Archive for ‘Carnegie shortlist’

June 22, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: Tinder and Cuckoo Song, predictions and thoughts

Clearly we saved the most enjoyable week till the last.

TinderSally Gardner and David Roberts, Tinder: Okay, so I don’t entirely understand the Carnegie’s rules as regards illustrated works. Tinder is the only book on this year’s shortlist to also appear on the Carnegie’s sister award,  the Kate Greenaway’s  shortlist for illustration. Only Gardner’s name appears on the Carnegie, both Gardner and Roberts’s names appear on the Greenaway (this is consistent–in all other cases on the Greenaway shortlist where text and art are by different people, both are credited). But I’m not here to judge the Greenaway, and what I’m left wondering about is this–does this mean I’m supposed to be assessing Tinder only by Gardner’s words?

Tinder is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Tinderbox” (the one with the magic dogs with giant eyes), but transported to Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. I mention this because it seems important to how Gardner conceptualises the book–the specifics of the war that lies at the back of the narrative is rarely visible. That’s probably fine–the fairytale as a form is an excellent vehicle for a lot of things, but historical specificity is probably not one of them.

Form is probably going to be important to any reading of the book. One of the ways in which fairytales work is by not being very internal–it’s this detachedness that also allows them to talk about horrifying things. But then you have something like Tinder, which is longer than a fairytale (though not as long as it looks, because so much of it is the artwork) and so needs to sustain itself for that length, and is pretty explicitly about PTSD, and yet is shutting itself off from much of the interiority of the novel. I’m not convinced it works; I enjoyed reading it, but not in ways that involved much investment, and while I wouldn’t count that as a flaw in some sorts of narrative, it was something I missed here.

The art is beautiful, though, and I’m glad Roberts is receiving credit for that separately. This would be a much-diminished book without the illustrations–as it is, it’s a beautiful physical object as well as everything else. Not the best book on this shortlist (I haven’t looked at all the Greenaway books so cannot speak for that list, though the Shaun Tan book looks gorgeous) but good, and so pretty.


18298890Frances Hardinge, Cuckoo Song: I liked this book a lot.

Cuckoo Song begins with Triss waking up after a near-drowning and piecing herself back together, while trying to figure out what happened to her. The first section of the novel is dedicated to this mystery and it is, to me, the weakest part; still enjoyable to read (Hardinge is good at writing sentences) but not emotionally important. It’s once this particular mystery has been solved, when Triss has to face the truth of what she is, that Cuckoo Song suddenly begins to work really well.

Because Triss is (spoiler!) a changeling, and is inherently parasitic, and is dying. And Cuckoo Song hits so many character notes that I an susceptible to–Triss’s consciousness of her own destructiveness, her detachedness, that sense of feeling at a remove; toxic relationships and sisterly relationships and found family and wanting to protect. And Ellchester and its architecture work and the ways in which we move between horror and fantasy also work. It sometimes does the clever thing where things work as fantasy and allegory at the same time and sit comfortable beside each other and one does not subsume the other. I wasn’t even annoyed that it  was yet another WWI book (if I have a quibble I think it might be that I don’t endorse this book’s conception of history).

When I read A Face Like Glass many months ago, I said it felt as if Hardinge was drawing on aspects of some of my favourite authors– Joan Aiken, Mervyn Peake, Diana Wynne Jones. I see traces of so many things I love in Cuckoo Song, though it doesn’t feel derivative or even deliberately bricolage-y, and it’s extremely enjoyable to read. I don’t know, though, if this is connected to the fact that I enjoyed both of those books in quite a detached way. Even when, in the case of Cuckoo Song in particular, they were hitting all my particular emotional beats.

I’m not sure that isn’t a compliment though.



Predictions, thoughts: I suppose it would be okay if More Than This or Buffalo Soldier or maybe Tinder (though if Gardner won the Carnegie and Roberts didn’t win the Greenaway, that would feel unfair) won this year’s award, but as far as I’m concerned, Cuckoo Song is the best thing on the list by a considerable distance.

But I’m underwhelmed. I wasn’t always the biggest fan of last year’s shortlist, but other than the two particularly unfortunate titles (Ghost Hawk and The Child’s Elephant) I could see why each of those books was on that list. In a more just world the judges would have recognised that Liar & Spy was perfect, but The Bunker Diary was ambitious and had an integrity that I really do admire. This year’s shortlist has felt toothless to me; Hardinge aside, Landman and Ness’s books are the only ones that feel like they might be important, and both falter for me in crucial places. As a representative selection of the best children’s lit published in Britain over this period, this would be depressing if I didn’t know I’d read better things over this period. Where, for example, was Robin Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike? If they wanted smart, earnest, funny things (they did last year; surely that was part of the appeal of Rooftoppers and Liar & Spy?), where was Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees? Not even claiming either of these books was perfect (Murder Most Unladylike is about as close to perfect as it gets, though), but they don’t have to be.

And that’s two British children’s book awards shortlists I’ve read this year that have been made up entirely of white authors, as far as I can tell (usual disclaimers apply), and last year’s Carnegie shortlist (I did not see last year’s Little Rebels shortlist) was the same. That really is depressing.

June 21, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: When Mr Dog Bites and The Fastest Boy in the World

Short version: I’m not particularly into these books either.


wmdbBrian 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.

June 15, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: The Middle of Nowhere and Buffalo Soldier

This year’s Carnegie has been short on drama so here is some drama: will our heroine finish blogging about the books in time? More importantly, will she care?

Probably not, to be honest.


Geraldine McCaughrean, The Middle of Nowhere

Comity is the daughter of a telegraph operator on an isolated station in the Australian outback, her only friend an Aboriginal boy named Fred. When the book opens her mother has just died (of a snakebite), and her father Herbert is falling apart from grief. Things rapidly get very, very bad–as Herbert is less and less able to cope his new assistant, Quartz Hogg, gains more and more power and Comity, Herbert and Fred are increasingly isolated.

The first part of The Middle of Nowhere makes for a really effective horror story; the isolation, the slowly building tension, the sheer evil of Hogg, who manages to be racist, sexually predatory and violent. You can see how beautifully this would work on film. The tension is broken, however, when Comity and Fred run away into the wilderness, but then Fred nearly dies, they meet some “Ghans” (Muslim immigrants who are not from Afghanistan), before eventually coming home to even more horror than they left.

I feel like there are two good books in The Middle of Nowhere. One’s that first horror story, the second, tonally completely different, is the last section of the book, in which a terrified Comity is trying to protect her father and almost causes a war. One of the people present for this discussion said there was something a bit Frances Hardinge about this part of the plot, the image of this child in her father’s office sending these messages out into the world, and I can see that–and children struggling to protect people they love is a thing I am (like most people?) susceptible to.

The problem, for me, is the rest of the book outside these two sections (and some of the parts of it inside them as well). It’s slack, in parts, and a bit toothless. Its treatment of race is often infuriatingly simplistic: good white people, like Comity and her parents, are not racist; bad white people, like drunk sexual predator Hogg, are. Comity’s afraid of the “ghans” because she doesn’t know anything about them, but then she learns. The warring people of colour have to ally immediately to stop the Europeans from killing them all (okay, that one’s probably accurate). Between this and some of the functions to which the text puts Fred, I rolled my eyes several times. I wish we’d had either of the books this one could have been; and I wish the genuinely great moments (the dried-up prehistoric sea!) had been built on.

Also: rarely has such a good first line of a book been so let down by its second line.


Tanya Landman, Buffalo Soldier:

I was dreading this one. Last year’s book about race and American history did not go well, shall we say– indeed, nothing about last year’s list suggested that nuanced discussion of race was one of the criteria the judges were applying.

So it was a massive relief that this turned out to be much better than I’d expected (caveating this with my lack of expertise in American history). Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, it’s the story of a young black woman, Charley, who pretends to be a man and joins the army, originally for want of anywhere else to go. Plantation life is not glamorised but nor is what “freedom” is available to these characters after the war, and Landman gives as much time to the minor depressing realities (the necessity of a lot of walking, the continued existence of bodily functions–it shouldn’t be this refreshing to have a character menstruate) as she does to the major ones–for obvious reasons this is not a cheerful book. But the camaraderie between Charley and the other soldiers occasionally lightens things a bit (until they die, of course). Most importantly, Charley’s not magically tolerant in the way that Comity’s family, above, seems to be–she begins the book prejudiced against Native Americans and has that prejudice repeatedly challenged and (this is important) repeatedly fails to learn and get past it. But up to a point we see that process and the gradual reframing of thoughts it requires, and it feels realistic and fair to the character as well as real, historical people. And then Charley meets a young Apache man named Jim and falls in love.


[Rough, confused thoughts ahead]

I’ve spent a lot of time ranting with a friend recently about political agency in fictional characters. Katniss just wants to protect the people she loves and she’s swept up unwittingly in a revolution that she has to learn to navigate and that’s fine, but we’re never offered characters who begin from a position of having a broader morality-based politics–unless you count the fanatics who are willing to kill whoever stands in the way of the bigger cause. What I mean, and I don’t wish to put the responsibility for this on children’s literature when it feels like something that’s missing across the board, is that I don’t see models for collective morality that aren’t based in a purely personal relationship. Comity is prejudiced against the “ghans” and learns better, but she’s helped along the way by Moosa being helpful and pretty and fluent in English; Charley might eventually have overcome her prejudice on purely intellectual/moral grounds but is saved the necessity of this by Jim’s being really attractive.

And perhaps it’s unfair to criticise these books for not doing things they’re clearly not trying to do, but I want something more than “we should be nice to people who are not like us because they are more like us than we think, and/or sexy”. What would it mean to come up against the limits of our present capability for empathy, to face people or problems genuinely outside those limits, how do we behave morally then? It’s a question that feels very current to me (in part because I’ve kept turning to Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities this year, but it’s related, I think, to this post by Kate Schapira [and Niall Harrison raises a similar question in a soon-to-be-published review]), but it’s also one that seems like it ought to be central to the history of racism, so that historical fiction might legitimately be a space for exploring it. Neither of these two particular works of historical fiction provides such a space–I don’t think McCaughrean’s book particularly wants to, but Buffalo Soldier comes frustratingly close. It’s not a useful metric by which to judge either book, though, probably.

June 7, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: More Than This and Apple and Rain

This time last year I was trying to read (and write about) the whole of the Carnegie shortlist in far too short a time. This year we gave ourselves ample time–two books every three weeks (clubbed together relatively randomly in our discussions, as they are here)–and are now six books into the shortlist of eight. Despite all this extra time, and for reasons that will probably become apparent as we go through this shortlist, I am not doing separate posts on all the books this year.


Patrick Ness, More Than This:

Definitely a good thing I’m not writing entire posts about these books because I only skimmed this one this time. I’d read it properly at the end of 2013, shortly after it came out, and while I enjoyed it (as far as you can ‘enjoy’ something as upsetting as this) I wasn’t entirely bowled over by it. In part this was because of the insistence, more prominent at the time of the book’s publication, on the fact that the main character does die at the beginning of the book. I am clearly nitpicking, but it did rather feel like the book was trying to claim to be doing something quite difficult (writing a story in which the protagonist is really, properly killed off at the beginning) while at the same time trying to benefit from an ambiguous is this real? is it fantasy? is this the afterlife? are we in the matrix? that continues for much of the plot. That plot, in brief: Seth drowns, then wakes up in a deserted English town he recognises from his childhood. The rest of the novel is spent in trying to find out what has happened, surviving his present situation (alongside two other children, Regine and Tomasz) and for the reader, piecing together the children’s past lives. Ness’s real strength isn’t so much the exploration of situations (I think very highly of the Chaos Walking books but not as a nuanced exploration of colonialism and war) as of people in those situations–when talking about the specifics of characters he’s able to capture something that is strong and honest and moving. He’s at his weakest when dealing in abstracts–it’s when he writes about particular people feeling particular things that he’s at his best. All of Seth’s memories of his previous life felt urgent and important to me in ways that the book’s present rarely managed–and that’s including the Robinson Crusoe-y bits at the beginning and the (terrifying, seriously) Driver. I really should read Ness’s non-fantasy work.


Sarah Crossan, Apple and Rain:

I haven’t read The Weight of Water, Crossan’s novel in verse, and on the strength of Apple and Rain I think I might like to. This book is told from the perspective of Apple, a teenage girl who has not seen her mother for years, and lives with her grandmother (with occasional visits from her father and his new partner). When her mother returns, all remorseful and cool and willing to let her daughter skip school and occasionally drink alcohol (such a contrast to her overprotective grandmother) Apple is completely won over, even when it turns out there are things her mother has been keeping from her. Like the existence of Rain, her little sister. Teenage girls navigating complex family relationships and dealing with unreliable adults–everyone I discussed this with immediately brought up Jacqueline Wilson, who of course does that sort of thing brilliantly. This is also one reason Crossan’s book failed to impress any of us very much–we’ve read versions of this book several times before so that it would need to be done very well to stand out. It isn’t done that well–the relationships between the main women characters work, but the characters themselves often lack much depth (and Rain’s age seems all over the place). There’s also, presumably not in a bid to collect the complete set of clichés, the mysterious, perfect, new boy at school who only has eyes for Apple; also a Dead Poets Society English teacher in whose classes the students learn that war is bad (there’s a great moment when he’s forced to acknowledge the presence of a student whose father is in the army, however) and to express themselves; who does not recognise appropriate teacher-student boundaries (showing up at a student’s house randomly? No.) but does recognise Apple’s special poetic talent. I’m probably being more dismissive than a book I genuinely enjoyed reading deserves; there are moments that genuinely do work and Crossan resists the temptation to wrap it all up too neatly. But Apple and Rain is one of those books that just doesn’t feel thought-through. There’s only a sporadic sense of the other characters in this world having real, complex lives worth knowing about–at any moment the book will choose to fall back on mean girls and perfect boys next door and uniquely talented protagonists.

June 23, 2014

William Sutcliffe, The Wall

A mere couple of hours before the award is announced I come to the last book on the Carnegie list.


As has probably become clear over the course of the last couple of weeks, I’m suspicious (usually with good reason) of issue books by outsiders. William Sutcliffe’s The Wall is about the Israeli occupation (apparently Sutcliffe describes himself as a Jewish Atheist) but it also comes with an approving blurb from Raja Shehadeh, the author of Palestinian Walks, which seemed promising.

I don’t think The Wall ever actually uses the words “Israel” or “Palestine”, but unless the child reading it is genuinely unaware of the existence of either (it’s recommended for children aged 11+, for what that’s worth) it’s so obvious as to not need stating. Joshua lives in a new settlement near the Wall between his own people and the others. Travel between the two areas is carefully regulated and all around him Joshua hears about how unsafe he is, how he and those around him are constantly under threat of attack. Then one day he finds a way to cross the wall and sees what conditions on the other side are like.

It’s almost an anti- portal fantasy. Joshua finds his secret tunnel, and is continually drawn back, but the other side is not exactly filled with friendly talking animals who think he’s special and want to give him tea. He is in danger all the time he’s there, and eventually is permanently disabled as a result of his injuries.

It’s tempting to read The Wall alongside Ghost Hawk, and the two do fit neatly into what feels like an established genre of children forming friendships across conflict lines. Where I think The Wall wins out on this front is in its highlighting of how deeply fraught these friendships are (since half of Cooper’s pair is dead for most of their acquaintance the question doesn’t really arise). As a direct result of Joshua’s association with Leila’s family, her father is brutally beaten, his health deteriorates and the family garden that means so much to him is destroyed. Joshua is forced to learn that his good intentions mean very little when set against the vastness of this disparity in power. And yet these relationships are worth something. Joshua and Leila’s friendship feels rather perfunctory, but his bond with her father, for whom he digs the garden, tries to save the trees, risks his life, is difficult, but to both characters very real.

Another way in which the two books are similar is in their family structures. Both Joshua and Cooper’s John have widowed mothers who marry abusive religious fundamentalists who don’t really see the other side as human. I have to say I’m a bit tired of this. I have no personal stake in defending religion against denigration, I’m an atheist myself. But bad religious types have showed up in the last three books on this shortlist that I’ve read and Liev, Joshua’s mother’s partner, is far from rational in his hate. To the extent that: “His cheeks are flushed and his breath is short. Two off-white curls of foamy spittle have settled in the corners of his mouth.”

I may not have a stake in defending religion, but I do have one in the idea that children’s lit can depict a world that is vast and morally complex and in which, if there were no religions (thank you John Lennon) everything would not magically come right. There are enough people who support Israel’s actions who are not conveniently foaming at the mouth; to refuse to engage with that fact is to ignore most of the problem. Joshua’s mother offers a potential candidate to undo this, but we’re never sure how much of her stated hatred for the Palestinians is toeing the party line for peace within the home.

That it’s all filtered through Joshua’s consciousness is probably an indicator of Sutcliffe’s intended audience, or possibly of the author’s own experience learning the full extent of the problem. Joshua’s ignorance, a consequence of his privilege, might be read to parallel the hypothetical reader’s education. But there’s power in operation even at the level of narrative—the consequences of these events are painful and awful for Joshua but we know his story. Part of his privilege over the Palestinian characters is the privilege of narrative. I don’t know if Sutcliffe intended this to be part of the point, but I think it’s an important one.



As I write this, the Carnegie Awards ceremony is in progress. I’m not going to try and predict a winner, but I know what I’m rooting for. I’d be quite happy for Julie Berry, Kevin Brooks or Katherine Rundell to win, and William Sutcliffe and Anne Fine’s books are both good, but Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy is perfect; I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t win this, but I will be disappointed.



June 23, 2014

Julie Berry, All The Truth That’s In Me

The penultimate part of my Carnegie Award shortlist readthrough.

A trigger warning for rape might be necessary. (There are also spoilers, as always)


Apparently Julie Berry’s All The Truth That’s In Me began as an experiment in writing in the second person. I expected this stylistic choice to feel more forced (certainly more visible) than it does—but to me it flowed quite naturally. It does raise questions about the book’s framing narrative; the context in which Judith is addressing the story to Lucas and where this telling exists, chronologically in relation to the story weren’t clear to me. I mention this because one of the official criteria upon which the Carnegie is to be judged (not that this series of posts has paid much attention to those criteria) is control over plot, and in this instance I’m not sure that control is fully exhibited.

All The Truth That’s In Me is set in what feels like a puritan settlement called Roswell Station. Berry deliberately omits real detail, so apart from the general mood of things this could be any settler colony of history or fantasy. A couple of years before the story opens two young girls, Judith and Lottie, went missing. Lottie’s body was found in the river shortly afterwards. Now Judith has returned, her tongue cut out, unable to tell what has happened to her or who is responsible.

In a sense, then, this is a murder mystery told by the only person (other than the murderer, obviously) who knows what has happened. In most books this would require some pretty elaborate narrative strategies for concealing and revealing information. I don’t see them here, and yet somehow the whole thing works. For much of the book we’re led to believe that the villain of the piece is Ezra, the father of Judith’s childhood sweetheart Lucas. The village believe Ezra to be dead; as the novel progresses we learn that he is not, and not as straightforwardly villainous as he appears at first to be—though that still leaves him plenty of villainy.

As the novel progresses we see Judith’s increasing urge to communicate, and her finding ways to do so. An attempt to learn how to read is thwarted by her mother, but she finds an excuse to go to school with her brother—where the schoolmaster sexually harasses her (it’s all rather grim). She befriends another young woman, and in her finds a friend in front of whom she’s not afraid to attempt to speak. Among the things the novel does extremely well are these small personal relationships and character sketches. Judith’s relationships with her brother and mother, female friendship and solidarity when they are needed, people who are not the main couple but who care for one another deeply.

Her relationship with Lucas I was occasionally less sure about, if only because it’s easy to be tired of these always-meant-to-be romances in fiction. It’s nice, however, to see young women’s desire placed at the centre of a narrative—and it’s almost refreshing when she does a sort of reverse-Twilight and creepily snuggles down to lie under a blanket with him while he’s asleep.

At more than one point we’re asked to consider how this relationship can have a future when first we, then Lucas, believe his father to have raped and killed one girl and mutilated another—a shadow like this one is bound to hang over a relationship. Yet the big twist at the end when Judith finds her voice does away with this particular concern. Ezra is not Lottie’s killer or Judith’s torturer after all.

It’s this ending that disappoints me a little, coming after what is mostly an excellent novel. Everything is made easy for the reader—the villains is a religion-obsessed sexual predator, Judith’s lover’s father turns out to be her protector (so awful are many of the other men in the book that Ezra’s choices to kidnap Judith for her safety, struggle not to rape her for two years, and finally to cut out her tongue and send her home when the stress of not raping her grows too great are made to sound positively benign in comparison—this is not treated as a cloud that will hang over the characters), Lucas has loved her all along.

Ending aside, though, this is a strong, often beautiful book. It’s not my choice for the award, but would be a worthy winner.

June 22, 2014

Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk

The sixth in this series of posts about this year’s Carnegie Award shortlist. I love Susan Cooper’s work so much, and I wish I’d been able to love this book.

As always, there are spoilers.


My people still live in some parts of this New England, a few thousand of them, on tribal reservation lands. They keep alive our traditions and our spirit; they struggle to revive language in places where it has faded away; they fight for the rights of the tribes under the nation’s law. They are the soul of the land to which we belong, where once we roamed free. But now they share that freedom with others, in the new nation to which they too belong. They are Americans.

Most of what is wrong with Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk (and this review is going to take the position that a number of things are wrong with Ghost Hawk) is present in the paragraph above.

Hiromi Goto recently began her Wiscon Guest of Honour speech with a version of an Acknowledgement of Country—that link is to a Wikipedia page on the Australian custom, and I don’t know if the US (or Canada, which is where Goto is from) have a similar tradition in place, but it’s one I wasn’t very aware of before, and one that I think is important. Because surely one of the ways in which we deal with legacies of settler colonialism is through acknowledgement—through not forgetting who was here before us and why, in many cases, they are not here, or their presence is significantly diminished, now.

I mention this because I think at the heart of Ghost Hawk there’s an attempt to reconcile this past with America’s present, and with the rights of those who have immigrated since to feel themselves at home there. And to do Cooper justice, I think that she’s right that this difficult thing has to be done (centuries of history cannot now be wiped out) and that it is difficult.

Ghost Hawk begins with two epigraphs; a Roger Williams quote about how the ‘Indian’ is as good as any Englishman, and a bit of Woody Guthrie’s “This land is your land”. I’m not sure to what extent we’re supposed to take either quote uncritically— I’ve only heard Guthrie’s song used in a folk-y, claiming back the land by the disenfranchised sort of context. In the context of white settlers in America, the recurring “this land was made for you and me” gets really uncomfortable, unless we clarify exactly who the yous and mes in this equation are. The Williams quote is unremarkable besides being quite progressive for 1643.

The story itself—the first half is the story of Little Hawk, of the Pokanoket Tribe, of the Wampanoag Nation, who goes into the woods in the dead of winter to prove himself ready for adulthood by surviving alone and off the land. He returns many weeks later to find most of his village dead, killed by a mysterious disease bought by the white man. The survivors of other, similarly affected villages band together and begin to forge new bonds, and all the while there is the question of the white men and how they are to treat with them. Little Hawk meets a boy named John Wakeley and though they can’t speak to one another they manage to share names. Then, about halfway through the book, John’s father is trapped under a fallen tree. Hawk lifts his tomahawk to help, two Europeans assume he has violent intentions and shoot him dead.

It’s both a bit awkward and a great idea because one generally expects the narrator of a book to survive it, even when the title promises ghosts. Having died, Little Hawk’s spirit attaches itself to John for most of the rest of the book, magically teaching him the language and allowing us to see things from the settlers’ perspective until John dies, many years later, as an old man.

There’s never any reason to believe that all this isn’t meticulously researched (though I gather that the choice of which materials to research might be an issue). Nor is there a flinching from violence; and in an afterword Cooper lays out a timeline and statistics that make the sheer scale and duration of that violence, and which side bore the brunt of it, clear. But so much of this is just not good. It plods along (and I hate this, because plodding is not a thing I’ve ever had to accuse Cooper’s work of), it flattens most of the white characters into noble anti-racist or evil, foaming at the mouth racist cartoon. For his new stepfather John gets saddled with what may have been the only man in Plymouth hostile to reading. It seems weird to say of such a book that it’s unfair to the European settlers, but it is. On the other side of the divide, the Native American characters are stoic and noble or hot-tempered and noble. No one is coming out of this well.

John is made important at the cost, I suspect, of other interesting Plymouth natives (Williams in particular is rendered dull) and of various Native American characters. He’s made into the saviour of Metacom/King Philip’s life, and we’re never given an in-text reason why Little Hawk should attach himself to this person after death, as if we’re to take it for granted that his spirit should gravitate to a white boy he’s met once, rather than, say, go and check up on what remains of his family.

And then John is killed (by Little Hawk’s friends and kinsmen, oh tragic irony) and Little Hawk is stranded, attached to the earth by his tomahawk, forced to watch as things get increasingly bloody and he wants to be released. And then there’s that passage I quote at the beginning of this piece. And … no. “they share that freedom with others, in the new nation to which they too belong”, this to me is an offensively glib elision of the disparities in that “freedom”. I’m not sure how one goes from the bloody history portrayed here to a present filled with forgetting and systemic racism and sports teams called the redskins and comes out with the message that this land belongs to everyone now, hurrah!, but here we are. 

We move on to an epilogue, in which Little Hawk’s salt marsh island is now the home of a woman named Rachel who only plants “native” plants and trees in her garden, but has brought a decidedly non-native dog named Pan to live here. Rachel’s gardening causes the head of Hawk’s buried tomahawk to be uncovered, and she can see him. And this is where things get uncomfortably personal because in her author’s note Cooper states that seven years ago she built a house on Little Hawk’s island. I’m forced at this point to read Rachel (“a wise woman, even though she is not old”) as an authorial insertion.

She says, “I’m trying to take care of this piece of land, Little Hawk. I’ll do my best.”

Something about the tilt of her head reminds me of Suncatcher again.

I say suddenly, “Are you Wampanoag?”

She shrugs. She says, “There are all kinds of tribes in me, most of them from across the ocean. And I don’t belong to any of them. If human beings weren’t so big on belonging to groups, I don’t believe they’d fight wars.”

It’s Rachel, the nice, wise, English lady, who manages to devise a completely made up ritual that will release Hawk from the land; who suggests, groundbreakingly, that if people didn’t have any sort of group affinity they wouldn’t kill each other so much; who swoops in and fixes things. I said at the beginning of this piece that I read Ghost Hawk as trying to tease out the difficult question of belonging to a place and also acknowledging the horrors that led to one’s own belonging there; that Cooper is speaking of her own home and its history I think bears this reading out. Which is all well and good except that Ghost Hawk flattens this as it flattens so much else; the discomfort with which this question begins is jettisoned in favour of these glib answers, and the whole, bloody history of the land is turned into reassurance that yes, people like Rachel can call it home as well.

June 16, 2014

Rebecca Stead, Liar & Spy


The fifth in this series of posts about the Carnegie shortlist. At the time of writing I’ve read all but one of the books on the list and I have a very clear favourite. This is it.

Georges (the “s” because his parents really like Georges Seurat) is twelve. His family have had to move into a smaller apartment since his father lost his job; his mother, a nurse, is always at the hospital; the weird boy upstairs has involved him in a plot to thwart a possible murderer; he’s being bullied at school. It’s not the best of times. Worst of all, looming in the immediate future is the Science Unit of Destiny’s taste test, which will probably prove to the world that Georges is a freak.

One of the many things I like about Liar & Spy is how seriously it takes its concerns. In the context of the rest of the Carnegie list, those concerns may seem quite trivial, but even within this book there’s a constant tension between the big and small pictures (Stead’s use of pointillism is not exactly subtle) and it, and we, come down on the side of small things mattering very much in context. The book treats events as seriously as they loom in Georges’ perspective, and it’s a form of respect for child readers and child characters that I admire very much.

Late in the book Safer, the boy upstairs and Georges’ spy club companion, blurts out that he knows Georges’ secret and has known all along. Georges, understandably, does not take this well. Soon after, Safer starts again, beginning by sharing his own secret. It’s one of several moments in the book where you see young people figuring out how it is that one relates to others, which barriers we maintain and which ones we breach, how trust and vulnerability are reciprocal. This whole business of human interaction.

And I speak of secrets because naturally (with a title like that!) Georges has them. As an older reader I’m trained to notice omissions; both Georges’ and Safer’s accounts of themselves have important holes in them. The only surprise for me was in how not-heartbreaking the big reveal was (I spent much of the book concerned that the absent mother was really dead, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that she wasn’t). This isn’t meant for a criticism of the book, and I have no way of knowing how a less suspicious reader might encounter this twist. But being aware of what was left out was a large part of my appreciation for the book’s structure, and that appreciation increased when all was revealed at the end. Everything fits together so well, and the whole thing really rewards time spent dwelling on it.

It’s still less complex than Stead’s previous novel, When You Reach Me, which also feels slightly older (though the characters are about the same age, from what I remember of it). But they’re both set in apartment buildings in a New York that is full of summer evenings and personal relationships with neighbours and shopkeepers and there’s such a strong sense of place (apparently the author is drawing a lot on her own childhood homes) that it’s tempting to see them both as existing in the same universe.

Liar & Spy is skilful and kind and deadpan funny and just so good. I don’t know if it has a chance at winning the award, with a shortlist so filled with big, impressive names (if not impressive books) but it clearly should.

June 13, 2014

Katherine Rundell, Rooftoppers

The fourth in this series of posts about this year’s Carnegie shortlist.

I’ve ranted spoken elsewhere about the irritating persistence of the idea that literature (and film, and art in general) must be grim to speak of important things. And that good children’s literature must be about important Issues. This shortlist is quite heavy on both grimness and issues. Rundell’s Rooftoppers, though, is pure froth, and comes as a welcome diversion from some of the rest.

Set in an alternate-Victorian timeline (in that it didn’t feel particularly faithful to history but did feel quite faithful in tone to, eg., Joan Aiken), it is the story of Sophie, shipwrecked as a child and found floating in a cello case by Charles, an eccentric bachelor. Sophie grows up (despite Charles sometimes clothing, and only occasionally feeding her) believing that she remembers her mother and that said mother might still be alive. So when Miss Eliot, who works for the government and finds Charles’ parenting methods as dubious as I do, has him declared unfit to raise a child, Charles and Sophie escape to Paris to look for Sophie’s mother. In Paris Sophie meets the sky-treaders, orphans who have escaped the state system to live on the city’s rooftops.

There’s something very classic children’s book about all of this. I’ve mentioned Aiken already, there’s also a healthy dose of Streatfeild, possibly some E. Nesbit. Which isn’t to call Rooftoppers derivative of those books, merely to place it in that tradition. It is a little too familiar at times, though; the whimsy of Charles, the fact that state oppression manifests itself in trying to keep Sophie in skirts rather than trousers.

I’ve seen reviews comparing Rooftoppers to a Disney movie and it’s easy to see it working as an animated film. It’s warm and whimsical and visually has so much potential—there’s a scene about halfway through in which Sophie and her friend Matteo are standing on a tightrope high above the street and calling to and befriending birds, and it’s magical.

There are minor annoyances; structure, which should be a major annoyance. A lot of plot threads are picked up and dropped; the possibility that the shipwreck at the beginning of the book was a deliberate one, the history of the sky-treaders and gariers, the suggestion that Sophie’s mother might have been a sky-treader herself at one time, the larger question of how this whole system works (this is my inner SF fan talking, I suspect). Obviously no one’s suggesting that everything in a book needs to be explained, but there’s a difference between the sort of invoking-and-leaving that fleshes out a world by making it big and unquantifiable and full of stories and the sort that suggests that something has been invented only to service the plot and let’s not talk about it again, and I’m not sure Rundell’s always on the right side of this. I was enjoying myself too much to care most of the time, but I refuse to be entirely charmed into uncriticalness.

I find myself wishing I’d read this alongside Anne Fine’s Blood Family, another book that concerns itself with the workings of child services (in Fine’s book a much more noble profession) and attitudes towards biological relations to whom one bears a physical resemblance, in ways that make for a hilarious contrast with Rooftoppers. (As an aside: Sophie’s hair, and that of her mother, are frequently described as “the colour of lightning”, which makes it very tempting to believe they have blue rinses.)

I described Rooftoppers above as “froth”. And as froth it is very welcome, but I do feel that the Carnegie ought to be reserved for something more substantial. As happy as this made me, I don’t think it made a lasting impression and don’t think I’ll be backing it to win—but I hope that movie happens.

June 12, 2014

Anne Fine, Blood Family

The third of a series of posts about the books on the Carnegie Award shortlist.


Eddie is a very young child, the son of a mother whose abusive partner has left her entirely unable to care for herself. They are rescued by social workers called in by a concerned neighbour, and Eddie is placed with foster parents, then adopted. Thanks in part to a pile of video recordings of an old television show he is better adjusted than anyone expects, and is able for some years to live a relatively normal, happy life. Then, in his teens, he recognises the face of his mother’s abuser in his own, realises that this was his biological father, and falls apart.

Blood Family is told through multiple perspectives, of both minor and major characters. Eddie himself, his family, the couple who fostered him; a wide supporting cast of social workers, teachers, psychiatrists. Only his parents are silent, in both cases for obvious reasons. This piecing together of multiple perspectives amounts to almost a lesson in how society functions, how different people in different circumstances fit together.

It all feels (speaking as a relative outsider to the British system) very thoroughly researched. A thing I like very much is how sharply observed it can be. Young Eddie’s early years in school, where he protects himself by copying what the other children are doing rather than make himself vulnerable by showing himself a stranger. Later in life, his discomfort with being around his mother for a long period, and his inability to communicate with her. The social workers who work out at what point he was taken out of school as a small child by determining whether he remembers pedalling toy cars or pushing them along with his feet. These are all small things that feel real. And I like the imperfection of Eddie’s adopted mother Natasha, and the quiet support of his sister Alice. I like that trauma iis both something you can get past and live normally and happily, and something that can rise to the surface at any moment and overwhelm you.

Looking at various reviews of the novel I see that many of them claim that it is tackling the nature/ nurture debate– and obviously this is signalled in the title and in the particular form that Eddie’s crisis takes. But I don’t think it is, particularly (and that’s fine because surely we’ve all reached the point where everyone is willing to admit that the answer is neither-both-it’s-complicated). I do think Blood Family is working around ideas of how we deal with our pasts and how far we can control our relationship with it, and I think it treats these questions in a nuanced, respectful way. Though the story of how we go through lives affected at different times by our prior selves is not one with a strong narrative arc.

Perhaps this is why I find myself not caring very much. Or perhaps it’s the format, with its breadth of perspectives that never has us spend much time with anyone (except Eddie, but even for him I was rarely more than lukewarm), or simply the fact of reading in the context of an award. I admire many things about Blood Family, and even (for what that’s worth) approve of its politics on the whole, but emotionally and intellectually I all but bounced off it. It’s good, and while I don’t think it’s the best book on the shortlist I wouldn’t be upset if it won. But it’s not a book I’ll be going back to.