Short version: I’m not particularly into these books either.
Brian Conaghan, When Mr Dog Bites: After my lukewarm feelings about the last couple of books on this list, I was almost surprised to find that I was quite enjoying When Mr Dog Bites. The story of a teenage boy who has Tourette’s, a missing dad and an unreciprocated crush and, at the beginning of the book, discovers that he has a bigger problem: (spoiler!) he’s going to die within a few months.
In the context of a very earnest shortlist, something that involves wordplay and swearing (the sort that is the result of coprolalia as well as the sort that isn’t) was refreshing, even though it was hard to see why Dylan would have decided to randomly adopt cockney rhyming slang as his chosen medium, considering that he is in Scotland. It was also refreshing that the book didn’t seem to be trying to make a well-meaning point about disability or mental health; the bulk of the plot is to do with Dylan discovering family secrets and failing to be cool around the prettiest girl in school. And I love everything about his mother.
But, but, but. The mannered writing doesn’t feel right, Dylan himself feels inconsistent (I kept having to check his age because it seemed to be fluctuating all over the place), and there are so many little things that put me off. Like the Pakistani best friend who smells of curry (but it’s okay, because Dylan likes curry!), who is unmoved by Dylan yelling racial slurs at him because he doesn’t mean them, and who protests at being romantically paired with the only brown girl in the school before … entering a relationship with the only brown girl in school (she’s Indian, he’s Pakistani, how will they tell their families???); the attitude towards bodies, whereby Michelle Molloy’s leg is treated well enough by the text (she can still be sexy, hurrah) but the school bully has to be fat and therefore grotesque.
And it’s so pleased with itself for the swearing. Look, I think we could all do with a bit more profanity in children’s books–sometimes it’s warranted by situations, sometimes it’s just beautiful and creative and fun. Much of the swearing in this book is attributed, as I say above, to Dylan’s Tourette Syndrome. Except that coprolalia is not that common in Tourette’s patients, and yet is disproportionately prominent in media representations, and with that context, something about the choice to sell this book with the tagline “a story about life, death, love, sex and swearing” feels a bit gross.
Elizabeth Laird, The Fastest Boy in the World: I do not have a long list of complaints about this book, which is perfectly inoffensive. It’s about a few days in the life of an eleven year old Ethiopian boy named Solomon, who loves to run and dreams of becoming a famous long distance runner like one of his sporting heroes–I did like that one of those heroes is Derartu Tulu because it is (I was going to say “surprisingly” but it’s not really surprising) rare to see a sportswoman casually positioned as someone a boy might look up to. Solomon and his family live twenty miles (a long day’s walk or a bus ride) away from Addis Ababa, which Solomon has never visited, mainly (as far as I can tell) so Laird can show us his First Glimpse of a Big City. Solomon and his grandfather visit the capital, walking the whole way, which proves to be a bit too much for his grandfather’s health. They show up at the home of relatives (whose vague annoyance at unannounced visits is proof that there’s something a bit wrong with them); the relatives are found to be hiding something; we learn about grandfather’s mysterious past; grandfather takes ill and may be dying; Solomon heroically runs most of the way home to tell his family what has happened.
I phrase it all this way to show that there’s no lack of actual incident in this book. Mysteries past and present, an unexpected connection with Haile Selassie, the death of a beloved relative, Solomon’s triumphant run and bright future, each of these would be more than enough to fill a book in its own right. So I’m not sure how it is that this book manages to strip most of the conflict out of them; skipping over each one so lightly that I’m left wondering why it bothered including them at all. There’s nothing wrong with The Fastest Boy in the World, it just sort of … exists. I’m not sure what the point of it is.