Archive for ‘Carnegie shortlist’

June 18, 2018

Geraldine McCaughrean, Where the World Ends

world endsI wonder if there’s something to be said about the fact that “based on a true story” is so big a part of this year’s Carnegie shortlist? Where the World Ends dramatises events of 1727 -28, when a group of boys and men from St. Kilda left the island of Hirta to harvest birds for food on nearby Stac an Armin, and were stranded there for several months as, due to an outbreak of smallpox on Hirta, no one was able to sail out and collect them. When they returned, their community had been almost entirely wiped out by the disease. In her afterword to the book, McCaughrean claims to have altered some of the details–she adds another child to the group of 8 recorded in the historical account, and softens the blow of their return slightly by leaving a few more survivors in the village.

McCaughrean’s version of events is told through the eyes of Quill (or Quilliam), a boy probably in his teens who has been on the journey to the stac before. His reluctance to leave Hirta at the beginning of the book is entirely due to the presence of Murdina, a visitor to the island who tells stories he doesn’t know, and who speaks to him of trees. As the group on the stac first realise that no one is coming for them and then begin to buckle under the strain of the circumstances, Quill takes partial refuge in imagining Murdina on the stac with them, and himself becomes a storyteller, attempting to give shape and meaning to the lives of his struggling companions. Quite a few of the reviews, and even the blurbs, for this book refer to Lord of the Flies, and it’s a rather obvious comparison to make. I think that there’s a difference, though. Readings of Lord of the Flies as being About The Inherent Savagery of Humans are a bit glib and annoying (among other things, to insist on reading general “human nature” from a bunch of posh British schoolboys feels limited to say the least), but the book is fundamentally allegorical. Where the World Ends is not. Though the characters occasionally tip over into moments of irrational rage or cruelty, they usually do so in ways that are consistent with their individual selves. There are two moments when they seem to lose all sense of self, but as horrific as they are they’re also temporary. Having said which, if you’ve read Lord of the Flies (or anything in the larger horror category in which humans succumb to sudden bloodlust) it’s probably hard not to have that narrative hanging over your head and making you wary. Particularly when I discovered that one character was a girl in disguise I was bracing myself for some horrific act of sexual violence. (Her transition within the book from having lived as a boy all her life to a relatively unproblematic girlhood was a bit hard to believe; I had to tell myself that Quill probably wouldn’t have seen the complications that might arise so their omission from the narrative was justified.)

This sense of the characters as individual people is important because one of the things that McCaughrean does very well here is to plausibly and complexly render a set of perspectives that are really far removed from those of her presumed readers. Finding themselves abandoned with seemingly no attempt at rescue, the only explanation that the companions are able to imagine is that the world has ended, their families ascended to heaven, and they, hidden on this small rock in the sea, have been overlooked. This sincere religious belief is twinned with a strong sense of the myths and superstitions of St. Kilda in general and Hirta in particular, and there’s a really strong sense of the interplay between these sets of beliefs and how they exist for each individual person. Quill’s perspective is, unsurprisingly, the closest to what most readers might feel–whether or not he believes that the world has ended, he’s willing to make up stories about it to make the others feel better (which suggests that for him finding a narrative that enables them to survive is more important than the truth of the matter). I was prepared to roll my eyes a bit at Col Cane, one of the monstrous characters one often finds in children’s fiction, who weaponises religion in order to commit acts of shrill cruelty*, but there’s enough variation in the beliefs on display here to make his form of faith only one of many. The other characters include a saintly young boy whose faith is so strong that he sees visions and feels guilt at not being able to walk on water, another small child who believes his mother to be in heaven yet is worried that his absence will mean she’ll lack enough peat to burn through the winter, and Quill’s friend Murdo, whose main regret at the end of the world is that he never got to sleep with a woman–”Ye canna do that while you’re standing about in Heaven singing hymns, and with all sorts looking on … And I d’na think we get to keep our bodies there, either. We are just wee spirity things, a-floatin’” (I don’t feel able to discuss McCaughrean’s rendition of the characters’ accents.)

The book dramatises one important moment in these islands’ history–it makes reference to another as well, though McCaughrean makes no explicit mention of this in her quite detailed Afterword. In 1840 the last Great auk in Britain would be captured on Stac an Armin–its captors beat it to death some days later, believing it to be a witch that was causing a storm. Four years later, the bird was extinct worldwide. A Great auk, or garefowl, plays a major role in this story. Quill is surprised to find it living alone on the island, as he knows that birds of this species generally live in large flocks. As the months go by, Quill feels a growing bond with the bird, which is tangled up in his feelings for Murdina. The others, however, find the garefowl uncanny and a little too human–particularly after it seems to attempt to feed a trapped boy. In a genuinely shocking scene (the book’s Lord of the Flies moment, if it has one) towards the end of the book, Quill’s companions turn on the bird and reenact (pre-enact?) the scene that will take place a little over a century after these events–they believe it to be a “witch” and “storm-bringer,” and they put a sack over it and beat it to death with a rock.

Reviewing another book on this Carnegie shortlist, I don’t think I said that it had disappointed me by being set on a small island and not giving me enough seabirds and saltwater and wind. Where the World Ends made up for this by being tremendously evocative of all of those things (and rock, and horrible rotting-things smells). Best of all, the book ends with a glossary (with illustrations!) of sea birds native to St. Kilda. That alone would have won me over.

 

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The Carnegie announcement is a few hours away, so this is a good time for predictions. I haven’t had time to write about the last book on the list, Will Hill’s After the Fire–that post is forthcoming, but I’d be surprised if the book were to win the medal (it did win the YA book prize a couple of weeks ago, though). On the whole, this has been a relatively good year for the award, or at least for my reading of it; in previous years I’ve disliked the majority of the list and been actively angered by (on average) about a quarter of it. This year, I genuinely liked at least three books on the list (The Hate U Give, Where the World Ends, and Rook); felt well disposed towards some others (Wed Wabbit, about 60% of Release), and only actively disliked one (Saint Death). Despite this, before I read Where the World Ends I thought that The Hate U Give was the best book on the list by a huge margin–I still think it’s the best book on there, but WtWE is polished enough to feel like a serious competitor.

So a decent year for me; but what does this shortlist say about the Carnegie itself? I was glad to see some actual middle-grade books make the list, given the dominance of YA in recent years, but it’s still very unbalanced (and I understand makes organising school shadowing groups quite a complicated procedure). And, given a chance to demonstrate a willingness to engage with criticisms of the award’s lack of racial diversity, the fact that the shortlist excludes any UK-based BAME writers feels like a doubling down–as if change can wait until after the Diversity Review. Whichever book wins (I’ve discussed  my ambivalence on this subject), this year’s medal will feel a bit overshadowed by that context.

 

 

 

 

*On this shortlist alone we have versions of the character in this book and After the Fire (Release does not, though the version of Christianity espoused by some of its characters is a deeply unpleasant one); of the books on the longlist The Island at the End of Everything also has one.

June 15, 2018

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give

THUGIt feels a bit ridiculous blogging about The Hate U Give midway through 2018; it has been so central to pretty much every conversation about YA over the last year and a bit that everything that there is to be said probably has been already. It has won multiple awards (William C. Morris, Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Printz); the movie’s on the way; it has been on the New York Times’s bestseller list since it came out. Nothing that I can say is going to be new or original. (I do have some thoughts on its position on the Carnegie shortlist, as will become apparent.)

What I like most about the book, however, is the way it works as a pedagogical text. Children’s lit and YA, and those of us who talk about them a lot, often find ourselves dancing a complex line between condemning didacticism and thinking of children’s literature as something that does teach, or least provides its reader with increased context, or reframes the world in ways that are inherently educational–even if that teaching isn’t as straightforward or unidirectional as some of us sometimes imply. One of the several things that The Hate U Give does is provide a way into a history of black political struggle and all its complexities. Starr is surrounded by people who have actively participated in and thought about that struggle (the adults in this book are, rather unusually, people with distinct politics, personalities and flaws), and so it makes perfect sense that this knowledge is something she accesses with relative ease. It also makes sense that sometimes another character has to swoop in and join some dots for her.

The book uses Starr’s perspective (a teenage girl who has grown up in a very politically aware family and now goes to an elite, mostly-white school, and is forced by these circumstances to mediate constantly between very different social circles) to negotiate the shifts between its multiple audiences. There are going to be readers who grew up knowing who Huey Newton was, or what the Ten-Point Program was; others, particularly outside the US (I don’t know how well American educational systems teach this bit of history, but I’d be surprised if many of the British students I’ve met and taught had more than the bare minimum context, and it certainly didn’t feature on the Indian curriculum I grew up with) are going to see these new names and hopefully look them up–the book isn’t going to provide little potted histories for them, but it is going to make it easier to know where to look. On the other hand, there are little asides that feel very basic, and are clearly instructions on how to negotiate particular situations. At one point, as Starr and a group of her friends are listening to music, we see her (white) boyfriend Chris who clearly knows all the words but never speaks or mouths the n word–his reticence is observed with an approving “as he should” that seems to come equally from Starr and the book itself. Chris, though in many ways a good boyfriend and friend, still has to ask a ridiculous question about African Americans and their “weird” names, presumably in order to provide the teaching moment. I’d find it clumsy in a different book, but teaching is such a major part of this novel that it fits in.

thug2I don’t think it’s teaching, so much as a sort of remembrance, that structures how the book situates itself within the history of police shootings and other racist murders, particularly those of the last few years. One major subplot has to do with the breaking down of Starr’s relationship with her former friend Hailey, who unfollows her tumblr after Starr has posted an image of Emmett Till, and it’s not merely an indication of her racism (which the book reveals to be vast and terrible*) but of an unwillingness to see and remember. Late in the book Starr lists other murder victims: “It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Ezell. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando.” The list is an incredibly powerful format (I’m thinking of the list of police brutality victims that was a part of Beyoncé‘s tour a few years ago, or the one in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen); it’s a demand for remembrance, and I think the fact that this is a list of first names demands that the reader remember them almost instinctively, that we don’t have to think to remember who these people were or which of the several horrible news stories was about them. There’s a moment near the beginning of the book, just as we’re reeling from the shock that the police shooting that we were braced for has come this quickly, when Starr says “They finally put a sheet over Khalil. He can’t breathe under it. I can’t breathe,” building Eric Garner’s final words into the text at the most fundamental level.

So, I think The Hate U Give is very good; it’s good at political commitment, thinking about ethics, working through and with despair at unchanging systems (one of the [unfortunately several] things I dislike about Marcus Sedgwick’s Saint Death, also on this shortlist, is its inability to imagine anyone having any agency under the weight of structural violence, which only ends up absolving its readers of any need for action).  And it’s good at all the sorts of things that the Carnegie criteria think are important (structure, characterisation, setting). This ought to be enough reason to explain its presence on this shortlist, and I think it’s the best book on here. On the other hand, this comes in the wake of the last several years of all-white Carnegie shortlists, and in the context of the current “Diversity Review” after last year’s all-white longlist finally garnered enough publicity that CILIP was forced to take action. Had The Hate U Give been one of multiple books by authors of colour on the list (of which there were several real possibilities, but the omission that really surprised me was Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut) I’d be uncomplicatedly pleased by its inclusion; as the only one, I find myself questioning not whether it deserves to be there (it does) but what work it’s doing on the list. Given the Carnegie’s history of championing books about racism (albeit by white authors) as long as they locate it in America (I’ve linked to this post by Karen Sands-O’Connor before but here it is again); given that Thomas’s, and Starr’s perspective is a lot more “accessible” to a white and middle-class audience than a lot of other voices would be; and given that the book was already a massive global phenomenon, its presence on the shortlist doesn’t exactly suggest a radical shift in perspective. I want it to win because I think it’s an excellent book; I’m concerned that if/when it does it will be used to suggest that the Carnegie’s race problem has been substantially resolved.

Then again, every time I’ve thought something was certain to win this award in the past I’ve been wrong, so the question may never arise.

 

 

* Hailey is a “feminist”, and her outrage early in the book at Chris pressuring Starr to have sex with him is sharply contrasted with her refusal to see racism. I felt a little uncomfortable at my disproportionate hate for her among all the other harmful and outright murderous racists depicted here, but it’s a relief to see this character (the feminist who is somehow incapable of seeing other forms of bigotry and structural inequality) depicted uncompromisingly in fiction (particularly in Britain where this seems to be the persona adopted by most public feminists), so I absolve myself.

June 14, 2018

Patrick Ness, Release

Release begins with a quote from Mrs Dalloway and another from John Grant’s “Glacier”. I’d been feeling rather unenthusiastic about the book, but I like both Grant and Woolf, so that this combination of epigraphs made me a lot more curious about what I was about to read. Even more so when the story itself began “Adam would have to get the flowers himself”, suggesting that Ness was aiming for a closer link to Mrs Dalloway than a mere epigraph.

Release takes place over one particularly bad day in the life of 17 year old Adam Thorn. Already feeling apprehensive about the party that is to take place this evening (to say farewell to Adam’s ex boyfriend, whom he is still a bit in love with, and who is leaving town), over the day he has multiple run-ins with his ultra-conservative religious (and homophobic) family, comes out to his father, is sexually harassed by his much older boss, is victim-blamed by his father, and discovers that his best friend is also leaving town in a week. Structurally, this is the Mrs Dalloway aspect of the story; a series of incidents over a single day, culminating in a party, with the passing of time marked in various ways throughout.

releaseIn the afterword, Ness says that the book’s other intertext is Judy Blume’s Forever. I haven’t read that book in about twenty years, but am told by people who’ve read it more recently that the links are obvious to them. There are in-text references to Blume as well, but also a major debt that children’s and YA lit owes Blume is the ability to depict and talk about sex frankly and entertainingly. Ness clearly understands this; I don’t think I’ve ever seen sex between two men shown this clearly in YA, and I’m a bit moved by how many reviews online say the same and are genuinely excited by this aspect of the book. I’ve said in the past that Ness is particularly good at the specifics of individual people and situations and weaker on the big, structural parts of his worlds, and that holds true here–there’s some really sharp observation underlying all of Adam’s various interactions (I think I actually barked at an aside in which we learn Adam’s parents like his best friend Angela because she gives them an opportunity not to be racist), and the emotions are realistic and heartfelt. (Though I remember being mildly annoyed about the deceitful bisexual heartbreaker plot in More Than This, and here it is again, though tempered by the presence of other characters who are attracted to people of multiple genders.) Had the book simply been this–Adam’s story, told well–it would have been a very successful, very polished novel, though perhaps not a very ambitious one.

But there’s a B-plot; one which refers to other events in Adam’s small Washington town. A teenage girl, Katherine, has recently been murdered by the lake, her death impinging on the lives of Adam and his friends only as a puzzling background noise and something that might cause their parents to object to the evening’s lakeside party. Katherine’s spirit has somehow risen from the lake, and is seeking to understand her death, but she has also become entangled with something else—a spirit known only as the Queen, and attended by a worried and rather ineffectual 7 foot tall faun (probably my favourite character). The Queen and Katie sometimes understand themselves as separate, sometimes as the same, but the faun knows that unless the Queen can work out how to disentangle herself by nightfall, some horrible, world-ending thing will take place.

It’s tempting to take the Mrs Dalloway reading as far as it’ll go and try for a direct comparison to the Septimus plot, but that wouldn’t be doing Release any favours—presumably its relationship to the older book is more complex than this sort of direct one for one substitution. But part of the reason it’s tempting to use Woolf as a model for mapping the relationship between the two parallel stories is that there’s not enough in the text itself to give you ways to read it. My Carnegie reading group was pretty unanimous in feeling that this entire plot was all but disposable, and looking for reactions online I discover that most readers have been baffled by it. What we know about the Queen/Katie plot is that it’s very definitely the subordinate plot—it’s both sparse and entirely in italics, which stylistic choices made me feel that the book wasn’t really committing to it. It made me think of Ness’s earlier The Rest of Us Just Live Here, where the larger supernatural plot is relegated to the chapter headings and the contrast between it and the more ordinary concerns of the protagonists is part of the point. I wasn’t a fan of that structure there, and here, where it seems like almost a side-effect, it continues not to impress me.

But, as I say above, a book which abandoned the Queen and focused entirely on Adam might feel a lot more coherent, but it would also be rather unambitious. I don’t want this to have been a different book, but I wish it had been better.

(I don’t think it’s going to win the Carnegie, but then I’m always wrong about what should win the Carnegie.)

June 1, 2018

Marcus Sedgwick, Saint Death

stdeathSedgwick’s Ghosts of Heaven was on the Carnegie shortlist last time I read it (two years ago); a book in conversation with various texts that I love, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it as a whole but really liked many of its parts. Despite this, my overwhelming feeling on first encountering Saint Death was: why? Why would Marcus Sedgwick be my first port of call for a story set on the Mexico-US border featuring narcos, gambling,and the politics of immigration?

The plot: Arturo lives in Anapra, on the outskirts of Juárez and only a short distance from the border with the US. He lives alone–we discover later that he has an abusive and absent father who hates him, after Arturo reported him to the police. The plot opens as his closest friend from school, Faustino, returns from a long absence and in some danger. Faustino has become involved with a gang, and has stolen money from his boss, El Carnero, in order to pay for his wife (Eva, also an old school friend) and newborn son’s journey to America; though the traffickers have accepted a lower fee on the understanding that Eva will be a drug mule. He enlists Arturo’s help in winning back money to replace what was stolen, through Arturo’s skill at calavera (a card game; I’m not sure if it’s real or just another way of shoehorning death into the story). Things go horrifically wrong when Arturo, intoxicated by his initial gambling success, overreaches–at the end of the game he owes five times the money that Faustino originally needed to repay, and he sets out on a quest through the city, trying to scrape together the money and very aware that both his life and Faustino’s will be forfeit if he fails. Along the way he meets various friends (a couple who own a bar, and an old schoolteacher), each in their way complicit in the system that Arturo is finding impossible to navigate and that he knows will kill him. Throughout, Arturo keeps thinking of Santa Muerte, a figure who seems sometimes to be supporting his endeavours, sometimes thwarting them.

Okay. It’s not an original story, and it’s pretty grim, but it’s often well written–Arturo’s disastrous game of calavera nearly had me shouting at the page. Unfortunately, the story itself is punctuated by small essays (or blog or forum posts–one of them claims to be by user “chomsky68″) explaining the larger political structures that govern the cartels, immigration, US-Mexico trade relations, the global politics of the drug trade.

I suppose many teenagers coming to a book like this might benefit from some Chomsky, but this format really does not work. In part because it suggests that the framework for understanding Arturo’s world needs to be one imposed from outside the story–it might be possible that chomsky68 and whoever else is writing these sections are young Mexican boys, but there’s nothing to suggest this. At only one point in the main story does a character express knowledge of these broader political events; Arturo’s friend Siggy (short for Siegfried; his boyfriend is Carlos; they’re named after Freud and Jung), an American who has immigrated to Mexico, lectures Arturo on how “[t]he world as we find it is a lie. A lie made between those with power: those who run the companies, those who run the government and those who control the police and the army,” while Arturo himself listens wide-eyed. “he doesn’t understand half of what Siggy is saying, not in detail, but he doesn’t mind. He knows it’s important, and he thinks he might understand, one day.” The Mexican characters (and Faustino, who immigrated from Guatemala as a child) live with the consequences of imperialism and global inequality, but are still portrayed as unable to understand these things–Arturo’s bewilderment at Siggy’s speech suggests that they never even talk about them. Even the understanding that NAFTA is hugely unequal has to come from outside the plot, as if these characters somehow wouldn’t know this.

Or perhaps the book just isn’t interested in whether its characters are aware of these things or not, because they’re not its audience. Saint Death opens with a Charles Bowden quote, and Sedgwick himself says in this interview that the reason for including it is to emphasise the interconnectedness of the world. But the quote in question (“This book is about other stories, that occur over there, across the river. The comfortable way to deal with these stories is to say they are about them. The way to understand these stories is to say they are about us.”) does this partly be re-emphasising the “over there”; both in Bowden’s quote and in Sedgwick’s text it’s made very clear who the them and the us are, who is being spoken to and who is being spoken about. (The interview linked to above also mentions Sedgwick’s desire not to italicise the Spanish words in the book–my kindle edition certainly has them italicised …)

I’m writing this post shortly after reading and discussing another book on this Carnegie shortlist, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (thoughts on that forthcoming), which also dramatises a longstanding and violent political issue, but makes very different (and better) choices about how wide a scope it can manage and how to mediate between its multiple audiences. That book is as grim as this one in its understanding of how violent institutions preserve and perpetuate themselves; but it’s also full of activism, history, real people living with and working against these systems, building better worlds. I can’t blame Saint Death for having no solutions (I also have failed to save the world this week), but between its relentness grimness, the inability of its characters to do anything, and the book’s own lack of interest or belief (whichever it is) in their ability to think about their world, it all just becomes tragedy porn.

Perhaps I can use this book as a stepping stone to getting some people to read Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World though?

May 25, 2018

Anthony McGowan, Rook

rookrookrookRook is the third book in a series (following Brock and Pike, neither of which I’ve read) featuring two brothers who occasionally find and rescue animals. That description makes it sound a bit Willard Price (incidentally, McGowan wrote four sequels to Price’s Adventure series; this intrigues me very much) but going by this book the animals form only a part of the several things that are going on in their lives. At the point when this book opens Kenny and Nicky’s family is doing better than has been the case in the past. Their father, recovering from alcoholism and dating a woman whom the boys like, is able to give his sons more attention than has sometimes been the case; Kenny is happy at school and has made an exciting new friend; money is very tight but things seem not to be completely desperate. Theirs is not, however, the first perspective we see. The opening chapter is told from the perspective of the titular rook, who is having quite a nice day until he’s savaged by a sparrowhawk.

It’s an opening that I really like–we’re immediately thrown into this other perspective, and a voice which is both colloquial and lyrical but (crucially) not twee. It’s treated seriously enough that you’re not immediately hunting for meaning or allegory–though you could, having read the book, link the rook’s injury (implied to be a result of the flock’s bullying of a small male sparrowhawk) to that of Nicky’s bully Pete.

The plot: Nicky and Kenny find the rook, in time to prevent their dog Tina from injuring it further. They take it home and look after it, but while Kenny seems convinced that it’ll be fine Nicky, who narrates the story, is more pessimistic about its chances for survival. Meanwhile, Nicky is being bullied at school, targeted both on the subject of Kenny’s learning disability and his mother (of whom I assume we hear more in one of the earlier books). Nicky also has a huge crush on Sarah, the popular and unattainable sister of his main bully, Pete. Things are taking their toll on Nicky and he lashes out at his brother and his father; he also retaliates and pushes Pete, at which point things go horribly wrong. Pete, who has epilepsy, has a seizure and Nicky is blamed and expelled from school.

[There's a lot to  discuss here about the relationships between the different members of this family, about the prose, about the familiar setting, even the ways this book measures up to the Carnegie criteria; typically, I'm going to talk about none of it.]

Rook is a beautiful object–the thick matte pages are lovely and tactile (this is a pragmatic decision to make the text more readable, but its aesthetic value is a really happy side-effect), and the cover picture and font remind me a little of the Penguin Modern Classics editions with the matte silver spines and backs. Publisher Barrington Stoke aims to provide books with age-appropriate content for children and teenagers with dyslexia or other barriers to reading, and in that context this very consciously grown-up cover makes a lot of sense. It signals its affinity to the sorts of books that get these sorts of covers, suggesting that while it may be easy to read, it’s not for very young readers.

A slight detour but I promise I have a point of some sort: mere hours after I finished Rook I watched the Andrew Haigh film Lean on Pete, about a teenage boy who develops a bond with an aging racehorse doomed to be sold and slaughtered. Before the film I checked with various people whether I should brace myself for an upsetting film in which a beloved animal died–the consensus was that yes, I should; in stories like this the beloved animal always dies. In the circumstances, it’s unsurprising that Rook and Pete should be intertwined in my head. Both are interior stories about teenaged boys with complicated and loving relationships with their families; in both stories the potential death of an animal reflects a larger, awful reality. There are differences, of course; in tone Pete perhaps feels more like the cover of Rook than the book itself.

I went into Lean on Pete bracing myself for the horse to die; Nicky goes into his own story with a similar conviction that the rook isn’t going to make it. Next to Nicky’s cynical resignation, Kenny’s belief looks naive. When Kenny tells his brother that their father has taken the rook to some people who can make him better, Nicky’s sure he knows what that means. He doesn’t–their father really has decided to spend some of the family’s scant funds on Rooky (rather to the puzzlement of the staff at this refuge for wild birds); Pete’s family have spoken to the school and have had Nicky reinstated; Kenny’s new friend may not be the real Doctor Who (though he might be) but he’s pretty amazing nonetheless; Sarah may or may not be interested in Nicky romantically, but the romance takes second place to his recognition that he’s gained a valuable friendship.

It’s possible that I’m arguing merely that Rook is a book in which some good things happen and that is nice–and honestly, that is reason enough to praise it. But I think there might be more than that. It’s not that the world is fundamentally better than Nicky thinks it is; we value these acts of kindness to friends and strangers precisely because they burst out like little miracles in a world that we, and he, know to be difficult. In stories like this the beloved animal always dies–but sometimes maybe it doesn’t.

May 12, 2018

Lissa Evans, Wed Wabbit

Wed Wabbit opens with responsible older sister, Fidge (Iphegenia, which is a weird choice to name one’s daughter), a bit fed up of her younger sister Minnie’s (Minerva) particular fantasies. Minnie is obsessed with the Wimbley Woos, colour-coded and bin-shaped creatures who live in the tellytubbiesesque pastoral idyll of Wimbley Land, and whose adventures Fidge is sick of reading at bedtime. There’s also Minnie’s beloved stuffed animal, Wed Wabbit, which Fidge dislikes–in an unguarded moment she kicks the Wed Wabbit out into the street; Minnie follows, is hit by a car, and hospitalised.  Even as Minnie waits in hospital for her beloved sister to visit with Wed Wabbit, supernatural events have transported Fidge (and her annoying cousin Graham) to Wimbley Land, where they must fulfil a prophecy and save this world if they (and Wed Wabbit) are ever to get home again.

I knew nothing about Wed Wabbit when I started reading it, and there was a point when I wondered if this genuinely was a creepy toy horror story. The rabbit is creepy enough, and I can imagine my easily-terrified childhood self being incredibly reluctant to read this. At the point at which Fidge and Graham were magically transported to another world, that genre possibility seemed to have ended, and others opened up. An older sister on a quest through a fantastic land in order to redress a mistake made out of annoyance and save a younger sibling; my first thought was of Labyrinth, my second of Shalini Srinivasan’s fantastic Vanamala and the Cephalopod.

But more importantly (to me, anyway), Wed Wabbit is a portal fantasy, and has a surprising amount to say about that genre. It even begins with a map.

Wimbley_Land_map

Fidge enters Wimbley Land having already read everything she needs to know–that she wasn’t paying enough attention isn’t entirely out-of-genre behaviour. Minnie’s beloved book, The Land of the Wimbley Woos, presents the sort of totalising knowledge of the secondary world with which portal fantasy readers and protagonists are often provided–the Wimbleys are conveniently colour-coded in the distribution of particular skills and character traits; blues are strong, purples know things, pinks really like hugs. On top of this, she finds herself the subject of a prophecy–one that is written on an actual parchment scroll (with a literal wax seal), is a riddle in verse, and declares her one of the “four brave strangers / to release us from all dangers”. The book continues the tradition of treating the secondary world as a form of therapy–the new landscape provides Fidge and Graham with opportunities to face their individual weaknesses and get past them, so that on their re-entry into our world they are better equipped to cope. Both have wise guides to help them understand the new landscape–except Fidge’s is a rather excruciating elephant toy, and Graham’s is a plastic carrot called Dr Carrot. It’s so on the nose that I’m pretty sure Evans knows exactly what she’s doing–you could pick up any scholarship on the portal fantasy (e.g. Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy) and this would feel like a point-by-point embrace and parody of all the features of the genre that it identifies. (The other reason to think of this as a book more broadly in conversation with portal fantasies is that Graham is so very clearly a descendant of Eustace Scrubb. Graham’s foibles, arising from real health issues, are however treated more seriously, even if they’re also played for knowing laughs.)

This knowingness about the genre feels more significant when you begin to realise how much of Fidge’s information is inaccurate. Major changes have taken place that have rendered The Land of the Wimbley Woos out of date–the former king is in jail; the blue wimbley woos, driven by their greed for sweets, form a totalitarian police force and carry out the orders of the mysterious new dictator who recently appeared in their world (spoiler: it’s Wed Wabbit). Meanwhile the very existence of the country is at stake–some mysterious force is sucking all the colour out of the world at the boundaries of the country and whatever it is it’s moving inward. (Early in the book, Fidge guiltily uses Wed Wabbit to mop up some spilled orange juice.) Further, the prophecy which she is given suggests that she needs to look past the current anthropological classifications of the Wimbleys, “look again at every hue / a different word for each is true”. In the end,once all the lost colour has been restored, it comes in a giant explosion (“like a paintbox blowing up or a really huge kaleidoscope falling to bits or being shut inside a washing machine filled with sweets or spun about by a tornado full of confetti”), splashing everywhere so that the colours are all mixed up, so that none of the Wimbleys is one solid colour/trait anymore–previous categories of Wimbley are now entirely irrelevant. (And in any case, Wimbley Land is too anarchic to be particularly amenable to that sort of categorisation; in some crucial ways it’s more Alice in Wonderland than the Chronicles of Narnia.) The book’s epilogue shows that this state of affairs has continued–in the new book about Wimbley Land, published sometime after these events, “the rhymes are dreadful, and the colours are all mixed up and they’ve introduced new characters–an elephant and a … a vegetable of some kind”. (A stray thought here about the power fantasy of materially affecting the media one consumes.)

A few more stray thoughts:

I enjoyed Wed Wabbit because it felt like a parodic take on a genre I know well–it’s harder to imagine how it would read to someone without that knowledge. My friend Mariana suggests that the book’s humour in general is a bit too knowing and thus inaccessible to most children. I think this is true of a lot of humour (and is double-edged–feeling like you’re in on the joke is an incredibly welcoming sensation as a child reader) but it does bother me that, as Mariana points out, a lot of the foreknowledge it assumes is tied to a particular social class.

I’m not sure what to do with the revelation that the real solution to Wimbley Land’s problems is to hug your evil dictator. In the context of the plot it makes perfect sense, if only to squeeze out the sucked-up colour; and it’s of a piece with a general tendency in kidlit to teach children to see other people’s points of view, understand that they have points of view, and troubles of their own, etc. The recent Wrinkle in Time film, for example, has a scene where Meg learns that her most dedicated bully has massive body-image related insecurities, and while it’s a useful and necessary bit of characterisation it really could do with an explicit “but that doesn’t cancel out the harm she has done” statement. It’s relatively easy not to worry about it here, given that everything about Wimbley Land is ludicrous, but. Sometimes bad rulers like hugs a little too much.

I’m also not sure what to do with Wed Wabbit‘s implicit understanding that people who can’t pronounce their “r”s are inherently funny–my own inability to do this caused school friends years of hilarity, and in discussing this book with other people I’ve tended to construct my sentences so that I avoid saying the title. (Then again, one of my favourite children’s books [di Larrabeiti’s The Borribles] also plays this for humour, so I’d be a hypocrite to object here.)

Do I think it will (or should) win the Carnegie? Probably not, but I enjoyed reading it.

May 5, 2018

Lauren Wolk, Beyond the Bright Sea

Are we doing this again? We are (or I am). I’m reading the Carnegie shortlist again. There’s a Patrick Ness book on there (again), and a Marcus Sedgewick (again); is this 2016, and were the last couple of years a horrible dream?

I’ll be blogging this year’s shortlist in the order in which my shadowing group read the books–we’re doing two books every couple of weeks. First up, then, Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea. This is one of a couple of (very welcome) middle-grade-ish books on the shortlist this year. It’s set in 1920s America, in the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. One of these islands, Penikese, historically had a hospital that quarantined and treated leprosy patients (when the book opens it has been deserted for a few years), and at the beginning of the book our narrator, Crow, learns that many in her community believe her to have been born there. As a baby, Crow washed up on the shore of a neighbouring island in a leaky boat and was found and raised by Osh, an artist and himself a relative newcomer to the islands. Crow is determined to learn who she “really” is; Osh, who has raised her, is both nervous at her apparent need to discover a family other than him and concerned at what she might find if she stirs things up.

I’d expected to begin this post by saying something like “obviously it’s impossible to talk about this book without talking about Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything“, a book which was also set partly on a real historical island that was used to quarantine those with leprosy, and which was also nominated for the Carnegie this year. It turns out that beyond that similarity of setting (and the Phillippines and the north Atlantic are quite different settings) there’s very little that the books have in common in tone or plot. It does intrigue me, though, to think that at some point the judges of the medal might have been judging the two books directly against one another.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book very much–the cover matter seemed to me to emphasise a generic Girl Goes Off to Find Herself plot (alone, in a boat, sailing into the distance). Luckily, this turned out to not at all be what the book was about–Crow does “find” herself, in the sense that she ends the book with a more definite understanding of who she is, but she’s never alone, and the book’s real focus seems to be her consolidating her sense of herself as part of the small community/family that she, Osh, Miss Maggie and Mouse-the-cat have forged for themselves. Rather remarkably for the protagonist of a children’s adventure, Crow actually talks to the adults in her life, telling them when something odd or potentially dangerous has happened to her, particularly when it might put them all at risk. She sees them as potentially vulnerable people, as they are–for example, the book is pretty straightforward about Osh’s discomfort with Crow’s quest to find her biological family. Actions are seen to have consequences for the group as a whole–when a dangerous object is hidden on Miss Maggie’s property, Crow and Osh both take for granted the fact that Miss Maggie should be warned of the potential danger to her. As they should (it’s basic decency), but so many protagonists seem to barge heedlessly through the world that it’s a relief when one doesn’t.

This sense both of the vulnerability of individuals and the ethics of community living is something that recurs through the book in minor ways. While lobster fishing with Osh, Crow ponders the fact that islanders never steal from each other’s lobster pots, even though it would be easy to do, because the community requires that shared trust to function (Osh compares these small island communities to settlements in Westerns). These ethical* (but not necessarily nice) relationships extend to animals as well–Miss Maggie, who feeds whisky and milk to wild turkeys in the winter, is sorry for the dead rabbits that she turns into stew, and mourns a dead lamb; Osh, who will eventually kill and eat the lobsters he catches, but will not leave them in their traps longer than he can help, and who devises a unique strategy to eat starfish without killing them.

If the whole book had been quiet island life and ethical community living, I’d probably have liked it more (though, as other participants in the discussion noted, the prose in these sections isn’t effective enough to take full advantage of this setting). Instead, the book throws several plots at us and never really gains focus. We’re landed with the mystery (not much of one to a reasonably experienced reader, but perhaps that’s an unfair standard by which to just an MG book) of Crow’s parentage, the mystery of the pirate treasure rumoured to be buried around these parts, a thriller plot involving a violent treasure seeker who pops up at unexpected moments, and finally Crow’s discovery that she has a brother, still alive, and that there may be a chance of finding him. It’s all a bit too much, and ends up feeling uneven–the final sections in particular feel particularly rushed.

The book’s thinking about community and care almost, but doesn’t quite, extend to one of these major subplots–the one where Crow finds pirate treasure. Unable to openly claim the treasure, as the island on which it was buried is state-owned land, she nevertheless wants to keep certain keepsakes in memory of her mother. The rest, Osh suggests might be given away. The treasure is divided (as her brother, should she find him, might reasonably expect to have some of his parents’ legacy) and hidden in separate caches–Crow eventually chooses to give most of hers away to orphanages. It feels like this variation on the found treasure plot ought to be significant, yet Crow’s dithering over what to do with it and the questions that her possession of it raises are things the book skims over as if it weren’t interested.

It strikes me that many of the things I admire about Beyond the Bright Sea are negatives–it doesn’t treat Crow’s biological family as more significant than the one she has created; it doesn’t provide us the happy sibling reunion we might expect; Crow’s adventures don’t need to involve lying to or concealing things from the people she loves; no one is rich off the treasure. The thing that it actively does do, its treatment of its loving community, is worthwhile, and I wish I felt that the book was willing to centre it and value it more. Ultimately the thing about this book that matters to me is Osh’s deep conviction that the island life that he and his companions have built is something fragile and precious, that must be protected and defended.

 

 

 

 

 

*I’m using “ethical” here to signify that the characters have given real thought to the morality of these actions/relationships, not to imply that their choices are unquestionably Correct.

 

May 7, 2017

Malorie Blackman, Chasing The Stars

chasing starsI have a review of Malorie Blackman’s most recent novel in Strange Horizons this week–most of my thoughts on the book are therefore to be found over there. Both as an SF novel and as an adaptation of Othello I found it … not great, but intriguing. In the review I read it in the context of the other texts that it is (both explicitly and implicitly) bouncing off, and suggest that it works better as an intervention into those works than it does as a thing in itself. Which is all fine.

But that isn’t the only context in which I’m reading the book–it’s also a children’s book, and more importantly (this year, at least) it’s a Carnegie-eligible children’s book. It appeared on the list of nominations for the Carnegie medal, as well as being shortlisted for the Guardian and Waterstones prizes and longlisted for the Jhalak prize. Some further thoughts, then:

I’ve been reading this book as an adult, a science fiction fan, and a person who knows Othello relatively well; and my particular reading of it means that I find it harder than usual to imagine how the book would work in the absence of those contexts. (The internet suggests that lots of people are coming to it that way, and many seem to be enjoying it.)  It also makes judging it in light of the Carnegie criteria seem rather meaningless.

(But let’s try anyway: with the exception of the Love At First Sight trope the characters and their development do make sense; there’s clever use of “literary conventions and techniques” though not necessarily as I think those criteria intend; the resolution is credible; I’m going to stop now because the Carnegie criteria always feel weird and limited to me.)

In the review I mention very briefly the fact that Olivia’s interest in film becomes a marker of class. I was trying not to give too much away, and also not get boring and rambly, but that is not a concern on my own blog, so here are some details.

For most of the book, the only characters we see Olivia interacting with, other than her brother, are the refugees. We know that Vee’s interest in old-timey films is weird because she tells us so, and also because when she makes movie references in conversations with her new crew they seem to be confused by them. But–these characters are also former “drones”, a sort of underclass who work in the mines, most of whom were born into these conditions. There’s a point in the book where Nathan points out that drones do not have the opportunity to watch films and read books, so that the access that Vee has always taken for granted, and which is a basic condition of her particular hobby, is specifically a function of her class position within the universe. Vee is taken aback, assimilates this into her understanding of the universe, moves on; it’s a throwaway scene, though one of many in which Nathan and his friends draw attention to the fact that Olivia has watched films and they have not.

[Here be spoilers]

Late in the book we discover that the serial killer aboard the ship is Doctor Sheen, the colony’s sole doctor who has never herself been a drone. Sheen wants to get back to Earth–with her knowledge of the drones and their allies she can easily buy her freedom–and has been killing off those on the ship towards this goal. She is, however, willing to see Vee as an equal and a potential ally, because “You have a love of literature and films and music and art, all the things that separate us from beasts and drones.”

And I’m wondering how this knowledge, that a familiarity with certain sorts of culture is both a marker of power and a weapon itself, sits with a book which is itself a reworking of a classic (and is thus made richer and deeper in the reading by the reader’s knowledge of its intertext/s), and there’s a lot here that is rich and interesting and that I’m not sure yet what to do with.

 

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The other thing that I could not fit into the review was the revelation that at one point, when Vee and Nathan are having sex, the act of cunnilingus is described as “to go where no one had gone before”. I’m not sure whether Star Trek exists within the universe of the book, but I’m choosing to believe this is a widely-used euphemism among Olivia’s people.

April 30, 2017

Another Carnegie Project

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noticed that I’m not, as I was this time last year, reading and reviewing the shortlist for the Carnegie medal–and will probably not be surprised.

Last year (why make more words when I can use my old ones?), I said this:

So what have the last three years’ Carnegie shortlists had to say about British children’s literature, other than that the judges and I don’t seem to agree on very much? Well for one, that non-white authors don’t write it. In each of the last three years (and I’d be interested in going back a few more years to see if things are better at any point) the shortlist has been composed entirely of white authors. This year I was so annoyed to see it happen again that I decided I’d read all the books by non-white authors on the nominees list. There are 93 entries on the nominees list. There are 4 books that I know to be by authors who aren’t white– and hopefully some I’ve missed, because those numbers are dismal. The Carnegie shortlist loves talking about race–though as Karen Sands-O’Connor points out here, it seems to prefer it when the whole thing can be conveniently displaced onto America, as with last year’s winner Buffalo Soldier, last year’s shortlist-ee, Ghost Hawk, and this year’s Lies We Tell Ourselves. (Or Australia, in last year’s Middle of Nowhere, or another planet, as with Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men.) (And the celebration of books like The Child’s Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston and Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper suggests a reluctance to engage with the ways in which structural racism allows certain books to be published and lauded.)

This year, the award went a step further in achieving an entirely white longlist as well, this time provoking some level of pushback from authors and critics. CILIP have announced that there will be a review (they’ve also included some of the usual “this has started a useful conversation” nonsense that makes me rageous, but moving on …), and that there may need to be structural changes–including to the existing criteria for examining the books. I’m curious to see how this turns out, but the current state of British publishing doesn’t make me too hopeful.

So why not give up on the Carnegie altogether? Honestly, I’m tempted. My academic work tends to focus on the British children’s literary canon, and like many people who work with a canon I spend a lot of time worrying that in producing more work on (e.g.) Arthur Ransome and C.S. Lewis and Mary Norton I’m just reinscribing their centrality to British children’s literature. But I work on Britishness after empire; and literary awards, and the creation of national literatures, are a key part of how this imagined community articulates its nationhood to itself.

This is particularly the case with the Carnegie, an award set up specifically as a British children’s literature award, and one whose parameters have shifted with shifting ideas of what that word “British” might encompass. Owen Dudley Edwards (British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War, Edinburgh University Press, 2007) notes that while the award at its inception in 1936 had claimed to reward “the best book for children published in the British Empire”, this wording morphed within a few years to refer to “England” (probably a result of parochialism rather than a deliberate attempt to exclude writers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). In 1944 the criteria changed again to specify “a British subject domiciled in the United Kingdom” and “published in Great Britain”. And so forth. (The current eligibility criteria merely require the book to have been published in the UK first, or within three months of its first publication, which avoids that minefield at least.)

All of which means that if you’re studying Britishness and children’s literature, the Carnegie medal is pretty hard to ignore. If the books rewarded by the medal change with a changing understanding of what a “British” book might be, one is compelled to notice what is not rewarded by the medal–where the limits of this Britishness lie. When, 82 years into the creation of the award, it has never been won by a non white writer … well.

 

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Here is the complete list of nominees for the medal for 2017, according to the website. On it, there are eight books that I’m aware of by authors who aren’t white. There are some omissions that confuse me (were neither of  Catherine Johnson’s two most recent books eligible?); and googling the names of unfamiliar authors and titles is of necessity a crude method for determining something like this, so there may be others I’ve missed (and I’d be grateful to be corrected if so).

 

Booked, by Kwame Alexander

Alpha, by Bessora and Barroux (trans. Sarah Ardizzone)

Chasing the Stars, by Malorie Blackman

Where Monsters Lie, by Polly Ho-Yen

Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence

The Girl of Ink & Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheatle

Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon

 

In an alternate universe, this might have been the shortlist for the medal (how many black and brown writers on a list is enough?). Given the rather shameful stats for the publication of children’s books by BAME authors, the last year or so has been unusually good for rewarding them.  Orangeboy was shortlisted for the Costa and won a Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, The Girl of Ink and Stars is on the Jhalak shortlist and won another Waterstones prize as well as the overall prize,  Nicola Yoon’s second book was a National Book Award finalist and is on the Waterstones list (and Everything, Everything is being made into a film, for what that’s worth), Crongton Knights won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, Malorie Blackman has won literally everything that isn’t the Carnegie (she was on the shortlist for Pig Heart Boy nearly ten years ago) and has been the Children’s Laureate. This is not an attempt to argue for the merit of these books (some of which I have not yet read) over the ones currently on the shortlist. It’s to say that, if one were to pick a shortlist of eight possible contenders from the nominations list (something like the Shadow Clarke), the list above would have been plausible.

 

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Alex Wheatle pointed out in this conversation on twitter that one of the reasons the Carnegie is so influential is precisely that it is shadowed–that schools (and other groups, like the one I’ve been a part of for the last few years) read and discuss the books in question, so that if books by BAME and other non white authors are not shortlisted they’re entirely removed from the conversation.

All of which is a longwinded way to say: I’m not interested in contributing to a conversation that has to take place in the absence of these authors. I don’t have the institutional power to take people with me, but instead of the official shortlist, this year* I’ll be reading and writing about my possible shortlist instead. I’m cheating a bit, since I’ve read some of them already. I wrote about Crongton Knights here and The Girl of Ink & Stars here, and my review of Chasing The Stars will be appearing in Strange Horizons in the next few days. I’m particularly curious about Nick Poole’s suggestion that “there may be a case for changing the criteria to protect the prize from unconscious bias”, so am considering returning to the books I’ve already read and reflecting on how they do or don’t work with the existing criteria upon which the books are judged. As the Millwood Hargrave and (when it’s out) Blackman reviews will show, I’m not expecting to adore these books or rage about how their authors were robbed–as a reviewer my default position is grumpy. But if I’m to direct my critical energy at anything, I’d rather it be these books than their absence.

 

 

 

 

*I’d like to say “this summer” and map this project onto the actual Carnegie timetable, but I also have a thesis to finish writing …

 

June 20, 2016

Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree (and general remarks on the Carnegie shortlist)

I read The Lie Tree in February and didn’t write about it at the time; I’d hoped to have found the time for a proper reread while discussing and writing about the Carnegie shortlist but when is there ever time for anything? As a result, the book I think might most reward discussion is the one I’m writing about least. It seems unfair.

The Lie Tree opens in a Victorian world similar to but not quite our own–one of the people with whom I discussed the book compared this setting, and its treatment, to that of Joan Aiken’s Wolves books, and that comparison works well for me.

Faith Sunderly and her family are in the middle of a rather hurried move to the channel island of Vane. Faith’s father, a reverend and a natural scientist, is an acknowledged expert in fossils; he has been invited to Vane to help excavate the caves on the island. That’s the official story; Faith knows very well that her father isn’t in the habit of taking his family on these research trips. It soon becomes clear that the Sunderlys have left England for a reason–rumours are flying about the authenticity of the Reverend Sunderly’s research, particularly of one particular fossil. In the newspapers, he is being publicly condemned as a fraud. And when the Reverend is found dead, Faith’s family seems more invested in disguising the possibility that it may have been the result of a suicide than they are in investigating her father’s murder.

The “lie” tree of the title (referred to in the book as “the Mendacity Tree”, a far superior, and Hardinge-y, word) has been brought to the island in secret by the Reverend, and only Faith knows where it is hidden. The tree feeds on lies, absorbing them to produce fruits that give the one who consumes them knowledge. In her quest for the truth, then, Faith finds herself in a horrifying position of power, responsible for a wave of dangerous lies and rumours circulating across the island. In some ways this all feels reminiscent of Hardinge’s last book, the (perfect) Carnegie-shortlisted Cuckoo Song, with its protagonist’s growing realisation and acceptance of the fact that people have the power to hurt other people and that we have to know this about ourselves and find ethical ways to live with it–the major difference, I think, is that Cuckoo Song feels a lot more internal to its protagonist’s head than The Lie Tree does. Faith is an outsider and an observer– though she’s less detached than her own narrative suggests.

That detachment is, perhaps, one of the things that contributes to a general sense of lacking nuance–or perhaps it’s simply the fact that this book is middle-grade and set in a period its readers may need to be educated about. This is most present in the book’s treatment of gender–it’s not enough that we see Faith consistently being valued less by the people around her, or see her mother struggling to survive with the only tool she’s allowed (charm), we must have characters who say things like “a girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can. If she is not good, she is nothing. Do you understand?” I don’t wish to suggest that no Victorian (or, indeed, no currently living) person would ever utter those words, but for a writer of Hardinge’s quality they feel disappointingly pat. It’s disappointing too because I am still, by inclination, a Victorianist (I seem to have stumbled into twentieth century literary studies by accident), and there’s so much to play with in a setting like this one, with regard to gender and religion and science. The Reverend Sunderly’s actions have stemmed from his growing panic at the ways in which his scientific discoveries and his religious beliefs don’t match up (I’m amazed and disappointed that no reviewers have chosen to title their pieces on this book “Crisis Of Faith”); there are fossils and accounts of weird nineteenth century travel and lady-explorers and women who are in love with other women, and this fantastic gloomy island and all of this should be the perfect fodder for Hardinge, whose prose is always delicious and off-kilter and yet doesn’t quite sparkle as much here as I expect it to.

It has to be said that the individual character notes and relationships are still done really well. Compared to, say, Fire Colour One, The Lie Tree actually does understand, and signal, the gendered power relations embedded in Faith’s initial idolisation of her father and dismissal of her mother. As Faith’s understanding of her situation grows so does her understanding of Myrtle, who may not be the best or most likeable of people, but makes sense. As far as prose, character, and general goodness go I enjoyed The Lie Tree more than anything else on the Carnegie list. But judging Hardinge by her own other works, as far as I’ve read them, this feels less impressive to me.

 

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I’ve been blogging the whole of the Carnegie shortlist for three years now, and in both previous years, even when I’ve been underwhelmed by the shortlists themselves, I’ve had a clear favourite, a book I think is genuinely brilliant, and that I wholeheartedly support. (Neither Liar & Spy in 2014 or Cuckoo Song in 2015 won, incidentally.) This year, that isn’t the case.

My posts on the individual books on this year’s shortlist are in the tag above, but to recap:

I enjoyed Sarah Crossan’s One but am dissatisfied by Crossan’s refusal to produce characters with some depth to them and by the book’s inability to face up to the questions about voyeurism it seems to want to ask; Nick Lake’s There Will Be Lies is mediocre and hates fat people (but that’s okay, I’m willing to hate it back); Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here is fine I guess (but that’s about it); I found Kate Saunders’s Five Children on the Western Front manipulative and a bit too eager to give me a history lesson (and a lot too willing to leave the empire out of said lesson); Marcus Sedgwick’s Ghosts of Heaven is ambitious in plot and form but doesn’t follow through; I think Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves is a good, accomplished book whose flaws unfortunately outweigh its positives; Jenny Valentine’s Fire Colour One just doesn’t hold together and is unthinkingly sexist. I am no fun at parties.

Clearly I should stop doing this, since apparently I just hate all books. But the Carnegie fascinates me; both as a children’s literature academic and as someone who studies empire and national identity. Prizes help make literary culture, and the Carnegie, beginning in 1936, is the British children’s literature canon of the last 80 years, and has fascinating things to say about Postimperial Britain and children’s literature. (And you should absolutely be following Dr Lucy Pearson’s Carnegie Project, here.)

So what have the last three years’ Carnegie shortlists had to say about British children’s literature, other than that the judges and I don’t seem to agree on very much? Well for one, that non-white authors don’t write it. In each of the last three years (and I’d be interested in going back a few more years to see if things are better at any point) the shortlist has been composed entirely of white authors. This year I was so annoyed to see it happen again that I decided I’d read all the books by non-white authors on the nominees list. There are 93 entries on the nominees list. There are 4 books that I know to be by authors who aren’t white– and hopefully some I’ve missed, because those numbers are dismal. The Carnegie shortlist loves talking about race–though as Karen Sands-O’Connor points out here, it seems to prefer it when the whole thing can be conveniently displaced onto America, as with last year’s winner Buffalo Soldier, last year’s shortlist-ee, Ghost Hawk, and this year’s Lies We Tell Ourselves. (Or Australia, in last year’s Middle of Nowhere, or another planet, as with Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men.) (And the celebration of books like The Child’s Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston and Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper suggests a reluctance to engage with the ways in which structural racism allows certain books to be published and lauded.)

What else? There’s a general trend towards death and despair, but far too much has been written (and far too many pearls have been clutched) on that subject. This is intertwined with a general privileging of young adult narratives over literature for middle-grade or younger readers, which feels like a shame–this has been a really good few years for middle-grade fiction, and it has been barely acknowledged. Issue Books, to use a reductive term, are also rewarded–there have been books on all three shortlists whose presence feels reducible to what they are About.

And finally, what does this suggest about today’s winner? This year’s shortlist has one added factor thrown in–that The Lie Tree, not content with winning the Costa Children’s Book Award (as Five Children on the Western Front did; and The Ghosts of Heaven was nominated as well), has also won the Costa Book of the Year, i.e. critical acclaim among books written for adults; the judges might need to really love something to knock something with that sort of cultural heft off the top spot.

To me The Lie Tree is the best book on this shortlist, yet I find myself reluctant to wholeheartedly champion it. This goes back to the whole awards-create-literary-culture thing; I don’t want a cultural narrative in which The Lie Tree is a more celebrated book than Cuckoo Song because I value the good things about Cuckoo Song more than the good things about The Lie Tree. Still, it is the best book here, and it’s the one I must throw my weight (take that, Nick Lake) behind.

Given my lack of success in predicting the result in previous years, I suspect this means the winner will be Lies We Tell Ourselves.