it—but it’s also at the heart of the enlightenment project. The child protagonist makes these two systems of understanding the world fit together surprisingly well. “Knowledge is power” is hardly an original idea, but the lonely, detached perspective of Swift’s Eva would make up for greater sins than this, and “The Spiders of Stockholm” really is powerful and lovely. Though it’s unfortunate for both stories that Swift’s should be placed immediately after Biggin’s, which treads similar ground.

In Kim Curran’s “A Woman Out of Time” humans aren’t the ones imposing order upon the world, but the creatures upon whom order is imposed. Unknown forces (in my head a version of Terry Pratchett’s Auditors) watch Emilie du Chatelet in alarm as she threatens to discover too much too soon. Humans are not entirely powerless, though, and Curran’s nameless narrators have plenty of help from the patriarchy.

It sometimes feels as if all of Irregularity is at war with Linnaeus—he is indirectly responsible for the death of Eva’s spiders, is one of the driving forces that leads Henrietta Rose-Innes’s protagonist to hunt for the chimera in Africa, shows up (as a sympathetic figure) in Tiffani Angus’ “Fairchild’s Folly” grappling with the question of whether or how one might classify love. It always comes back to the question of classification—to what extent it’s harmful, to what extent it’s natural and human, to what extent the universe is classifiable. None of these stories makes reference to William Blake’s Ancient of Days; I’m not sure if this is a pity or a relief.

This drive to impose order, whether innately human or not, extends in some ways to Irregularity itself. The Afterword, by Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring, suggests a relatively ordered understanding of the history of scientific progress; dependent on success and failure (the collection is dedicated to “failure”), strewn with “false leads” and “dead ends” but largely teleological. But then there’s the best story in the collection, Adam Roberts’ “The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle”.  This story is gloriously silly, the whole thing is an extended pun; but it’s also chaotic, its framing of the history of human thought destabilising the collection completely.

Some of the most powerful (and the most powerfully weird) SF stems from this sort of chaos—the thing that doesn’t belong exploding into the world. Nick Harkaway’s framing narrative tries to place the book Irregularity itself in this position, but it feels rather inconsequential. More successful is M. Suddain’s The Darkness”, a version of the great fire of London, as told by Samuel Pepys, but with an inexplicable black hole and multiple instances of cruelty to bears.  It’s very cleverly done, with Pepys’ account (convincing, at least to me, in its stylistic details) of life going on as normally as possible juxtaposed with the giant vortex slowly consuming the city. Guerrier’s “An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought” takes for its starting point another great moment of literary rupture, that megalosaurus “forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill” at the beginning of Dickens’ Bleak House. Guerrier’s alternate history brings together the history of this book, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs and Ada Lovelace but it doesn’t have anything like the same effect; the story is too concerned with signposting its sources.

This is a problem general to a number of the pieces that make up this collection. There are honourable exceptions—Swift, Suddain, Rose-Innes, whose quiet, clever story bursts into weirdness at the end, James Smythe’s brilliant, over the top prose. But too often these stories are a little too well-researched, a little too carefully signposted, a little too written to spec. And the whole is underwhelming as a result.

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May 6, 2015

April Reading

April involved quite a bit of thesis work and I fear most of my reading is very obviously an escape from that. I also read the whole of one children’s book shortlist and started on another.

 

E.M. Channon, Expelled from St. Madern’s: This is the weirdest school story. There’s a central mystery, a dark, seemingly omnipotent bully, and the whole thing turns into a story of obsessive love that is treated quite matter of factly by the people in the book’s universe. I’m not sure what to make of it, and yet I like it very much. (It shows up in this column, but gets less space than it deserves.)

Eloisa James, Three Weeks With Lady X, Four Nights with The Duke: Enjoyable, not particularly memorable. The second does rather set up the necessity of a sequel (which I will read) because it leaves an attractive supporting character unattached and that’s how these things work.

Sarah Crossan, Apple and Rain: Read as part of my Carnegie shadowing project. It made for a pleasant few hours’ reading, but is rather lightweight and felt so familiar (I’ll be blogging about this eventually) that I’m really not convinced it’s award-worthy.

Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion: I’m trying to read recent collections of poetry at least semi-regularly, though I’m terrible at expressing how I think about them. Miller’s book didn’t exactly disappoint me (and I think disappointment would be an unfair reaction to have towards it in any case), but it looked like something I would love and I bounced off it a little instead. I might need to return to this in another season.

Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border: Yes, Good. I’m still processing my own thoughts on what this book makes of landscape and family and motherhood and presumably at some point I’ll have something more coherent–I’ve got some notes for a short piece linking what Adam Roberts has called the strange pastoral, and this book, and the most recent Ishiguro, and climate change and national identity, and perhaps that will be written soon. For now, Good.

Geeta Dharamarajan and Wen Hsu, How to Weigh an Elephant: Still very cute, and part of this column on elephants and feminist children’s books.

Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers, The Day the Crayons Quit: Terribly misleading. Column forthcoming.

Anne Booth, Girl With a White Dog: Read as part of a Little Rebels prize shadowing project. More here.

Bernard Ashley, Nadine Dreams of Home: Also part of the Little Rebels shadowing.

Mel Elliott, Pearl Power: See above.

Chris Haughton, Shh, We Have a Plan: See above.

Craig Pomranz and Margaret Chamberlain, Made by Raffi: See above.

Jessica Shepherd, Grandma: See above.

Joan Lingard, Trouble on Cable Street: See above.

Gill Lewis, Scarlet Ibis: See above.

Anne Gracie, The Perfect Rake/Waltz/Stranger/Kiss series: I blame Keguro for my need for historical romance this month. Inoffensive regencies for the most part–The Perfect Waltz does the annoying thing where there’s an attempt to comment on things like the prevalence of child labour at the time, and therefore the book has to rely on our willingness to think its hero, also an employer of children, is palatable because he’s less exploitative than others. The Perfect Kiss has its protagonists have sex for the first time in a forest pond, which sounds very unhygienic.

Carla Kelly, Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career: Contains Shakespeare geeks, a protagonist who crossdresses so she can go to the library and do research (see, these are the adventure stories I want), women who are genuinely furious about sexism and how it renders them and their choices irrelevant–presumably these are why the friend who recommended it to me did so in the first place. But it undoes some of that work later on, and I’m not sure why this isn’t a straight up romantic comedy (think Heyer or one of the better Julia Quinn books) because surely that form would suit it better.

May 4, 2015

The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award Shortlist (Part II)

And on to the second part of the list (the first is here)!

 

Joan Lingard, Trouble on Cable Street

This is set in London during the Spanish Civil War, against a backdrop of rising fascism in Europe and England. Isabella is fourteen, is half Spanish, half English, and has twin seventeen-year-old brothers. William is a supporter of the Spanish republicans (as are Isabella and their parents), but Arthur is all England for the English and Hitler Isn’t So bad. William goes to Spain to fight in the war, Arthur joins a party of Blackshirts led by a wealthy friend, Rupert, who has a crush on Isabella.

The Blakes are good people and so have a tendency to take wounded people into their home despite Arthur’s opinions. Twice in the novel injured young men are brought home and cared for, and the Blakes are able to save one, but fail to save the other. Isabella has romances with Sean Flynn, who is the Irish boy next door and with Angus Anderson—Angus is rich and Isabella wants to better herself so that’s probably where that’s going.

Where Trouble on Cable Street works is in the way it really brings home the extent to which England and Europe are bound up in one another, and gives us some sense of a multicultural London which has existed for a long time. Isabella’s employers are Jewish, half of her family Spanish, and at one point she informs a colleague that her grandmother was a gypsy—which shocks said colleague but doesn’t have any bigger ramifications (and I feel like it should, in this book’s context?). And I guess hurrah for not necessarily ending up with your childhood boyfriend, and also for assuming that people on the same family can be on different sides.

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Unfortunately, this book feels to me like another example of the sort of historical fiction that pushes the “people in the past were just like us!” narrative*; Isabella and her family provide us with an easy way into this world because they share exactly the same set of values that the reader of this book is assumed to have, and so there’s never any sense of anything these protagonists experience as morally complex. For all its insistence on not discriminating or relying on stereotype, here we are with the hardworking ideal family of immigrants who are attractive and helpful and industrious and super-liberal and great, totally unlike the drunk Irish guy next door who beats his wife, whose kids are quick tempered and whose youngest son steals. Plus it starts over-exposition-y, ends over-abruptly, and I’m not sure what is going on with the cover (see above, and please explain this to me). Entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it’s award-worthy.

 

Bernard Ashley, Nadine Dreams of Home

Nadine is a child from Goma, in the DRC. She is sent by her father, along with the rest of her family, to the UK during what I suspect (the book is short on details, understandably) was the M23 rebellion. Her father did not escape with them and the family have no news of him. This, her inability to understand the local language, and her homesickness combine to make her extremely unhappy. Then a teacher shows her some pictures of Goma on the internet (she can’t operate the school computers herself, presumably in large part because of the language barrier) and from then on she spends each visit to the school library looking at a particular picture of a familiar landscape and dreaming of happier times.

A thing this book does well is to capture the difficulty of genuinely not understanding most of what is going on around you because of a difference in language and culture—Nadine is constantly forced to try to interpret, get things wrong, be unable to apologise, and both the experience of being disconnected and unable to communicate and the frustration that comes with it are invoked effectively. I think it’s good at quite a lot of feelings—the lack of safety that comes with the absence of her father Fabrice—the only member of the family who can speak English; the brutal matter of factness that is sometimes the only response to grief. (“Dad was. We three are what there is now.”) And this scene:

“Nadine’s mother spent Saturday showing her which bus took them to the street market, and how to go to the post office to get money. It was as if she was poking Nadine in the ribs with what she was trying to get her to understand.”

And on the way home Nadine’s mother said “Forget Dad” in the same matter-of-fact voice she had used to buy the bus tickets.

Which works because it’s so clear that the absence of Nadine’s father isn’t just (“just”) the loss of someone she and her mother love, but in a strange country and a strange language, it’s the loss of basic safety and the inability to take for granted one’s ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

There are any number of books for children in which libraries and research play a major role in working through and understanding serious issues—Nadine spends a lot of time in the library but, refreshingly, doesn’t spend it reading. Instead the book focuses on a completely different thing—places and pictures as talismans, dreaming as escape.

I’m not convinced by the ending, but hey.

 

Mel Elliott, Pearl Power

Pearl and her mother have to move to a new house and new town because her mother has been promoted at work and is now the boss. This means that Pearl has to go to a new school, where she feels nervous but reminds herself that she is a mighty girl and can do anything. When a classmate bullies her and teases her for doing things “like a girl” she smiles and says “thank you”.

I really like the artwork here—greys and oranges, primarily, and very simply done. There’s a spread depicting Pearl and her mother leaving town which is just a dark grey map that their red van is driving through, but all the places on the map are marked out in terms of associations and friends and family’s names, and it creates a really lovely effect of community. Also good is the Tom-and-Jerry-ish thing of having the adults and taller children only be visible from the waist down, showing the world at Pearl’s level.

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As a feminist children’s book though? Hm. I like the sense of mother and daughter as single family unit, both vulnerable (we’re told that Pearl’s mother is also nervous about her first day) and friendly with each other. The book opens with a poem about Pearl’s name that mentions “Mr and Mrs Power”, her parents, but we don’t see a father anywhere, just these two women who clearly make up a household.

And there’s a lot to be said for the book’s choice not to abandon things like nurturing and kindness—Pearl may run and do maths “like a girl” and do them well, but she cuddles weeping classmates “like a girl” as well. On the other—the book does make her rather superhuman; she’ll kick a ball to the moon, or run heroically through pain, or meet any sort of vulnerability by shrugging it off and being sure of herself. Which would be great if it came with some sort of interiority, but it doesn’t. Pearl knows what to respond, we’re told several times over. I wish she didn’t, the whole thing just feels superficial.

 

Gill Lewis, Scarlet Ibis

Scarlet, her mother, and her half-brother Red all live together. The little brother has (I think—Lewis doesn’t give us specifics and I don’t feel in a position to diagnose) some form of autism spectrum condition, the mother is suffering from depression (see previous caveats), and Scarlet, at twelve, is trying to balance school with keeping the family fed, clothed, and functional-looking enough that social services won’t swoop in and separate them. Obviously this is impossible, and soon she’s in a foster family with no idea where her brother is and only occasional visits to her mother in hospital.

There’s a subplot involving Red’s fascination with birds, a baby pigeon the two of them were watching over and a strange old lady near Scarlet’s new school who also loves birds. But for once I’m more interested in the humans; Scarlet’s loving but frustrated relationship with her mother and her protectiveness of her brother, the foster family who take her in.

There’s no sense of things being easy here. The system that takes the family into its care is far from perfect and Scarlet is often rightfully angry at it— at the end of the book she thanks her social worker friend Jo for “listening” and she’s right to, but she’d be justified in adding a “finally”. She wonders whether being mixed-race while Red is white might be a factor in separating them and though this is refuted in this case we’re left with the sense that it could be. And human emotions are complex and contradictory.

I haven’t been writing about the books on this shortlist in any particular order, but I’m glad this one is last so that I can declare my allegiance to it. I don’t think it’s the best book on the shortlist (for me, that is Haughton’s) but it feels like the one that most achieves the goals that the prize sets for itself.

Scarlet Ibis doesn’t parade its inclusion of multiracial families or issues of mental health; though they’re essential to this plot, the book only makes them a part of its world. More importantly, it reimagines a society based on community. There’s a magical moment towards the end of the book in which Scarlet’s new school friends think that she has done something terrible, but then they verify her story (well done, responsible kids!), ascertain that she’s doing something they find morally okay, and then stand by her in solidarity and give her what help they can. There are no mean girls here. Whether they are random employees of the local zoo, interfering but kindly neighbours, teenage boys who have just had a foster sister thrust upon them or primary school students, every person in this world is fundamentally decent; it is possible to ask for help and receive it. As a fantasy fan and a children’s literature fan I end up being presented a lot of literature that insists on confronting the grimdarkness of the world by reproducing it endlessly, and to me Scarlet Ibis felt radical in its goodness. This isn’t escapism, it’s imagining a world as it could be.

 

[I thought about writing something here on the subject of the sheer whiteness of children’s literature in the UK, but a) Malorie Blackman’s already said it b) I’ll probably have to say it again once I’ve read the Carnegie shortlist. Consider this a placeholder, in any case.]

 

*The evil twin of the “everyone in the past was bigoted but we know better now!” narrative, except that they’re both pretty evil (or at least misleading and sometimes dangerous). It’s a bit like that Sweet Valley High subseries where an evil doppelganger tries to kill a Wakefield twin and take her place and then the evil doppelganger turns out to have an evil twin of her own. But with history, I guess.

May 3, 2015

Bananas?

(Bananas!)

Here is a column.

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Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry begins with her protagonists, the Dog Woman and her adopted son Jordan, attending the unveiling of a new exotic fruit, bought to England by the explorer Thomas Johnson. It is like nothing they have ever seen before. The Dog Woman looks at it and sees genitalia, and is horrified at the idea of any decent Christian putting such a thing in her mouth. Jordan looks at it and sees sea and sun and sky. It is 1633 and they are looking at, as far as they know at the time, the first banana in England.

Obviously everyone knows that particular fruits and vegetables originated in particular places, and that until there was travel/colonialism/trade to and from those places those foods were not available to the rest of the world. And so apples from Himachal Pradesh are a 20th Century thing, and tomatoes and potatoes weren’t a part of our basic cooking until they got here from South America. I know this. And yet.

There’s a moment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit where the wizard Gandalf asks Bilbo Baggins to serve the chicken and tomatoes to his guests. “Tomatoes” were changed to “pickles” in later editions of the book; Tolkien’s Middle-earth is generally believed to be set in a version of Europe’s distant past and tomatoes certainly wouldn’t be available to the hobbits were this the case. Tolkien seems to have relaxed the rules of his world a little elsewhere, though; in Lord of the Rings Sam Gamgee wishes he had some potatoes to go with a stew, and assuming the “pipeweed” everyone’s smoking is tobacco, some sort of trans-Atlantic travel has clearly been taking place. (If it’s not tobacco, these books are fascinating for all manner of new reasons). Tolkien’s not the only one, of course; the slightly-less-rigorous George R.R. Martin has managed to avoid potatoes in Westeros, and has even managed to make a diet based primarily on turnips sound rather delicious.

But unless you’re reading these books a lot more carefully than I usually do, it’s easy to miss the fact that these frequently-described and very tempting meals are missing ingredients that we would generally take for granted. And while the incident in Winterson’s book foregrounds the strangeness of the banana, it doesn’t give us a sense (nor is it trying to) of what it’s like to live in a world where food is radically different to our own.

I’ve recently discovered E.M. Channon, a writer of books for children and adults in the early twentieth century. Channon’s Expelled From St. Madern’s, published in 1928, is not quite like any school story I’ve ever read—there’s a genuinely dark undertone to it that sits at odds with the genre and yet is very effective. And yet the thing that struck me most was a character who can be bribed with the promise of a banana, and in whose presence the fruits have to be “cunningly hidden”. In his Island Stories Raphael Samuel (who probably did not read Channon) suggests that 1928, the year in which the London Fruit exchange opened, “marked the coming-of-age of the banana”. Samuel is referring to the wide range of produce from across the empire that was flooding into Britain and changing its material (and thus culinary, and literary) life forever.

But my favourite literary banana story is a true one, if its author is to be believed, and set at the end of the Second World War. Auberon Waugh tells the story of how, at the end of the war, a banana was to be distributed to every British child. Evelyn Waugh and his wife had three children, including Auberon, and the household received three bananas. In front of the three children Waugh sat down and ate all three bananas, topped with sugar and cream.

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April 27, 2015

The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award Shortlist (Part I)

I’m blogging the Carnegie shortlist again this year (eventually), but thought it would be fun to do the Little Rebels award as well. Eight books, of which these are the first four. I’ve read most of the shortlist–I’ll be writing about the next four in the next week or so.

 

Anne Booth, Girl with a White Dog

A children-learning-about-WWII-and-the-importance-of-tolerance story. That’s a bit reductive, though it is essentially accurate.

Jessie is in year 9, and is learning about World War II as part of a class project. Her father works abroad, something which, hearing the adults around her talk, Jessie blames on immigrants coming to the UK and taking all the jobs. Her grandmother adopts a white German Shepherd, but falls ill soon after (and keeps saying things that make no sense), so that Jessie has to look after the puppy. Eventually her grandmother’s mysterious past, her history project, the cousin Fran’s group of bullies and her best friend Kate’s activism all link up.

There are things here that really work. I’m wary of the collapsing of historical and current events into an overarching argument that these are all manifestations of the same terrible impulses, but Booth gives us enough specifics to partially offset this. The framing project about fairy tales also works—the “modern fairy tale” that Jessie writes for homework is blatant, but still clever. Her voice is funny and dry. And there’s a dark undercurrent to that voice that is the result of her anti-immigrant prejudice, which lasts for a good portion of the book.

I suppose my major issue with Girl with a White Dog is how issue-book-y it feels, which is perhaps an unfair criticism to make of something that is quite openly an issue book. Lessons are stated to us directly—when Jessie has a revelation about prejudice, or about some parallel between the issues she’s reading about and those she’s facing, we are told what it is immediately. And her group of friends is a little too pat—I want to see more kids of colour, queer kids, disabled kids, kids with different sorts of families represented in children’s lit but the particular structure of this plot, and the way it wants to link up various sorts of prejudice, unfortunately enhances the sense of issues being ticked off a list with the introduction of particular characters who all deserve more.

Having said which, a thing that is very well done is Jessie’s relationship with her best friend, Kate. Kate is fond of Jessie’s grandmother as well, is good at maths and speaking to people, is in a wheelchair and plays sitting volleyball at the national level, is very, very political and activisty—Jessie feels vaguely guilty that she isn’t more politically aware, as I suspect most of us do, but consoles herself with the knowledge that not everyone can be good at everything (as I suspect most of us do) and this is Kate’s thing. But then this exchange takes place:

Eventually I stuttered, ‘But … but you won that fight with the bus company. You were in the local paper and everything. It was brilliant. You were brilliant. I thought you liked campaigning.

‘Not campaigning all the time! I want to be lazy, to be nice like you, instead of good old campaigning Kate. And, right now, I just want to be alone, Jess. You’re really not helping.’ And Kate wheeled herself off as fast as she could down the corridor away from me.

I’m quoting this here in part because wanting to be able to be nice is such a simple, painfully accurate description of that feeling. But I think in this book, at this point, it’s a little more important than that. The rest of Girl with a White Dog will be about forgiveness and reconciliation and recognising that we, like other people, are implicated in badness. But this moment between Jessie and Kate isn’t resolved; we’re not allowed to believe that there’s some form of the right words that could make this thing between them go away. I don’t mean to say that they’re not still best friends; if anything, they’re probably more so. But Girl with a White Dog allows Kate her bitterness and perhaps suggests that anger is justified and can sit alongside nobler things like forgiveness.

 

 

Craig Pomranz and Margaret Chamberlain, Made by Raffi 

Made by Raffi is about a boy (Raffi) who likes clothes and bright colours and doesn’t like the things that his other classmates seem to, and who worries about what this might say about his gender identity. Then a teacher teaches him how to knit, and he makes a giant stripey rainbow scarf for his dad, who doesn’t seem to mind that it’s about four metres long. He also makes a magnificent cape for the prince character in the school play, impressing everyone at school, so that both friends and family are shown to embrace his creativity.

raffiGood things: Rainbow scarf! The world illustrated by Chamberlain is a fundamentally nice one; Raffi’s school is populated with students and teachers of various ethnicities and degrees of able-bodiedness, girls who play the same sports as boys and girls who don’t (the boys are a bit less diverse in this regard, for obvious plot-reasons) mum and dad both help out in the kitchen, and the only obvious questioning of Raffi’s behaviour comes from Raffi himself. Even where Pomranz’s text tells us that some children on the bus teased Raffi for his knitting, the accompanying image is one of people who are happy and interested (and the scarf, which is really far too long to be practical). And I like that this isn’t a book about queerness and/or gender identity—though the rainbow scarf would make that reading easy—Raffi might well find that he’s queer, or genderqueer (he does ask if there’s such a thing as a “Tomgirl”) but he might easily be a straight, cis kid who likes to make things. All sorts of options are available here. And I really like the spread in which we’re shown how he makes the cape, as if this was an activity book.

Bad things: that this book can be easily summed up in terms of good and bad things that it does, and that so many of the “good” ones (not enforcing restrictive assumptions on people’s bodies, hurrah!) are about avoiding problems that other books have fallen into. It all feels a bit bland, and I can’t imagine really, really wanting to give the book to a child.

 

 

Jessica Shepherd, Grandma

Oscar and his grandmother are really close, do a number of activities together and love each other dearly. But Grandma is increasingly suffering from dementia and eventually has to go into a care home, and Oscar must adjust to this change.

Grandma is a picture book, told ostensibly in Oscar’s voice and in a constant present tense that makes it feel like a log book or a diary with gaps between the entries to represent the time between Grandma’s first signs of the condition, her diagnosis, the decision to take her to a care home, the point at which she moves in.

It’s all very simply told, and Oscar’s an unnervingly sweet child. He’s sad when Grandma doesn’t remember him or snaps at him, but we’re not shown any anger, or bitterness at how unfair the situation is for her as well as for him, or really any negative emotion—even his sadness is visible only to be followed with immediate reassurance that she doesn’t really mean it. It’s a deliberate choice for an author to make and I can see why one would. But I do wonder if, alongside its demystifying of dementia, it falls into a sort of telling children what the proper way to react is, rather than giving their own feelings a place to go. (I’m thirty and I have unpraiseworthy feelings over dementia and how it has affected elderly people I love; Oscar’s, what, five?) But that’s the thing, it is about demystifying old age and illness, not about demystifying children’s feelings towards these. On the back cover we’re told that Shepherd’s book “has grown out of her experience in a variety of caring roles” and the story ends with a Q&A about dementia, which rather makes my point for me.

But then there’s the genuinely moving bit where Oscar gets Grandma to tell him stories about herself. “I know them all by heart, so that I can remind her if she forgets one day” (there’s a whole world in that sentence). And the art is rather nice and I love that Grandma, Oscar, and Oscar’s younger sibling all have the same sort of hair.

My real objection to the book has to do with Grandma’s hair though. We’re told that Grandma likes to dress up as she used to do, and that she “loves it when Dad brushes her long, curly hair”. I may have howled a “noooooo” and I think that I was justified in doing so. I’m going to speculate that the author has straight hair.

 

 

Chris Haughton, Shh! We Have a Plan 

As has previously been revealed on this website, I love Haughton’s work. The art is just astonishingly cute, the text is often deadpan funny. It is probably unsurprising that I loved this one as well.

Four people (the promotional material says “friends”, but they all look similar and are clearly all looking after the smallest, so who knows?) are walking through the forest and see a bird.

The smallest doesn’t seem to be in on the plan. The others get into position to capture it, and then they “tip-toe slowly tip-toe slowly” (this book is so much fun to read aloud—later they try “climbing slowly climbing slowly” and “paddling slowly paddling slowly”) till they’re near enough to pounce. Three failures later they are somewhat battered and bruised and drenched and nowhere near success. Meanwhile the smallest has offered the bird some bread and gathered a huge flock around him. The others seem ready to take advantage of their companion’s friendliness and catch a few birds for themselves, but the flock turns on them and they have to run away.

So much of this works because of the art. We’re not told why it is that these characters want to catch this bird—are they hoping to eat it? Sell it? Keep it at home? It doesn’t matter. Colour plays a big role, I think; the pink and orange of the bird (and later the yellows and greens of the other birds), shining out against this twilight, purple and blue landscape, is pure desire.

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I’m most of the way through the Little Rebels shortlist now and as I continue to write about them I can see words like “preachy”, “didactic”, “issue” coming up over and over. This is something that is, I think, built into the structure of a prize like this—if we go out looking for “books informed by inclusive/anti-discriminatory concerns or those which promote social equality or social justice” these are inevitable. And while I may sound impatient with this at times, I do think that finding and celebrating these books is worthwhile.

But they’re not the only form that such literature can take, and I think something like Haughton’s book is a useful reminder of that. Is it radical because the prey turns on the hunters? Is it radical because the one member of the group to have any success is the smallest? Is it radical because the smallest seems to be motivated by friendliness/kindness? All of those, but they don’t strike me as more fundamental to the book than that it is funny and beautiful and completely charming.

April 20, 2015

Elephants? Feminism? Something.

wen hsu elephant 2Some recent (and very cute) children’s books involving elephants. I think the essence of this column is that elephants are a) adorable and b) fun to draw?

 

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“Not so long ago” a King decides that he wants to know the weight of his pet elephant. Unfortunately, the kingdom doesn’t have the necessary elephant-weighing technology in place, and no one is entirely sure what to do. Various groups of people try to work it out—fruit sellers and jewellers find their weighing machines inadequate, while the rope makers who try to rig up some sort of pulley system find that their ropes just aren’t strong enough. Bureaucrats and scientists fail. Finally a little girl comes up with the solution—to put the elephant in a boat and measure the change in water level, fill the boat with stones until the same effect was achieved, and then weigh the stones.wen hsu elephant 3 CUTEST

It’s a story many of us will have come across before in some form or the other. Geeta Dharmarajan’s version How to Weigh an Elephant, illustrated by Wen Hsu, names the little girl Lilavati and in doing so opens up the possibility that this is the historical Lilavati, the daughter of Bhaskaracharya to whom his Lilavati is addressed. History doesn’t tell us whether Lilavati herself grew up to be a mathematician, but she has often been adopted as a symbol for women in science in India—a 2008 anthology about Indian women scientists is titled Lilavati’s Daughters, for example. Dharmarajan’s book ends with a section on neglected Indian women scientists as well, signalling clearly that it sees books like this one as having an important social role to play.

The “twins” in the title of Kavitha Mandana and Nayantara Surendranath’s A Pair of Twins share neither parents nor a species but they do share a birthday. (Human) Sundari is born on the same day as (elephant) Lakshmi, into a family of Mahouts. The two babies form a lasting friendship and Sundari often pretends to be a Mahout on Lakshmi’s back—but in secret, because being a mahout is a job for a man. Until the Dussehra procession, when the usual elephant is unwell and only Lakshmi can take his place; with Sundari on her back, of course. A Pair of Twins is ‘about’ gender in ways that How to Weigh an Elephant is not; a longer text for slightly older children, it addresses the harm of both masculine and feminine stereotypes. Sundari’s brother would rather be a musician than a mahout, Sundari would prefer not to have to dress up as a man in order to do the job she has finally been allowed to do.

PoT1Both Dharmarajan and Mandana’s texts are helped by some gorgeous illustrations. Wen Hsu’s work won a Katha Chitrakala award in 2011 and uses cut paper and unlikely colours to great effect (and great adorableness). Nayantara Surendranath restricts herself to a more limited palette of browns and creams and pinks with the occasional bolt of blue. Her art is full of detail: the lines on tree bark, the print on a piece of cloth, be it part of a dress, a curtain or a howdah. Where there are no details she adds them in so that plain surfaces become unlikely things of beauty. And the limited palette serves at least one important purpose; when Sundari, having won all her battles, shows up to take her place as the leader of the parade in a very feminine turquoise blue dancer’s sari (turquoise is the book’s word for it but it seems a pity not to use the vastly more appropriate “ferozi”) the image bursts out from the page.

pot2It’s not clear whether elephants have anything to do with the fact that these two books for young readers are strongly feminist. It’s tempting to come up with a theory; popular science suggests that elephant herds are largely matriarchal societies, and that might have something to do with it. As with most things, the true answer probably lies in the fact that elephants are very cute, but that needn’t stop us from speculating.

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I didn’t have room here to also talk about An Elephant in my Backyard by Shobha Viswanath and Sadhvi Jawa (and that book isn’t really about gender in any way more obvious than that it has a girl for a protagonist) but it might deserve a separate post soon.

April 11, 2015

Newcastle: Eclipse

There was a solar eclipse a couple of weeks ago! It was very exciting. British media kept warning people about not permanently damaging their eyesight, Newcastle locals huddled together to look at the sky and tremble, Niall yelled at clouds (I may be exaggerating slightly), and I indulged in some occidentalism.

(Here is a column)

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In the power of a primitive and barbaric ruler Allan Quatermain and his companions need some way of getting the other inhabitants of the kingdom onto their side, escaping execution and putting the rightful heir on the throne. One of Quatermain’s companions, John Good, carries an almanac which lists important celestial activity—including a conveniently timed (lunar, in this case) eclipse.

HaggardI can no longer remember whether H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines was the first time I encountered the story of the educated Europeans who use their superior knowledge of astronomy to their advantage in this way. I also have no way of knowing whether it is the earliest iteration of this trope—one of the things that makes the book so enduringly entertaining is the fact that it is the perfect storm of adventure story clichés so that only the most unsullied reader could come to it without the sense that she had seen a lot of this before. There’s a hidden kingdom in Africa with an unknowably ancient past, a corrupt usurper, a prince with a birthmark that proves his royal status, a beautiful native girl who must be saved from becoming a human sacrifice (and who will fall in love with a white man because if nineteenth century fiction teaches us anything it is that white Europeans are irresistible). But most important are the credulous natives for whom the ability to recognise an eclipse is proof of supernatural power.

They're wearing PITH HELMETS, ffsIn Enid Blyton’s The Secret Mountain a family is kidnapped by the sun-worshipping inhabitants of a hollowed out mountain, also in an unidentified part of Africa. Once again a diary containing information about an eclipse saves the day (another life lesson from this genre seems to be that of always carrying a diary of some sort on one’s adventures); the father hurls a well-timed knife at the sun and the world gradually goes dark. Then there’s Herge’s Tintin adventure, The Prisoners of the Sun, which sets a version of this story in Peru and has its main characters captured by the  worshipers of an Inca sun god (the comic’s research fidelity to Inca myth is dubious to say the least). Tintin has NOT had the good sense to bring some form of celestial calendar with him, and it’s only owing to the merest coincidence that he happens to find a scrap of newspaper that happens to  mention the eclipse that is soon to take place. Once again the sky is darkened and everyone panics except the smug Europeans who alone know what’s happening.

If it seems a bit unlikely that all these native cultures should have spent thousands of years worshipping celestial bodies without figuring out that occasionally eclipses happen, that’s because it is. European adventure fiction oscillates wildly between the conviction that the natives are primitive and ignorant and the worry that they’ve been around a while and might know stuff. As ever it’s that man of science, Professor Calculus, who knows that something is amiss. As his companions look smugly upon the terrified crowd he (under the misapprehension that this is all a play) praises their acting.  Even Calculus has seen or read this story too many times to think it’s really real.

tintin eclipse 1 tintin eclipse 2

A couple of weeks ago I stood with a crowd of people in the middle of a city watching the sun disappear. You wouldn’t think this would be an unusual sight in the north of England, but it was quite an Event, with a screen set up by a local observatory in case the clouds should, er, obscure the sun. Fists were shaken heavenwards at any passing clouds that dared. Eventually the skies darkened even by local standards; there was something eerie about the quality of the light. Perhaps the gods were angry.

And then it passed, and the light was normal again, and the natives cheered.

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April 9, 2015

A Terry Pratchett post

I thought I wasn’t going to do a Terry Pratchett column (as I learnt after Leonard Nimoy died last month, I’m not good at talking about why certain public figures meant a lot to me) but then realised I couldn’t not say something.

So, this.

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At some point in my mid-teens a friend from school lent me a copy of something called The Light Fantastic, by someone called Terry Pratchett. It was the sequel to a book neither of us had read, which was a pity, but there was enough in there that we recognised to make this book, both a perpetuation and a parody of fantasy tropes, fun. I borrowed the book and loved it, she moved to another school, then another city, and we lost touch for years before Facebook made communication possible again, I kept the book. I found that there were others.kirby discworld

If parodying fantasy tropes had been the only purpose of the books, I suspect the joke would have worn thin very quickly (and reading the early books as an adult, I can see that it often did). But the Discworld books widened and deepened into something larger and deeper; while never losing the sense that a good portion of a book could be dedicated to the fulfilment of a terrible pun and that that was as noble a goal as any. In the first few years I read them in the order that I found them in, skipping back and forth in an already-chaotic timeline and across British and American editions. When I’d read all that had been published I moved on to making sure I had a complete set in the editions with the nicer covers (if there was a Josh Kirby cover, that was the one I wanted; a British edition was always preferable to an American one). As I caught up, I began collecting the books in hardback, as they came out, which was usually (serendipitously!) around my birthday. Friends in other countries would pick them up if they were delayed in India, or stood in line to get them signed. For years now I’ve associated the whole process of growing older with the arrival of a new Terry Pratchett book—I’m not entirely sure how to do that, now that there will be no more.

When I found out that Pratchett had died last week, it was through friends whom I’d badgered into reading him in college, messaging me to ask if I knew and to thank me for introducing his work to them.  I dithered over emailing my old friend and expressing the same sort of gratitude–I’m not sure “thanks for letting me steal your book fifteen years ago” is something I can articulate very well to someone who is now almost a stranger. But I am, deeply, grateful.

And I’m grateful to Pratchett, and to the books (particularly the Discworld books) themselves. For a world in which the insides of people’s heads (our second and third thoughts as well as our first) are important. For Granny Weatherwax’s ventures into Headology; for Sam Vimes who creates a policeman in his own subconscious to keep a check on his anger*.

I suggest above that the earliest books in the series are slight parodies, but they were still enormously important to me. You can’t think about why things are the way they are until you notice that they’re that way in the first place; Pratchett is one of a few writers who taught me how to read, and read critically. Eventually I’d turn that gaze on his own books—he gave me the tools to be dissatisfied with his work. I’m grateful for that as well.

But most of all I’m grateful for how kind the books are. One of the reasons that I find the books’ social commentary occasionally unsatisfying is that some things simply can’t be done nicely, however strong the author’s feelings or sharp his commentary. But kindness is safe, and warm and human (almost everyone’s human in Pratchett). Earlier this year, after a death in the family (not, alas, a Death in the family, though Pratchett’s Death might be the most human of all) I spent a couple of days in my parents’ house just reading Discworld books under a blanket.

I might need to do that again this week.

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*Vimes remains my favourite Discworld character, even though the correct answer to that question is Granny Weatherwax, precisely because of that anger. It has been vital to me–and it was only in the weeks following the author’s death that I realised how many people I know for whom this is true.