Archive for ‘children’s literature’

September 18, 2016

Alice Pung, Laurinda

I only discovered a few days ago (when I saw the Reading While White review of the book) that Alice Pung’s Laurinda had been retitled Lucy and Linh in its American edition. My own copy of the book is the Black Inc/Penguin version that was available (in kindle form, at least) in the UK–as ever, I’m unsure whether this means it would have been eligible for the Carnegie award or not.

I’m not sure what to make of this title change, and to talk about my ambivalence I am going to have to give away certain plot elements (I don’t think most people who read this blog care about spoilers, but just in case: Spoiler Warning).

The novel is written in epistolatory form from Lucy Lam to someone named Linh. Lucy is a Vietnamese-Australian teenager of Teochew ancestry, and she has grown up in a working class suburb of Melbourne. She has been attending a local Catholic school, but wins a scholarship to Laurinda Ladies College, an old, exclusive private school. From the beginning, she’s a bit ambivalent about the scholarship, which she really did not expect to win–it may mean a better future, but it also means leaving her friends behind. Linh, we’re given to understand, is one of those friends.

It is probably clear from “we’re given to understand” that this isn’t really true. Towards the end of the book it is revealed that Lucy and Linh have been the same person all along; that the letters are a form of mediation between the two sides of our protagonist’s life.

Which is fine; the trick of allowing your readers to frame the narrative in a particular way and then undermining those assumptions at the end can be really effective–I’m thinking of books like Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy, or Gene Kemp’s Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler. An attentive reader who has read this sort of thing before and has some sense of what to look for may begin to suspect not very far into the book that there’s a reason we’ve got a much clearer sense of Lucy’s other friends than of Linh (who is seemingly her closest friend). But even for a pretty experienced reader of This Sort of Thing, Laurinda presents a bit of a challenge. An example, from early in the book. Lucy and her friends have come out of the scholarship exam, and are discussing the final essay question:

Suddenly, Tully turned towards you. “What did you write about, Linh?”
You just laughed. “Something stupid.”
[a page or two later]
For some reason, the picture in the exam paper had reminded me of my mother, so I’d written about her. If the other girls had asked, I would have told them. But somehow I did not want to share this with Tully.

“If the other girls had asked” is doing some good work here–allowing for both “the other girls in Lucy’s group,” and “the other girls, except Tully, with whom she does not want to share this.”

Moments like this are really cleverly done–at other points, it’s still not clear to me to what extent Lucy is imagining herself as separate from Linh; whether some of the difficulty in working it out is from inconsistency rather than skillful elision. But I think the concealment of Linh’s identity does add something to the book– and it’s something quite disconcerting. For much of the book Lucy is talking about the split in her life between her working class suburb and family, and Laurinda’s posh whiteness, and the level of performance that survival at the school entails. It’s all too easy to map this split onto Lucy and Linh, but then we’re left with the possibility that Lucy, with whom we’ve spent the duration of the book, is only half of the complete person we’ve let ourselves think we’re seeing; that we are part of the audience to whom she must perform. And you then go back through the book, wondering to what extent things are being framed to suit our expectations of the narrative (and you remind yourself that voices aren’t that neatly split across people, and whether it’s possible to write as Linh at all without some Lucy slipping in). I wonder to what extent the reframing caused by changing the title then changes this experience–if by giving Linh equal weight in the title, the reader is led to focus more on her role, and what that does to the book’s playing around with the reader’s assumptions. (I also don’t know if the book has been edited and/or changed in other ways for its American edition, so this speculation may be meaningless.)

But my other reservation about the changed title is a personal one–that it shifts the focus from the school.

I became interested in reading Laurinda because it was a school story. (Pause for regular readers of this blog to roll their eyes.) It’s a school story because it’s set in a school and is about a student’s experiences of that school, but I don’t know if Pung is a fan of the school story genre; Laurinda doesn’t obviously position itself in dialogue with that tradition (in the way that, say, Robin Stevens’s books do), but that needn’t mean she isn’t familiar with it.

Here are some tropes of the school story: the new student who comes to the school and has to familiarise herself with its structure and ethos; the scholarship student who, despite being poorer than the rest, shows herself to be as worthy as them and triumphs in the end; the bad prefects who are exposed so that things are put right. Intentional or not (perhaps some of these tropes are just inherent to the setting), Laurinda ends up negotiating exactly these situations, but in complex, and (if you’re already interested in school stories) fascinating ways. Arriving at the school, Lucy finds that her background has not made it that easy for her to prove her worth–there are things that are taught differently, or better, here than in her old school; there are cultural shibboleths that will continuously mark her as an outsider. More, her outsiderness itself will be weaponised in ways she hadn’t anticipated–by the well-meaning white woman who wants her for a protégée, the popular kids, and most importantly, by the institution itself. She learns that she is expected to perform her role as (poor, ethnic minority) scholarship student in ways that are sufficiently palatable to those around her as well as making the institution look good. The book’s big climatic moment is not the one where Lucy and Linh finally merge to tell the powerful girls of the Cabinet to fuck off, it’s later, when Lucy gives a speech that proves that she’s finally understood her place in this system, has understood how far she can go without being crushed by the institution; how to accept that she is being manipulated and to manipulate it right back.

Because throughout her year at the school, both in her interactions with the principal and with the Cabinet, Lucy has been receiving an education in power. The Cabinet, whose mastery over the student body means that they can hurt others for fun and escape any consequences (“Because Amber was crying so much, Gina could not” is one of the most succinct descriptions of a particular sort of power play as you’re ever likely to see), befriend Lucy because she makes them look better, discard her when she is insufficiently teachable, and attempt to co-opt her once more when she has learnt to play the game. But the Cabinet become negligible as Lucy begins to understand their role in the institution as a whole. In the traditional school story, morality emanates from the institution itself, and the head of the school is unfailingly good. It’s Mrs Grey, the principal, whom Lucy “finally [accords] the respect she was due,” and who is in a position to see that Lucy has become “this true Laurindan who now layered her words with care and cunning.” Mrs Grey and Lucy understand Laurinda (and the world of which it is a part) and are in that sense allies–but this isn’t a happy ending. The corrupt prefects (the Cabinet come as close to this as anything) will not be reformed, and Lucy will not triumph, because they are part of a system that is already working as it is intended to.

I was prepared to be disappointed by Laurinda because so many of its early scenes document the sort of racist microaggressions that are designed to make white readers go “oh wow I never thought of that before!” and move on; the sort of thing that already feels like a cliché (though now that I’ve come around to the book, I want to defend these moments by pointing out that its young adult readers may not have reached the point of thinking these clichéd yet). I’m glad that the book turned out to be so much more, that its depictions of power and its workings are this incisive and this ruthless. And I’m still going to read it as a school story.

 

August 12, 2016

Crystal Chan, Bird

After complaining about the whiteness of the Carnegie award for three years in a row now, I’ve been trying to find recent children’s books, by non-white authors, that might have been on the shortlist (or even the longlist) in other circumstances. Would Bird have been eligible for the medal? I’m not sure—it was shortlisted for the Waterstones children’s book prize this year, but I suspect that, if it was eligible at all, it would have been so for last year’s Carnegie, since it first came out in 2014. (To further complicate matters, one of the rules for the prize is also that if published elsewhere first, the book must be published in the UK within three months, and that can be difficult to work out.)

Jewel is twelve, and knows that the home she lives in is an unhappy one. On the day of her birth her older brother, then five, tried to “fly” from the local cliff and plummeted to his death. Since then her birthday has been marked by mourning, her parents unhappy and still blaming one another; and her grandfather, who gave John the nickname “bird” and who blames himself for his death, has not spoken since it happened. Jewel’s multiracial family is also something of an oddity in her small Iowa town; her father’s family are Jamaican, while her mother is half-Mexican. Her father, always superstitious, has forbidden her to go near the cliff, and futilely attempts to grow non-native plants in their garden in order to ward off duppies. Her mother is worried and distracted and would like her daughter to have safer and less extraordinary thoughts and ambitions.

But then Jewel meets John, a boy her own age who is visiting his uncle for the summer, and everything changes. John is fascinated by astronomy in the way that Jewel is by geology; they are awed and respectful of one another’s knowledge, show each other their own particular haunts and secret places, and share some of the complexities of their respective families (John is black, and adopted, and has complicated feelings about his adopted [white] parents). Jewel’s initial discomfort over the coincidence (or is it?) of John’s name being that of her brother soon dissipates, but her grandfather refuses to accept John’s entry into his home.

It’s clear to the reader, if not to Jewel (for a surprisingly long time) that her grandfather believes John to be a duppie—whether or not he is justified in this belief is less clear. Jewel and John’s friendship begins rather eerily—John is a common enough name, but long before the grandfather’s suspicions enter the picture the reader is wondering about his connection to Jewel’s lost brother. Until we know what genre of book we’re reading, we can’t know who or what John really is. There’s much about Bird that teeters on the brink of the supernatural in any case—its spectacular landscapes, the exaggerated (but not, because it’s entirely plausible) extreme of the man who has been silent for over a decade are all there to invoke—if not the strictly SFFnal—a sense of wonder, or the possibility of wonder. Jewel has created a set of rituals for herself involving the rocks she arranges at the top of the cliff, and there too, the reader is left half-believing in them. And Jewel and John’s respective hobbies mean that we’re full alive to the vastness of astronomical space and geological time.

Supernatural (or not) overtones aside, a thing that Bird does particularly well is a set of real, complex, and often awful relationships. The book informs me that the author also grew up as a mixed-race kid (though in Wisconsin, not Iowa) and some of the complexities of Jewel’s situation are presumably drawn from experience. But there are difficult things here (that are hopefully not drawn from experience) and in dealing with them Chan is largely precise and kind. Jewel’s family do, at some level, all love one another, but grief has affected the individual people involved (in varied and complicated ways), as well as the dynamics of their relationships; the impact of that grief is never trivialised and can’t be fully resolved. The book in this aspect is well-named; the shadow of Bird/John’s death lies heavy over the characters. It’s hard to imagine an uncomplicatedly happy ending for this family that doesn’t first involve years of consciously working towards it. But of course “and things were complicated for several years afterwards” isn’t really a satisfying plot structure, and Bird obtains what structure it has from two particular relationships: Jewel and John, who are friends, face conflict, and have to learn to forgive one another; and Jewel and her grandfather, who she has never heard speak in all the 12 years of her life. The second of these is by far the more complicated—and if they’re both a bit too easy and too pat, they’re counterbalanced by still existing in a world where very little else is easy.

And yet, despite all the things about Bird that I like very much, I’m not sure whether I think it works well as a whole object. I applaud its lack of easy resolution and its refusal to simplify its world, but much of what’s going on in the background, however well drawn, feels a bit directionless. I keep changing my mind—either I think it’s got a clever slice-of-life feel to it (here is some stuff that happened over this summer, but life will go on, slightly altered, for these characters; that’s the story) or it’s a bit baggy and slack.

July 31, 2016

Mathangi Subramanian, Dear Mrs. Naidu

Today’s post features a children’s book not from the Carnegie shortlist (and not eligible, though it would have been had it been written during the prize’s earliest years). But (since I’ve been thinking so much about the prizing of children’s literature recently) it did win a recent South Asia Book Award and was shortlisted for the Hindu Young World-Goodbooks award (and I’ll be reviewing the winning book sometime this year).

Sarojini is twelveNaidu. She lives in a colony where the houses don’t have permanent roofs (an image I loved was that of a neighbour whose house was covered by the canvas billboard hoarding from a local politician’s election campaign–the councillor had promised development) and goes to a government school where some teachers maintain discipline by hitting their students while others speak of expanding hearts and minds. One of the latter sort has set Sarojini an assignment–to write a series of letters to someone she’d like to get to know. Sarojini picks Sarojini Naidu,  freedom fighter, child prodigy, and Sarojini’s namesake (she’s never heard the term before, but a local lawyer says Naidu’s hers). Obviously Mrs. Naidu is dead, which is a matter to be treated with some delicacy in the actual letters.

Sarojini also faces something of a crisis when her best friend Amir moves away. Amir’s brothers have got good jobs, and now the family can afford a small flat. More importantly, Amir himself is now a scholarship student at a reputable private school. Sarojini’s discovery of the Right to Education act seems like the solution to all of her problems–it may mean a way for Sarojini to join Amir’s new school, or it may at least provide her with a way of making her own school better.

It would be so easy for this to turn into a 1980s TV-esque educational story–for perfectly legitimate plot reasons the characters spend a lot of time explaining the RTE to one another. In the acknowledgements Subramanian (no relation) refers to her research into the book as “fieldwork”, and describes sitting in the corner of a school “for almost two years, watching and asking questions”, which gives the whole thing a rather dubious anthropological feel. What we get instead, fortunately, is something like gritty realism (as far as that’s possible in something this light in tone)–a story about activism, and coming up against structures built to uphold the status quo, and the tiring/frustrating/rewarding work of getting things done. Discovering that admissions to the free slots in the local private school are dependent on bribes, and learning from Amir that being a poor student among rich classmates is harder than she’d realised, Sarojini focuses her attentions on another aspect of the RTE: the one that requires that government schools have basic resources; potable water and toilets and playgrounds and decent compound walls.

A thing that gives me pause is that this realism also flags up some goals as too hard or inconvenient to work towards. Yes, Sarojini might have a bad time of it in Amir’s school, and yes, fixing the public schools so that everyone (or at least everyone in this part of Bangalore) can benefit from them is a better and more sustainable solution, creating quality, free, alternatives to the private schools rather than rattling at their gates and hoping to be let in. One of the things my Carnegie reading group discussed while reading Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves (a book about a completely different sort of segregation in schools) was the fact that, in that book, Sarah does feel occasional resentment that the politics of their families have meant she and her friends have to suffer this sort of abuse. (Lucy Pearson discusses the book here, and notes that Sarah’s parents are presented as oddly unconcerned by the danger their children are in.) Dear Mrs. Naidu is a lighter book for younger readers, and doesn’t make explicit the violence, structural and individual, that Talley’s book tries to invoke at a visceral level; yet it’s clear from Amir’s account of his new school that things aren’t exactly great–he will not turn down the opportunity, but it is going to cost him.

And yet Sarojini’s decision not to go to Greenhill, to instead allow the school a lovely PR opportunity to present Ambedkar School with a playground, though a pragmatic decision, is one that works out very conveniently for Greenhill. I was reminded, a little, of a recent struggle to gain admission in a local school for a child whose parents are janitors. In the face of indignation on twitter (see some of the replies to the linked tweet) and requests to name and shame the school, those involved chose not to, as the aim was to help the girl in question rather than punish or antagonise the schools. And it may well be the case that a pragmatic approach will yield better results than my own kneejerk anger, and yet. Dear Mrs. Naidu knows that under unequal conditions, progress is made by allowing the powerful to save face/look good (Sarojini’s turning of her campaign into a human interest story is crucial to its success), knows that when the poor muster together resources and make things for themselves (in this case a rebuilt and freshly-painted compound wall) they do so at a far greater cost to themselves.

I realized that I wasn’t proud.
I was angry.
Really angry.
Why should Deepti’s Appa and all the other workers have to miss a whole day of wages for something the government should be doing for free?

This is one of the few times in the book where Sarojini displays actual, real, anger, and I wish there was more of it. If there’s one aspect of the book’s (for want of a better word, though I don’t think I mean it as a criticism) didacticism that grates, it’s this; that it doesn’t allow for negative feelings like bitterness and rage–even Sarojini’s anger can only be of the most productive sort.

I find myself wondering how, in a book centred around “Ambedkar School,” caste is never explicitly mentioned. There are certainly various forms of bigotry at play among these characters–throwaway references to Amir’s family being Muslims, the chorus of local aunties who warn Sarojini away from Deepti, whose parents work on a construction site. I don’t know if there are signifiers that I’m missing; if not it’s a strange omission.

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.

 

**********************************************

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.

June 19, 2016

Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The world might be ending. There’s … an alien invasion, or something? They’re called Immortals; and there are pillars of blue light and a mysterious, beautiful boy and a girl with a very special destiny? Her name is Satchel, all her male friends are called Finn.

You’re not supposed to care too much about the whole world-might-be-ending plot, though. Because the teenagers who do not have special destinies or particularly storyable lives are the focus of this book, and they have long accepted that “the indie kids” are going to have the occasional world-saving adventure and that’s their thing, and everyone else may as well devote their energies to the ordinary life struggles over which they have some (though not much) hope of gaining control. For Mikey, those struggles include his probably-unrequited feelings for his friend Henna, the difficulties of being thrust occasionally into the spotlight by a parent who is also a politician, his own mental health, the attractive new kid with whom Henna is spending far too much time.

These concerns are minor compared to those of the indie kids, but they are on the whole treated well. I love that, for example, the book’s emotional climax is a moment between Mikey and his best friend–friendship here is urgent and important and central. Mikey and Mel’s protectiveness of each other and of their younger sister is great, and Mikey’s anxiety (though the sessions with his psychiatrist are necessarily a bit basic) feels well done. I’m less impressed by the treatment of Mel’s anorexia: less because of any direct treatment of it (that’s all fine, the characters are on the whole great about it) than because Ness doesn’t seem to mind contributing to a larger fat shaming culture elsewhere in the book. (In a throwaway line early on, Mikey is working at a restaurant part time and “putting extra slices of cheesy toast on a plate for the really, really fat family at table two”; everyone in the place seems to be eating ridiculous quantities of all-you-can-eat cheesy toast [surely that's not a real thing, America], but still the “really, really fat” are associated with excess.) Meanwhile, there is the slight worry of larger affairs impinging upon this set of concerns (will the indie kids blow up the school, or the world end, before this group of friends can graduate?)

Basically, it’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but with YA. That might sound delightful or cringeworthy (for me, I think it’s mostly the latter) but much depends on whether it’s a one-note joke or something fundamental to the structure of the book and how it conceives of fiction. Possibly even more than The Ghosts of Heaven Ness’s book requires you to have some knowledge of its intertexts–a solid grounding in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is useful, as is being familiar enough with the tropes that you can do a quiet “hah” when they pop up here. Each chapter is headed with a short summary of current events in the larger cosmic battle, the contrast between these dramatic events and the relatively mundane lives of our characters is frequently hilarious.

There’s something funny to be said about the ways in which other works of YA (precisely the sorts that this book is spoofing) also position their characters as oppressed underdogs or unlikely heroes. On several counts, Mikey is exactly the sort of person likely to be a hero in fiction–he’s a (we’re told) intelligent, not-fat, middle-class white kid, he doesn’t think he’s particularly attractive but other characters tell us he is, and like every other YA hero ever (I’m exaggerating, but hey) he thinks of himself as shut out of things–both the world-saving shenanigans that are going on elsewhere in the book, and the more immediate dynamics of his particular group of friends. (Of course, Mikey will discover that it’s his own preoccupation with the situation around Henna that has shut him out of some of these dynamics–he’s completely failed to notice, as the rest of the group has, that a close friend is now in a relationship.)

 

The thing is, though, the world might be ending.

 

I mentioned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern earlier in this post, and it’s been a decade or so since I read or watched the play so I may be about to say something very ignorant. But the reframing of the narrative to these sidelined characters in that play does interesting things in part because it works both at the levels of narrative (Hamlet!), and of real world power (whose decisions are indicative of power, and who gets caught up in the machinations of more powerful people?).

Questions of power and narrative come into play in interesting ways in the context of YA (and I’m going to make some sweeping generalisations about the genre, but then I’m writing about a book that also necessarily stereotypes the genre, so I absolve myself). There’s much that is ridiculous and unrealistic (in different ways to how vampires and alien invasions are unrealistic) about plucky individual teenagers saving the world, but these books make sense in the context of an audience of teenagers–i.e. people who have ethics and concerns and politics of their own, but lack the power to control their own lives. In some ways, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is the realistic counternarrative that acknowledges that most of us lack the power to thwart alien invasions, or even just protect our friends and families from hurt.

But in the process, it also manages to imply that simply not paying attention to huge, worldchanging things that are happening around one is a feasible, even desirable, response. Even at the end of the book, when Mikey and his friends have talked to some indie kids and figured out that they’re actual people with their own concerns and personalities, the implication is still that they have their lives and the normal kids have theirs. We can’t all be special and superpowered, so we’re absolved of the responsibility to participate in these huge events.

One reason this is uncomfortable is that in fiction the special superpowered kids may be the attractive, white, thin, popular Americans with funny names, but in the world the people who aren’t afforded the privilege of looking away … aren’t. I rolled my eyes a bit when I first read this review which compares the indie kids to third world refugees; it seemed to me to be missing the point. But the “point” of the book, or what there is of it, seems to require you to confine it to the world of fiction, where nothing has particular consequences and the emotional lives of a small group of privileged teenagers can have the same weight as the lives of billions of people (and all the other living things on the planet). The Rest Of Us Just Live Here wants you to think it’s so clever and funny with mockery of tropes; it does not want you to examine it too closely. No wonder our characters seem so unconcerned about this week’s apocalypse; it’s not like it means anything.

And the other reason for my discomfort is simply the reinforcement of a dynamic in which, in order to have responsibility one must have power, and to have power one must be a superpowered individual. By which I mean that there’s never any suggestion that collective action of any sort is possible, that the indie kids could work with the other kids (or even with each other–all they seem to do is fall in love with Satchel and die) or that the regular kids without powers could work together in any way. And it’s frustrating because one of the things that Ness does well is to create a sense of community in his characters–there are, for example, really lovely sections in which Mikey and his friends instinctively and unobtrusively accommodate each other’s particular illnesses and vulnerabilities. But then there’s Mikey’s best friend Jared (named after Jared Shurin, which was an amusing and distracting thing to know), who is a descendant of a god of cats and secretly bears an indie kid name. Unlike the others, Jared does have power, or at least the means to access it, and has simply opted out of the indie kid lifestyle. At the end of the book he does embrace his powers to make things better/save lives, but he does so at the cost of this sense of community–he will be turned into a god and thus cut off from his friends.

I enjoyed reading The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and it’s nice to be reading a Carnegie-shortlisted Ness book that isn’t emotionally draining, but beyond that, I’m underwhelmed.

June 7, 2016

Nick Lake, There Will Be Lies

“Lies” appear to be a theme with this year’s Carnegie shortlist– so far we’ve had The Lie Tree, Lies We Tell Ourselves, and now, unfortunately, There Will Be Lies.

(I frequently feel like a killjoy, both on the internet and in real world conversations about children’s books. Presumably, since this book made it to the shortlist of a major award, there are people who read and liked it; luckily, in my regular group of Carnegie readers, this week the consensus  seemed to be that the book was exactly as bad as I’d thought it was. This feeling, of not being a small, grumpy voice well-actuallying in the wilderness, is rather intoxicating.)

Shelby is nearly eighteen, homeschooled, deaf, and living with her mother Shaylene in Arizona. She has broached the subject of going to university a few times, mostly to be shut down. College is dangerous, the world is dangerous, men are dangerous; Shelby is best off at home, with her mother, without much contact with the outside world beyond weekly trips to the library and what time she can steal for herself on the internet. Clearly something’s very wrong.

Something is wrong, though it takes a while before we know what that something is. The book is structured around the “lies” (two of them, and then a truth, Shelby is told) in the title, and the plot moves forward as Shelby  meets these revelations. When she is hit by a car and has to be hospitalised, so that the hospital now has her mother’s details on record, Shaylene hurriedly takes her daughter and the two women leave town. We watch Shelby ‘learn’ that her father is alive and evil and that her mother’s running away from him; then that her father is dead and her mother’s a notorious killer; then, finally, that Shaylene is not her mother at all, but kidnapped Shelby from a hospital where she was undergoing treatment for burns after an accident. Shaylene is arrested, and Shelby is reunited with her birth family.

All of which might make for a decent thriller. Might, not does, because the narrative hurtles forward as if a series of revelations were the only way that movement was possible: and then and then and then. There’s a lot of plot and very little done with it. The short section towards the end in which Shelby is attempting to adjust and find common ground with her new family is well observed (and comes closer to having actual characters than anything the book has done so far), but that’s about it.

Unfortunately, the not-very-impressive thriller plot is not all there is to Lake’s book. The mysterious hot boy who Shelby meets at the library each week is in fact Coyote in disguise; he’s here to warn and protect Shelby, taking her into “the Dreaming” where she is to fulfil a mysterious quest, save a child, kill a crone and thus save the world.

I have none of the knowledge that I’d need to discuss the specifics of Lake’s use of Native American myths–but I found Debbie Reese’s analysis of the book, here, very useful. What I can talk about are the larger structuring assumptions inherent in this kind of use of myth.

What we have is a narrative in which the main character, coded as white throughout the book, finds herself on a quest accompanied by a mythological figure from a culture that is not her own, but who has made her wellbeing his responsibility. Even assuming that time works differently for mythological beings, Shelby seems like a strange priority for Coyote to have. For much of the quest narrative it’s not clear to Shelby what the quest is, or why she, of all people, should be undertaking this hero’s journey, but the fundamental right of a random white girl to be at the centre of this story is not something that is ever questioned, either by Shelby herself or by the text.

The “child”, most relatively experienced readers will soon figure out, is Shelby herself; the “crone” is Shaylene; the world is not ending, only Shelby’s world (but that’s the same thing, suggests Coyote, inaccurately). There’s the potential here to weasel out of the implications of the book’s use of myth, and claim that this is all taking place in Shelby’s subconscious, so that the blame for anything that may seem poorly researched, or cobbled together (see Reese’s post) can be displaced onto the character. But none of that explains what work the myths are doing here–since the Crone and Child story eventually devolves into a castle-moat-witch scenario that is equal parts European fairytale and video game, it’s hard to see what Lake wants to add to the book with this bit of careless appropriation. Perhaps the point is to create a closer link to the landscape? (Lake clearly thinks Arizona is very pretty.) Whatever it is, it does not work.

With all this, though, the thing I found most unpleasant about the book was Shelby’s deeply-felt disgust at her mother’s fat body. That Shaylene wears “pajama jeans” is so horrifying to her daughter that our attention must be drawn to it several times, including on the first page; she keeps having to “haul” herself around rather than, you know, move (there’s a charming moment a few pages in when Shelby explains that her mother’s not very active but that hey, you-the-reader will have figured that out because she’s told you Shaylene’s fat); her ass ripples in her (yep) pajama jeans; she’s sweaty so that “her hand is clammy around mine, slippery but strong, like being held by a squid”. Later, Shaylene meets, and has sex with a man who has the audacity to also be overweight: “And then an image flashes in my mind of Luke’s double chin and I think UGH again, UGH X 10,000″

 

Ugh x 100,000.

May 26, 2016

Jenny Valentine, Fire Colour One

fc1 kleinI rarely say this, but: I think I may honestly be too old to properly enjoy Fire Colour One.

Valentine’s book opens where its story ends, in the gardens of a house in (we don’t know this yet) England, where protagonist Iris has started a huge fire in honour of her father, whose funeral it is. The backstory is filled in gradually–Iris, her mother Hannah and her stepfather Lowell have been living in America, where the two adults are actors and models and Iris herself mooches about, starts fires, and has only one friend, Thurston. A combination of financial difficulties and Iris’s arsonous habits means that the three of them have moved back to England–where Iris’s biological father, Ernest, is dying. It turns out that Hannah’s stories about Ernest have been less than true–he didn’t abandon his daughter, he wants a relationship with Iris, and — this is important — he’s a millionaire who lives in a country mansion and collects famous art.

[Possible/definite spoilers.] Art is obviously important to Fire Colour One–the book is named after Yves Klein’s fc1 (used to illustrate this post because I like it better than the cover; sorry, cover artist). Thurston loves Klein, who “brought art out of the airless studio and back to life”; and who died tragically young. Both Thurston and Iris engage in forms of performance art–Iris describes her firestarting tendencies in artistic terms, and Thurston arranges public spectacles– we’re told about a mock funeral procession involving pigment bombs, a hearse and loud music, and we see him create a sort of shrine to Iris on a sidewalk, so that strangers come by and (assuming the girl in the picture is dead) pay their respects to it–they are somewhat startled to see the living Iris appear. Ernest, it turns out, is a talented artist who also happens to enjoy its performative aspects–the conclusion of the book, in which Ernest manages, from beyond the grave, to thwart Hannah and hand over his vast fortune to Iris, is as much a work of art as any of Ernest’s paintings.

There’s a lot to like about Fire Colour One. Its prose is genuinely good and willing to do more than just tell a story; though it needs to be a little infodumpy to tell the reader about Klein (I knew nothing about him other than that Klein blue was a thing), it doesn’t over-signal its constant return to the subject of art; Iris’s habit of starting fires is cause for concern to the adults around her (apart from Ernest, whose priorities are a bit dubious, really) but the book treats it as merely a part of who she is and never risks turning it into an Issue.

But then there’s Iris-and-Thurston and Iris-and-Ernest.

“I’m glad you know a little about art,” says Ernest, “and the great man”. Iris has just finished telling him (and us) what she knows about Yves Klein. “I know what Thurston taught me,” she shrugs. A shared love of art is what brings Iris and Ernest and Iris and Thurston together, but both relationships seem to take the form of the older, better-informed man “teaching” Iris. I can’t remember a moment when Iris has something to teach these characters–even her explanations of why she starts fires seem to chime with things they’ve already heard before, so that her experience is one of being understood, rather than helping them to understand. At the end of the book we discover that Thurston and Ernest have been speaking, have formed a friendship (bonding over art and Iris, presumably), and one of Ernest’s final acts (apart from the big art thing, and the big tricking Hannah out of the money thing) has been to return Iris’s lost friend to her; to restore Thurston and Iris’s relationship. That relationship may be a romantic one or a very intense platonic one, but the whole thing has for me some of the implications of fathers of the bride handing over their daughters to new designated male protectors.

I don’t think this is merely an unfortunate gender dynamic that has crept into the book, though; I think it’s fundamental to both relationships. I suggest at the beginning of this post that I may be too old to fully appreciate this book, and one of the reasons for that is Thurston. Thurston is a Vonnegut fan–of course he is. Thurston makes art. Thurston is skinny and beautiful and romantically poor. Thurston is full of information about certain sorts of artists and writers, and he loves to share this information with his younger female friend. He’s a slightly cooler version of the time in your teens when you had a crush on the guy who was obsessed with Jack Kerouac. Perhaps a reader in their teens could access some of that attraction; could have it underlay the book. (As an adult, I found myself thinking instead of Thora Birch and Wes Bentley mooching around glumly in American Beauty; I don’t think the book intended this to be as funny to me as it was.) But though I’m thankfully immune at my age to the specific charms of earnest teenage boys who Know About Art, I’m not immune to the larger desire to be approved of by men who know (or think they know, or can make me think they know) more than me. It’s a powerful thing, and it’s a specifically gendered thing.

And Fire Colour One ensures that we know that Iris has the approval and attention and adoration of these two men. Early in the book, when Iris is hurt and upset by Thurston’s fake shrine prank, he explains that the whole point is “You think people don’t see you [...] You think you’re forgettable” and “How come you can’t see how much you’re loved?” Ernest, too, has made his lost daughter the centre of his life even in her absence, and he too demonstrates this through a sort of art installation that has taken over a decade to prepare, and that becomes the climactic, closing scene of the book:

Ernest had laid traps and my mother stumbled right into them. There was something beneath the surface of every painting, written in zinc white, so it would show up under ultra-violet and stop my mother and Lowell dead in their tracks. Their world was about to end, and Thurston had made sure they had an audience. Better than my fire, better than any revenge I could ever have thought of, more than twelve years in the making, a message from Ernest for them and one for me too. Hannah checked every one, running from room to room by the end of it, followed by a stream of witnesses, hysterical, apocalyptic, catastrophic.

The same word on each of the forty-seven canvasses that filled the house. Bigger and bigger each time until it took up the whole space, waiting patiently, screaming out beneath layers of paint.

IRIS.

As I was reading the book I described it to friends as essentially a fantasy about being loved, and this is precisely what it is–about being loved by people whose love is worth something (arty men, within the book’s frame of reference; important men in general),being loved huge, demonstrable, spent-twelve-years-making-the-art-to-prove-it amounts. It’s a little bit ridiculous if it’s not a fantasy you share.

One doesn’t, of course, crave love from lesser beings. One aspect of Fire Colour One that is hard to reconcile with the rest of the book is its presentation of Iris’s mother and stepfather, for whom Iris has nothing but contempt. Which isn’t that surprising–for a teenage girl whose hobbies include Meaningful Conversation About Art and Burning Things to despise adults who seem shallow and interested only in clothes and careers makes sense. But Fire Colour One would have you believe that Lowell and Hannah are exactly as shallow, grasping, and unintelligent as Iris thinks.  If I compared Iris and Thurston to characters in American Beauty, Lowell and Hannah, as parents, seem to come straight out of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. But they become irredeemably bad, rather than comically evil, early on in the book, when rather than protecting their daughter from an attempted rape by the son of a potential employer, they disbelieve and blame her for defending herself.

About halfway through the book some reason is given for Hannah’s grasping nature (by now Lowell has largely slipped out of the plot; he never particularly mattered). We’re told that when Hannah and Ernest met she was starving and homeless and beautiful and he was rich and unable to talk to attractive women except to babble about art and show off his expensive possessions. He asked her to stay; she did.

But by this point Hannah is already irredeemable, and it’s not in the book’s interest to redeem her; to make her in any way sympathetic would undercut the triumph of Ernest’s final victory over her (“[her] world was about to end”). Hannah’s grasping nature, her insistence on the monetary value of Ernest’s art; these aren’t presented to us as the natural reactions of someone who has been poor and desperate, but of someone who Is. Just. Bad.

I don’t know, though. Telling the story of their first meeting, Ernest explains that it was outside an antiques shop, that he’d fallen and hit his head and talked to her about how each of the wine glasses in the window was worth a couple of hundred pounds. “I could live on that for a month,” Hannah says. When Hannah has moved in with Ernest, he buys the wine glasses, and Hannah drops one on the kitchen floor.

“She did it on purpose,” he told me, “because they were hers now, because she could.”

May 12, 2016

Sarah Crossan, One

one-by-sarah-crossan-196x300Sarah Crossan is, like Patrick Ness (of whom more in a few weeks), on the Carnegie shortlist for the second year in a row. I wrote a little about that previous shortlisted work here–I enjoyed it, but found it rather lightweight and insufficiently thought through to really consider one of the best children’s books of the year. One is stronger and more interesting merely by virtue of being a novel in verse.

The plot, in short: Grace (our narrator) and Tippi are conjoined twins in their teens, about to go to school for the first time as there’s no longer money to educate them at home. Both are dreading the new school; but they befriend classmates Yasmeen and Jon and spend a few relatively normal teenage months (smoking by an old church, falling in love with the one boy in the group) before tragedy strikes.

There’s a lot going on in One. Money is a constant concern–the two major life changes that the twins face (going to school, and later allowing a journalist access to their lives) are made out of financial desperation. Their father is unemployed and alcoholic, their mother loses her job part of the way through, their little sister can’t afford her ballet lessons, Jon is at their school on a scholarship. Jon’s mother has abandoned him, Yasmeen has HIV, Dragon (the little sister) is anorexic and to all appearances no adult has noticed yet. If I’m reading this book in a good mood, all of this is a useful reminder that people generally have several things going on at once and have to cope with all of them. Some of it is done well–that Dragon’s anorexia goes unnoticed by the adults in the story while Tippi’s weightloss is a cause for concern is treated with restraint; the two incidents are placed together but not commented on.

The One of the title is Grace-and-Tippi, and it’s also Grace herself, as a separate person. A recurring complaint made by Grace is that people tend to see her and Tippi as a single unit rather than two individuals–though the same people also misunderstand the depth of their connection. I was relieved that Crossan didn’t do the dull thing and have the twins both tell the story in alternating viewpoints. (It did mean that when the tragic end loomed the outcome became easier to predict, but it’s not the book’s job to shock you.) Within the text, Grace is the bookish one; in the fine tradition of twins who love each other but are also totally different in temperament–Grace is definitely the Elizabeth to Tippi’s Jessica. That’s probably an unfair comparison (both twins are perfectly reasonable humans, and neither of them reaches anything like the extremes of self-righteousness or sociopathy that the Wakefields achieve), but it’s one I make because it speaks to an aspect of Crossan’s work that I find disappointing. Here, as in Apple and Rain, her characters seem to fit very easily into stereotype, and beyond those broad lines we’re rarely given a sense of fully-realised people. I don’t know much about Grace except that she’s quiet and bookish; I know next to nothing about that bookishness except that it seems to embrace everything that the boy she has a crush on likes (and Who Among Us, to be fair). Presumably she had likes and dislikes before she met Jon; perhaps she’s even told him about them and he too is reading her favourites feverishly? We don’t know, and Crossan never gives us the sense that there’s more to these characters than this.

Where things get interesting, to me, is with the introduction of Caroline Henley, a reporter who (or whose employer) pays the family $50,000 for the right to follow the twins around and film them. The possibility of being paid to make a spectacle of themselves is broached relatively early in the book, and it’s always framed as invasive and creepy. Tippi is more strongly against it than Grace (as far as we can tell from inside Grace’s head and outside Tippi’s); Grace seems to view it as a pragmatic choice, noting that lots of people make money from putting themselves on show (her examples are supermodels). Tippi aside, though, all of the other people being outraged by the possibility are being outraged for the twins– their father, for example, rudely asks the reporter if she’ll expect to film the twins in the bathroom.

Early on in the book Grace tells us that:

[...] the details of all our bodies remain a 
        secret
unless we want to tell
 
And people always want to know.
 
They want to know exactly what we
        share
             down there,
so sometimes we tell them.

And then she does tell us. To stop us from wondering (“it’s all / the / wondering / about our bodies that bothers us”); and the effect is to place the reader in the position of the outsider whose curiosity may be well-meant, whatever that means, but is still invasive, is still prurient. [I'm reminded, unavoidably, of trans writers talking about cis people's preoccupation with the state of their genitalia.] Like the supposed viewers of Caroline’s documentary, we’re being invited into the book at least in part for the purpose of understanding what it is like to be a conjoined twin, what it means to be a conjoined twin, how these two people and their bodies work. Crossan’s author’s note suggests that there’s been a great deal of research involved in the project for her, but it also contains things like “It might be astounding to a singleton, but conjoined twins do not see themselves or their lives as tragedies” and “writing this novel has been a huge honour,” which seem to place it in a very specific tradition of Writing The Other. It’s a tradition that the book is clearly aware of–witness the characters’ initial suspicion of reporters. And yet the book ends with Grace telling her story to that same reporter–Crossan is placing herself and her book in Caroline’s position.

None of this, unfortunately, means that One is able or willing to tackle the discomfort inherent in this situation–to face the question of whether the novel’s gaze is inherently exploitative. Caroline is willing not to film the twins constantly, to provide them with contraband snacks in hospital, to cry when things get bad. “I want to be suspicious,” says Grace, but it seems Caroline cares. “She has proven she isn’t the paparazzi / She has proven she won’t take / our lives and turn them / into a sensational story”. The book, then, performs this critical engagement–it dramatises discomfort with its premise, and then has it “proven” benevolent. Tippi and Grace trust Caroline, who are you, the reader, to complain? It raises the spectre of its (and our) spectatorship and then reassures us that we’re fine.

April 28, 2016

Kate Saunders, Five Children on the Western Front

Saunders PsammeadI want to think about what Saunders is doing with this book as a (sorry) transformative work.(Is it worth mentioning here that my favourite piece of Nesbit fanfic is C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew?) There have been other continuations of Nesbit’s Psammead books before–most notably Jacqueline Wilson’s Four Children and It, but the internet informs me that there’s a Helen Cresswell book as well. The Cresswell appears a pretty straightforward sequel–the same sort of thing told over again, but with a new set of Edwardian children. The Wilson is a bit different–the Psammead books exist in this world and one character has read them. While the general children/ adventures/ be-careful-what-you-wish-for theme is inevitable, there’s something being done with the idea of the book itself. The character who most likes to read, and who has read Nesbit, is the one who wishes she could visit Edwardian England–and finds herself in a workhouse. It’s a bit of a kickback against the construction of Edwardian England as a sort of golden age of childhood; one which Nesbit’s books do a lot to construct in themselves.

And that construction, that golden England, is connected to WWI as well. It’s all country houses and elaborate afternoon teas and the Empire is strong (I’ll come to that, inevitably) and people dressed like Wodehouse characters and we, with hindsight, know that this awful thing is going to befall these happy, well-dressed people and they’re so young and it’s so tragic.

(There are things to say here about pre-WWI England as a kind of childhood, but smart people whose actual area this is have already said them.)

Saunders’s origin story for Five Children on the Western Front is itself a version of this. In the afterword she writes of reading the Psammead books as a child and seeing the Pembertons “as eternal children, frozen for all time in a golden Edwardian summer,” but then, in her teens, learning about WWI for its sixtieth anniversary and connecting the two worlds. Suddenly the golden summer becomes tragic, suddenly there’s all this loss awaiting our characters.

But how does this work as a children’s book in 2014 (when it was published in the UK) though? I read the Psammead trilogy when I was quite young because I was the sort of child who would–I don’t know how well known it is even among people of my own generation (a good couple of decades older than the supposed audience for this book). Nor are this book’s hypothetical readers credited with a great deal of background knowledge; witness the clunky, infodumpy scene in which the text explains to us what a VAD is. Does this prior knowledge/lack thereof matter? That adventures and endearing grumpy magical beings are fun, and that war is horrible, are things that any random set of characters could convey–but for this book to work do you need to invoke precisely that sense of a golden past, that protectiveness towards these characters?

I think one of the ways the book tries to get round this is with its opening chapter, which is a rewritten version of one in The Story of the Amulet, in which the Pemberton children travel in time to visit “the learned gentleman”/”Jimmy” (“Professor Knight” in Saunders’s version, though I’ve read one review suggesting this is inaccurate) in the near future, where their old nurse is dead, Jimmy is old, and keeps photographs of the now-grown-up Pembertons in his home. [Pause here while I refrain from talking about how great and messy and great the reasoning behind their trip into the future is.] In 1906, when the book is published, this future really is the future; a Wells-inspired utopia (Wells and Nesbit were friends and fellow Fabians, of course). In the 2010s, we know that this is not what the 1930s looked like. Jimmy has pictures, yes, but mostly of the girls–we know that something has happened to the boys. His nostalgia for the past is transmuted into grief–we, but not the children, see him crying when they leave. In the book’s final chapter set some years in the future a grown-up Anthea visits Jimmy and we see that life has moved on, and that most of the Pembertons have happy adult lives, but Jimmy’s grief, his knowledge of what is to come, frames the book, and our experience of it. But is that enough for a reader who doesn’t come to the book already feeling some stake in these young people’s lives? And if it is enough, is that because the book is blatantly manipulative in this respect (and is that necessarily bad)?

psammead millar

I mentioned the British empire earlier, and of course it’s hard for me to separate the niceness and the romance of this setting from the empire that sustains it (and it feels necessary to me not to do so). (Nesbit’s original series occasionally wanders into questions of empire and there are things you might choose to read as critique, but it’s so clever and funny and the characters are so charming and political critique never really seems the point.)

Conveniently, Five Children on the Western Front is also about discovering that a thing that is cute and charming is also kind of evil! The Psammead, the “sand-fairy” that the Pembertons have befriended, is tubby and furry and cross and has little eyes on horns and is generally adorable–the version above, by (I think) H.R. Millar, is a good one. Impossibly ancient (it remembers the dinosaurs), the Psammead, we learn, has spent at least a part of its life as a vengeful Akkadian god. It is reticent about its activities during this time, and it’s through a combination of coaxing and Jimmy’s expertise (in The Story of the Amulet he was an Egyptologist, but I suppose it was easier to be a genius dilettante a century or so ago) that the children are able to extract some stories. I wondered if Saunders had read Terry Pratchett; there’s a definite feel of Small Gods here. It seems less likely that she’s an Oglaf fan, though from these accounts the Psammead seems to have been a bit more Sithrak-like than one would want.

While reading the book I suggested on twitter that thinking of it as an easy allegory about empire might be more fun than reading it as the billionth World War One book of the last few years. Now that I’ve finished I don’t think it works as allegory, but there’s enough there to make a case for something. The empire isn’t particularly present in the book in fact–though Cyril’s favourite book is something titled With Rod and Gun through Bechuanaland and surely Saunders cannot have put that in there innocently. I’m depressingly unsurprised to see no sign that Cyril and Robert’s fellow soldiers might be any colour other than white–I guess the soldiers from the colonies were just deployed elsewhere. However.

The Psammead, we discover, has been sent to the children and stripped of its magic in order that it face up to and repent of its various crimes. All of the stories we hear are cruel– a handsome prince turned into a donkey (and here, rather wonderfully, we circle back round to C.S. Lewis), young lovers turned to stone for disobedience, a young scholar sent off to die because he’s inconvenient. This group of British children in 1914-1917 is shocked by these acts of tyranny against the natives. They’re even more shocked to learn that their friend had slaves, and thinks little of having killed a few thousand here and there. (The Psammead is at this point a few millenia away from being a slave-holding imperialist, at least; the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833.)

In a world where a reader might be expected to make connections between the Psammead’s treatment of his subjects and Britain’s treatment of its own (But witness the book’s insistence that its readers might not know what a VAD is; and WWI history, unlike imperial history, is at least taught in British schools)  this could make for an interesting reading of the text as embodying an uncomfortable confrontation with the national past–and as I am such a reader, and I like Nesbit, I want that reading to work. Unfortunately, I suspect that discomfort is more present in the original books (you can’t ignore empire in 1902, but if you’re British it’s all too easy in 2016). What we’re left with, then, is the plot in which, at the height of the empire, the barbaric and vengeful (and Eastern) god is taught the values of kindness and compassion by a group of middle-class, white British children; where a creature that has existed since the dawn of time finds its salvation and the whole trajectory of its life bound up in said children.

I cried–of course I cried, that was never not going to happen, the whole shape of this book is one intended for crying at–at the end. I don’t know that that’s enough to make it good; in the main, it only made me uncomfortable.

April 20, 2016

Becky Albertalli, Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

I’ll be blogging the Carnegie shortlist over the next few weeks, and so decided to write about a few other children’s books that came out this year. Some of them, including the one below, were on the Carnegie longlist.

Becky Albertalli’s Simon vshomosapiens. The Homo Sapiens Agenda takes for its starting point a favourite romcom/fanfiction trope–the Daddy-Long-Legs/You’ve Got Mail model of the mysterious anonymous correspondent with whom the protagonist falls in love.*  Simon sees an anonymous post on the school gossip tumblr about being gay and not out, and contacts the writer to let him know he feels the same. Using fake names and email addresses, and being careful not to give away too many clues about their own identities, “Blue” and “Jacques” spend months talking to one another and eventually admit to their feelings.

There are other things going on in Simon’s life; his correspondence with Blue has been discovered by a classmate, Martin, who is using the knowledge to blackmail Simon to help him spend more time with a  girl on whom he has a crush. Simon isn’t out to his friends or family yet, though he expects them to react supportively (too supportively, in some cases) to the news when he tells them. There’s a production of Oliver! to put on, lots of complicated interpersonal relationships–and then Martin outs Simon on the gossip tumblr.

Things are less dramatic than might be expected. Simon does point out that the consequences of being gay and out in his small town are potentially more serious than they might be in other places, but it’s also clear that his personal circumstances (supportive friends, family and teachers) make it possible for this not to be a story about the horrible dangers and persecutions of being queer (and we need those stories too, obviously, but also our fluffy romcoms). There’s some homophobic bullying, but it is quickly shut down. Everyone has problems, but no one has problems that are horrific or insoluble. Martin is not villainised for the awful thing he has done, but the book doesn’t require that he be forgiven for the sake of a tidy ending (though there’s reason to believe that he will be forgiven soon enough). People are occasionally angry and hurt, but in temporary ways. If I have a complaint about the book (and I’m not sure I do) it’s that its politics are a bit too good–everyone has thought their positions through a little too well and is able to articulate them a little too clearly. Perhaps this is an alternative universe where everyone is just better at feelings and thoughts than me. (Perhaps this is true of this universe.)

I find myself talking/thinking/writing about Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda as if it were a particular sort of fanfiction. Because when I go looking for fic often I’m looking for precisely the things that this story provides–the bulk of a full-length novel, gentle, kind, low-stakes romance with characters like these characters. It’s comforting and restorative and accomplished and low-stakes. It is in part because it’s those things that I’m not too bothered by its non-inclusion on the Carnegie shortlist (then again, I’ve seen far less ambitious, and less good, things on that shortlist in the past, so hm).

But there’s one thing that the book does exceptionally well and it is this: looking. I’ll try to explain what I mean by this. We know that “Blue” is someone in Simon’s school. We know, because we know how narrative works, that he must be someone Simon knows, or someone he will meet over the course of the book. We’re primed therefore to treat this as a mystery; to look at every boy mentioned (and perhaps characters who aren’t boys; what if Blue’s lying?) as a suspect (which is not the right word for a prospective love interest, but I’m not sure what would be).

Simon himself says at one point that “Simon means ‘the one who hears’ and Spier means ‘the one who watches.’ Which means I was basically destined to be nosy.” We discover that this is not true at all–Simon has in fact been pretty oblivious to quite a lot of things. And yet the book places him in the position of having to be the watcher–he too is aware that one of the boys he meets might be Blue, he is looking at them, and because we’re in his head (it’s a first person narrative), we get to see him looking.

(We’re also relatively sure, long, long before he is, who he wants to be looking at, but like I said, Simon’s not very observant.)

I’ll be writing about Robin Stevens’ Jolly Foul Play soon, and hopefully will expand on this there, but so much of the attraction of girls’ school stories for me is in the ways characters look at each other, how looking is fascination is attraction. (I like David Ehrlich’s formulation here, that “falling in love is an act of looking” (though he goes on to say that being in love is an act of seeing, and I don’t know that I want to burden these kids who have just met with the weight of that). But the book’s achievement is a sort of active readerly participation in its looking; one that isn’t objectifying, but that serves as a reminder of what the act of being fascinated can be.

 

 

*Disclaimer: I use those as examples of a form, but feel it necessary to explain that a) The correspondence in D-L-L is one-sided, b) both of these examples contain some sort of creepy power difference that is not really in evidence here. But still.