Archive for ‘children’s literature’

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 
unless we want to tell
And people always want to know.
They want to know exactly what we
             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.

March 16, 2016

No Time For Goodbyes/Split


Andaleeb Wajid, No Time For Goodbyes

A friend finds it deeply annoying when trilogies (or books otherwise in series) fail to indicate the fact somewhere on the cover (front or back). I’m less hardline than him on this subject, but that there’s no hint anywhere on or in Wajid’s book that this is the first of a trilogy seems an odd choice on the part of the publisher (Bloomsbury India). I genuinely wouldn’t have known had I not looked the book up online.

No Time For Goodbyes is a time travel romance. Tamanna, just out of school and about to begin college, finds an old polaroid in her attic and is sucked into the past; the early 1980s Bangalore of her mother’s schooldays. Appearing in her grandmother’s house with no way of explaining what has happened to her, she pretends to be the Australian pen pal of the boy next door—Manoj, whose scientist grandfather created the camera responsible for her predicament. Naturally Manoj and Tamanna fall in love; naturally Tamanna returns to her present just as things are getting interesting; naturally it appears the two are destined to be tragically torn apart.

One doesn’t particularly want scientific rigour from this genre, and critique from that angle is therefore a bit pointless. But I want to pick at threads—why would Tamanna’s mother name her daughter after the weird Australian who showed up at their house and was rude about their clothes (and refused to buy any of her own) and made her friend sad; why has she not noticed that her daughter looks identical to said weird Australian; has no one given the Christ College library a decent spring clean in three decades? (Okay, that last one is plausible.) And there are things I find jarring about its engagement with pop culture—the determined, awkward references to the Harry Potter books, to the friend who likes the Twilight films (Tamanna, of course, has nothing but scorn for them).

I mention this awkwardness in part because while Tamanna herself often thinks longingly of the comforts of the 2010s (better ice-cream flavours, better YA fiction, not having to wear Mirinda orange dresses, the internet), none of these are particularly deeply-felt arguments for the present, as they might be presented (um) by one who lives here. I’m speculating, obviously, but it rather feels as if someone sat down and tried to think of reasons a teenage girl might like to live now, but wasn’t convinced by their own arguments (and do teenagers in the 2010s see enough of Mirinda for it to exist in their consciousness as a colour the way Digene pink was for my unfortunate generation?). Underneath it all the book seems far more convinced by its nostalgia for the Bangalore of the past, where there were more trees, less crowded public transport and affordable cinema tickets (all good things, don’t get me wrong, though I have questions about the public transport thing). Perhaps people with a greater connection to the city might find this less trite than I did, but I imagine reading a similar take on my own city and I cringe. And if a girl from the future came along and told me she liked my world because it was “quaint”, I don’t think I’d be falling in love with her (Manoj is clearly a nicer person than I am). For a teenage romance, its notion of the present sounds suspiciously like it was written by someone who also writes letters to the editor (the editor of The Hindu).

I’m not really a reader of time travel romances so I hesitate to generalise about the appeal of the genre. But it seems to me that a big part of the point is the impossibility of a happy ending (until, of course, there’s a happy ending but then often there isn’t). And as much as I dislike this book’s treatment of time and change, it often does manage to invoke the bleak impossibility of this couple’s getting together. The choppiness of Tamanna’s movements between times is genuinely discombobulating, the lack of explanation given to the device makes the characters seem helpless in the face of an enormous, unknowable universe. There’s enough there to make me curious about the next two books in the trilogy (both published in 2014, though I haven’t yet obtained them).


Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Split

This is a more recognisable (to me) version of teenage romance. Noor is part of the group of popular girls at school, and has an ideal-sounding home life with cool parents with cool politics and tastes. But her mother has fallen in love with someone else and moved to Paris, and Noor finds herself unable to tell her friends (incidentally, this is done in emotionally believable ways that made perfect sense). Forced to go to an after-school support group she finds herself lying to and drifting apart from her older friends and socialising with children and nerds. She also meets A Boy who is funny and nice and from Bombay, but has not been previously vetted and declared acceptable by her popular friends.

I say “recognisable” above for a couple of reasons. Firstly because the book is rooted in a very specific (in terms of class, gender, geography, family) South Delhi milieu, one which is relatively close to my own upbringing; though separated by 15 years and a bit more privilege. Which I’ll come back to, but the other reason it feels familiar is that it’s a lot closer to high school narratives that we’re mostly familiar with through literature/TV/film. So obviously football players can be regarded as acceptable boyfriends; boys with glasses are a bit iffy; the head of Noor’s little clique is more than a little Regina George-ish. (This isn’t Mean Girls; Madhavan takes much of what that film suggests about teenage friendships for granted, but shows a lot more empathy for her popular girl characters, and manages to write them as vulnerable children.) This isn’t really the space for musing about how high school romances as a genre inflect the lives of teenagers who are exposed to the genre, but I think both forms of recognisableness are interlinked and sustain one another in complex ways.

I don’t know if it’s a feature of the book (the author’s about my age) or a feature of me that I spent the whole thing thinking how young and vulnerable everyone was.

But. The book is, as I say, fixed in a very particular milieu, and it is very much Noor’s own. We’re seeing through her eyes, and it’s not always clear where the split between book and narrator lies. Which is fine to an extent–as we cringe at her bigoted grandmother, or learn with her to appreciate the younger, poorer girl with the looped, ribboned plaits,  and so on (some visible assumptions are being made here about the sort of reader the book expects). A corollary of sorts is that you sometimes wonder if Noor’s prejudices are in fact the book’s–the fat girl from West Delhi who has no taste but they keep her around for the money, and whose inferiority is left unquestioned? (Not the only example, but one that irritated me with how blatant it was.)

Split is good at the inside of a (certain sort of) protagonist’s head, then, but I have some reservations about how it has said characters interact with the world.

March 1, 2016

Bhimrao Ambedkar, The Boy Who Asked Why/The Strange Haunting of Model High School/On the tip of a pin was …

Sowmya Rajendran and Satwik Gade, Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why

This was one of the picture books on the Hindu/Goodbooks shortlist, and has text by Sowmya Rajendran, who’s generally reliable.

20160301_232322-1I think, considering the title, that it’s interesting that at no point during the book is Ambedkar shown to ask “why”. In fact, apart from asking his parents when he can go to school, at the beginning of the book, and telling a station master that he and his siblings are Mahars somewhere in the middle, he doesn’t speak at all. I don’t (I think) mean to suggest that the book silences him—no one else speaks either, and the whole thing feels more reported than anything else. I don’t know what the effects of this might be. But if Ambedkar isn’t shown asking the question, the book itself does—at various points as the text and art (by Gade) depicts a bad situation in its protagonist’s life, there’s a big “WHY?” across the page. I wonder if, going by the title, you could make a case that the book’s identification with Ambedkar is so complete that its whys are his own. (I’m reasonably sure you could not.)

I like to think of children who are learning to read being exposed early on to an abridged life of Ambedkar, but I’m not sure this is the best or most artistically interesting of those I’ve seen. But then, I don’t really know how to talk about picture books, so it’s possible that I’m missing obvious, wonderful things.


Shabnam Minwalla, The Strange Haunting of Model High School (illustrations by Svabhu Kohli)

[Full disclosure: the publishers are my former employers; I don't know who the editors were but it's possible that they're friends and former colleagues.]

I had a gleeful yay school story! moment when I started reading this one. I know Jai liked it, and I mostly do too—it’s set in a well-regarded girls’ school in Bombay, and features a production of Annie, ghosts, attractive boys from the school next door, and an evil teacher scheming to take over from the current principal. There are annoyances—one of the protagonists tends to burst into song at random (like Lord of the Rings, it’s usually best to skip over these moments); there’s a class Fat Girl; some of the prose is questionable (emotions “slosh” around the insides of the characters; and why is everyone wearing multiple leotards?). But then there’s Mrs Rangachari.

Mrs Rangachari is both fantastic in her own right and a general symbol of what this book does particularly well. She’s larger than life and evil, in the way that, say, Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull is evil (and without the underlying gendered badness of that depiction). She hates happiness, she’s greedy and vindictive and power hungry, she’s willing to scheme and indulge in ridiculous, over the top plots to get what she wants (power). And yet, her evil is expressed in familiar, knowable ways—the excuses she finds for her anger are based in class (how dare Lara be poor and clever and successful) and Indian Culture (the delighted horror at the girls she wants to get in trouble befriending boys). (Tangentially, you should read Amulya Gopalakrishnan on auntyhood.) And the (or one) result of this is to remind you that this is a school where, as is true of so many well-regarded schools in Indian metropolises, skirts and tunics “must be worn three fingers below the knee” (true of my own old school, before it was decided that skirts of any length were too dangerous to our morals) , fraternising with boys is strictly discouraged, and everyone but Lara is rich.

There’s a moment early on, immediately after we’ve learnt about the skirt length rule, when we learn that “Monitors can conduct the finger test at all times”. Probably any connection between this three finger test and the much more notorious two finger test is a bit of a stretch,  and I don’t (entirely) mean to suggest that the book is a scathing indictment of the ways in which culture and tradition and class are used in schools to target girls and systemically harass, slut shame, and generally make the world a lot worse, but more than in most books set in schools I think those ideas are present.


Geeta Dharmarajan and Ludmilla Chakrabarty, On the tip of a pin was …

Not really that recent—the first edition of this picture book was published in 2009. But it describes itself on the back as “sci-fi”, and I was never not going to read it. Like How to Weigh an Elephant (also by Dharmarajan, also published by Katha) it ends with a child-friendly description of the science involved.

The plot is rather incoherent—there20160301_231951-1-1‘s a village on the tip of a pin (Pintipur, obviously), populated by children, and also by a group of animals. All of the animals have their faults, but worm, for reasons that are unclear, is the worst. She “had races with herself to see if she could dig the deepest, the longest, the straightest holes … across the village and over the moon and the stars and the sun and the clouds”. And so she keeps disappearing in space and time and annoying everyone. Until they discover the village on the head of the pin (Pintopur), and learn that wormholes mean travel to other worlds, which is cool. Then everyone has space adventures.

I don’t know if any scientists were involved in the making of On the tip of a pin was …, and I don’t know that it’s so much SF as it is surreal. Which is fine, probably—adventures in time and space should be weird and incoherent and fractured and disproportionately sized (Goat, one of the animals, seems to cause solar and lunar eclipses on a regular basis because he’s so large) and it all feels perfectly reasonable and a far better explanation for wormholes than the explanation at the end.

February 25, 2016

The Adventures of Stoob/The Tigers of Taboo Valley

While I’m in India, I’m trying to make my way through as many relatively recent children’s books as I can get a hold of; particularly those on this shortlist (the picture books and fiction, mostly). Here are a couple, both published by Red Turtle/Rupa in 2014:

51C6nTU6HDLSamit Basu and Sunaina Coelho, The Adventures of Stoob: Testing Times

I’ve never actually read a Wimpy Kid book, so saying that this is like one of those is probably not the most rigorous of statements. But it certainly feels like it wants to be seen that way, judging by the cover art, etc. They’re for similar age groups, they’re told in first person with text interspersed with comical illustrations, both series even begin with slouching boys with backpacks, but that’s a bit of a reach. (There are obvious differences—the Wimpy Kid books are presented as diaries, whereas the context of Stoob’s narrative is less clear; Coelho’s illustrations aren’t so much a part of the narrative as they illustrate and enhance particular ideas/images. But still.)

Stoob (Subroto Bandhopadhyay) is 10 and in class 5, and a few short months away from being a senior. Those months are, it seems, to be filled with end of year exams—there are also monkeys and crows, more diligent friends, and a quest to stop a friend from cheating in the final exam. It’s light and funny and gave me a mnemonic for remembering the order of the Mughal emperors. There was a moment partway through where I thought we might be heading for a rather abrupt genre switch; Stoob’s guitar teacher is missing from his home, and the door is unlocked, the house is a mess, and there’s a horrible smell. Fortunately there’s an innocent explanation, and lightness is restored.

It’s all good fun and the illustrations are great, but I’m not particularly drawn into Stoob. As I say above, the context of his story is never quite clear—is he addressing an audience? Is this a diary? Are we in his head? How much does he feel the need to explain to his audience, whoever they are? I’d have liked to see more interiority given to these characters—to, for example, see the cheating dilemma feel like the huge battle for the soul that Stoob seems to think it is (which is not to suggest that I want morally instructive books about the badness of cheating in school exams). I’d just like more substance somewhere.


Ranjit Lal, The Tigers of Taboo Valley

The anthropomorphised-animals-with-apposite-names genre is not one I particularly appreciate except when targeted at very small children (what about Kipling??? cry my readers. Kipling is an exception to most rules). Particularly when the naming attempts clumsy references to Our World Today. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of book that The Tigers of Taboo Valley is—the tigers in question are both well aware of, and a bit obsessed with, their presentation in the media (courtesy a famous wildlife photographer named Ayesha, with luxuriant black hair). We’re told that Rana Shaan-Baahadur changes his facebook profile picture often—except not really, he’s a tiger, their facebook walls are the trees they urinate on. The vultures are named Diclo and Fenac, the crocodiles Magar and Machch, the jackal is Naradmunni, the poacher is Khoon-Pyaasa. This is all probably fine if you’re into this sort of thing. There are also terrorist porcupines: the Al Seekh Kebab Atankvad Andolan (ASKAA). This is not fine, it is cringeworthy.

Raat-ki-Rani, the mother of four cubs, is shot by the poacher, Rana Shaan-Bahadur takes over parenting duties. Taboo Valley is so named because the former natives put chemicals in their cattle to increase milk production and in doing so poisoned the vultures (and possibly the cattle?). It’s now deserted and the animals are afraid to enter it—except that they do enter it, and find that it’s perfectly safe, so it’s hard to be sure what the point of this interlude was other than to give the book an alliterative title (and gesture at an Important Lesson about putting chemicals in your cows). The other tigers decide to kill Rana Shaan-Bahadur for being a disgrace to gendered assumptions about parenting, the porcupines and hyenas and poachers are also converging upon the family, and it all gets a bit Game of Thrones. Everyone makes it out alive, somehow.

I’m being harsh, probably; other than some of the cringey names it’s perfectly competent. I’d rather read the Jungle Book, like many of Lal’s own characters.

January 13, 2016

Bulletpoints: The Borrowers (2011)

Some disconnected notes on the 2011 BBC adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (first published in 1952–the dates are important). Since the book is a) good and b) relevant to my interests (academic and otherwise) I decided drag Erin into watching it with me (and reading the book and thinking about empire–she has some really good stuff about the book here).

  • The plot (book): A couple of frame narratives in, we learn that the Borrowers are tiny, humanoid creatures that live in big houses, stealing borrowing from the “human beans”. Our main characters are a family of three, the Clocks, the only Borrowers left in a declining country house. Arrietty, the adventurous daughter, disobeys her parents, goes outside, and meets a human boy; their subsequent friendship leads him to give the Borrowers a number of things from an old doll’s house, but it also leads to their home under the floorboards being discovered so that they must escape. They end the book as exiles, forced to abandon their home and “emigrate”. borrower2


  • I’ve written about the book on this site before, and it forms a biggish chunk of my thesis (which is what Erin’s referring to when she says she’s about to “read Subramanian on this”). Briefly–The Borrowers raises a number of issues around power and dependence; the Borrowers are dependent for their material needs upon humans, whom they dismiss as resources (“Human beans are for Borrowers”), but their names, language, domestic paraphenalia, are all presented as attempts at aping human cultural life, and therefore inauthentic. Through the presentation of human and borrower spaces here it’s easy  (I think) to see how domestic material culture (and national identity–think of the importance of the country house to the heritage industry) is linked to the (declining) empire. And yet the whole thing is appropriately ambivalent; as Erin says in the linked post, it never straightforwardly assigns colonizer-colonized positions. In the human boy, we even have a sort of hybrid figure.


  • The plot (film): This is set in the present. The human family here are a boy named James, his unemployed father, and his grandmother Mrs Driver. They live in London and are poor; the dad’s doing all he can to afford a nice family Christmas. Mrs Driver believes her house is infested by tiny creatures who  steal–James and his dad think she drinks too much. James befriends Arrietty, the Borrowers are found out; this is relatively close to the book’s plot but only a small part of the film. Because Stephen Fry plays Richard Dawkins Professor Mildeye, a blustering scientist who is something of a joke; he’s convinced that tiny humanoid creatures exist and that he must catch them (and then display and dissect them) in order to make a name for himself in the scientific world. Pod and Homily are captured (heroically sacrificing themselves for Arrietty’s freedom) and the rest of the film is devoted to Arrietty, another Borrower named Spiller, and James attempting to rescue them before Mildeye can display them at a huge press conference. Toy cars and planes are involved; also chase scenes and Mildeye’s inept attempts at romancing Mrs Driver.


  • What does the change in setting do? As Erin noted, the obvious consequence for me is that the immediate colonial context is gone; there’s probably stuff to be said about the ways in which the current economic climate is reflected in the film, but the very specific material relations that constituted (part of) empire are lost. As is Homily Clock’s obsession with perfect housekeeping, but that’s probably a relief. And yet there’s something in Mildeye’s handling of his “specimens”. Granted, this is a made-for-TV children’s movie with a lot of plot and little time to explore nuance, but we were both surprised by the scientists’ unabashed villainy–there’s no attempt to justify to themselves the displaying (like zoo animals), attempted stripping (that was an uncomfortable scene) and planned dissection of sentient beings with whom they’re able to communicate. Of course Europeans displaying or killing colonial subjects for science/curiosity/lulz has a long, proud history–though most of those earlier academics at least made the effort of trying to convince themselves their subjects weren’t fully human. (Coincidentally, we watched this film a few days after the Daily Mail reported on a story about a projected Saartjie Baartman film, referring to Baartman as the “bum woman”.)


  • This chimes with other issues of power within the book, and in other, contemporary (with Norton), children’s books. In The Borrowers, the friendship between Arrietty and the boy may be genuine and well-meant, it may give them both wonderful things (they’re both lonely before they meet; she reads to him; he performs tasks she’s too small and vulnerable to do) but good intentions cannot erase that difference in power. When they’re found out, it’s Arrietty and her family who lose everything.


  •  I’m thinking as well of T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946), which deals with questions of power, tiny people and sentience even more directly. In the book, which is about a girl in a declining English country estate who discovers and befriends the tiny descendants of some Lilliputians (I know; I promise this is a different book), the attempts of various people to capture the Lilliputians for display in circuses are very clearly seen as bad. And yet our ‘good’ characters aren’t immune to these impulses– the kindly Professor fantasises about capturing and displaying a Brobdingnagian before guiltily deciding he would pay the giant, of course. More importantly Maria, who also means well, has to learn to overcome the tendency to treat the Lilliputians like toys just because she can–she learns an important lesson when she puts a Lilliputian in a toy aeroplane and flies it, and he falls out and is badly injured. (The Lilliputians also learn an important lesson, but decide to forgive Maria anyway. I’m not sure that was wise.) Both The Borrowers (book) and Mistress Masham’s Repose demonstrate that  good intentions don’t protect you, if you’re powerful, from causing harm to vulnerable people; MMR further suggests that a disparity of power is going to make it inherently harder for the more powerful party to see the less powerful as fully human (for want of a better word).


  • There’s a weird echo of the aeroplane scene in MMR in this film. James shoots Arrietty out of a sling, and I’m wincing and waiting for her to be badly hurt. She doesn’t–conveniently unbreakable, she thanks him for the exciting ride. Later on the plot to rescue her parents has her taking rides in toy aeroplanes and cars. James is Arrietty’s friend; he likes her and so cannot harm her. (Their relationship is presented as even more egalitarian because the Clocks give the human family a rare coin that solves their financial dificulties). It’s the bad people who are a threat to the Borrowers’ personhood–power in and of itself is rendered irrelevant.


  • The other possibility, of course, is that issues of personhood and power aren’t raised in any sustained way because practically every man in this film is evil and terrifying. In the book, the Clocks live in isolation because they genuinely don’t know where to find the other Borrowers and it’s too dangerous to go looking; and what if Borrowers are dying out? They might be the last of their kind, holed up in this hiding place, waiting for the end. Pod does plan to teach Arrietty how to Borrow, because this is a basic survival skill she needs to learn. In the film, he refuses to let his daughter go out at all, insisting that he  provides enough for his small family that she shouldn’t need to. This feels like the beginning of a horror story–and when we discover that there are in fact hundreds of Borrowers living communally in London, and that Pod and his family are welcome among them, it gets more suspicious still (and then Pod gets violently protective of the young man flirting with his daughter. This could so easily be a much more sinister story). Eventually we’re given the backstory–Pod is a hero among the other Borrowers but there was one girl he couldn’t save from a disaster–his niece. See? Says the film. We told you there was a reasonable explanation! Except that this is not a reasonable explanation for locking up your wife and child for years and refusing to let them see other people ever, so this backstory hasn’t helped at all. borrower film


  • It’s rather a pity that all these other Borrowers exist. One effect is to take away our focus on the isolation of this family–there are moments in the book that feel genuinely apocalyptic (though there’s a wonderful moment in the film [see picture] when all three Clocks hide under their dining table that recalls Cold War era duck and cover drills).There’s a version of this story (it wouldn’t be The Borrowers, but hey) in which film!Pod is aware that the world has ended, and he’s keeping the two women locked up in a misguided attempt to protect them from that knowledge until they all die together. (I think I’ve read that horribly bleak SF short story.)


  • About the only bit of Pod’s overprotectiveness that does make sense is his initial distrust of Spiller, the young Borrower boy the family hire to guide them to a safe new home. Spiller is gross. Spiller’s flirtation technique is to sexually harrass Arrietty into exhausted compliance. Spiller is from that really horrible moment in 90s Bollywood and someone should punch him, though I’d prefer Arrietty rather than Pod to be the one to do so. Unfortunately, when Pod and Homily are trapped by Mildeye, he decides to literally hand his daughter over to Spiller to look after. Solid parenting as ever there, Pod.


  • To be fair, there’s a solid argument for reading Arrietty’s sex life as central to the book and film. As Erin says, there are some erotically charged moments in the book, when Arrietty first goes outside, and as she and the boy learn about each other. But on an even more basic level the book, and Arrietty herself, are concerned with “saving the race”–it doesn’t seem to occur to her that to do that she might need to find a nice Borrower boy. In the film this does seem to occur to her and everyone else–early on, when Pod protests that he provides everything Arrietty needs, we’re reminded that she has Other Needs (though there’s no un-disturbing answer to how Pod should provide for those).


  • James finds a dollshouse bed for Arrietty and Spiller to sleep in. “Is there another bed?” asks Arrietty (I’m paraphrasing) as the two boys smile at her (James innocently, Spiller leeringly) and ask what the problem is. She has to get into bed with Spiller. But she does manage to kick him out when he gets too threatening (the film presumably doesn’t think of its target audience as one likely to have experienced sharing beds with men who will not stop, and apparently sees this as all in good fun).


  • Arrietty eventually admits she has feelings for Spiller and the two leave to have adventures, with Pod and Homily’s blessing. UGH.


  • How many people are likely to have read The Borrowers? Erin observed that adaptations of other children’s books tend to be a lot more faithful–and I wonder if part of the reason this is able to be the film it is is because this book has fallen out of the popular canon (is it in bookshops? do actual children read it?) to some extent. Everyone knows it’s about tiny people; the rest is optional. (Erin: “[but] it could as easily be Jim the little fairy who lives in your house. Fae are common property.”)


  • A thing I miss  about the book is the sense you get of a switch in perspective. I love what Erin says in her post about the clever cover art of her edition and the tricks it plays with regard to size. In the book, most of the time we’re seeing through the eyes of Arrietty who is the right size for a Borrower, and so the human world is huge to us. It’s no accident that I refer to the boy in the book as The Boy, and to James in the film–the film roots itself in the human, gives the humans context and story and thus loses its capacity for estrangement. This is a vital difference for me. The book is set in a vast and terrifying landscape populated by huge creatures that can kill you–the film is set in your nan’s house with cute tiny creatures scurrying around. It keeps the Borrowers small. And it renders the film safe–the heartwarming tale of How Little James Helped The Friendly Tiny People With No Bad Consequences For Him Or Them looks a lot more fraught from the other side.


Which is a lot of words to say “this film is mediocre”, but hey.

November 11, 2015

JiHyeon Lee, Pool

Because water stories. Column here, or below.



JiHyeon Lee’s picture book Pool begins with a young boy by a swimming pool, empty and inviting. He’s about to get in, we assume, when a crowd of other people rush into his (and our) sight. They’re mostly adults, all bigger than him, armed with rubber rings and toys and all looking a lot less serious than our protagonist does. Hell is other people with beach balls. A page later the pool is packed, so full of people and floatation aids that we can barely see the tiny spots of blue water between them. And so our protagonist dives underwater instead, and that is where everything gets exciting.

Sound changes under water, as do movement, and colour, and even time. Immediately once the boy has entered the water he’s cut off from the world above (now a riot of feet and flippers at the top of the page) and in a dreamlike space which seems to work in different ways to the world he’s left behind. This new world has one other human inhabitant; a girl who has had the same idea as him. The boy’s skin and clothes, on the surface the same greys and creams as everyone else, take on new and rich colours; the girl wears a red swimsuit.

Suddenly the children are free, exploring a glorious, improbable underwater world. Shoals of brightly coloured fish with beaklike noses flit birdlike through an underwater forest; tiny creatures with long, tpool3ubelike noses sniff curiously at the intruders. There are friendly sea serpents peeping out of the holes in coral formations, sharklike creatures with huge, prehistoric grins but apparently benign intentions, giant sea slugs, and fish that appear designed to be ridiculous. The range of real world ocean life can often be so weird and wonderful that it’s sometimes hard to be sure that these creatures (a mobile feather boa, a goofy-faced yellow creature with both fur and fins) aren’t based on real things; particularly when a trio of narwhals shows up. Perhaps that’s the point though—our imaginations allow us to have the real and the fantastic simultaneously. We can have dragons and dinosaurs and iguanas all at the same time, should we so choose.

It’s not this diverse underwater menagerie that makes Pool special, however, but how it handles sound and space. In the early pages, there’s often nothing on the page but the boy and his corner of the pool in a vast white plane. Underwater the children have all the space they want; the three-spread sequence in which they meet a huge whale iPool2n particular gives a strong sense of size and scope and wonder. Above, as the pool fills with people, so does the page, till it is covered to the very edges and visually busy. (There’s often something a little disgusting about bodies en masse; in crowds we are reduced to the sweaty meatsacks that we really are. Lee manages to keep her crowds human and distinct, though I wish she hadn’t chosen to depict most of the offending pool-goers as fat.) Pool is a book entirely without words, but manages its depictions of space to make those silences sometimes plangent and echoing (the empty pool, the vast space around it) and sometimes intimate (the underwater world, so safely cocooned against the world above). The colours are delicate, the lines are pencil; it’s a very quiet book.

With an escort of strange creatures, the children swim back to the surface. The crowd has exited the pool as a group (perhaps someone saw a shark); the boy and girl take their goggles and swimming caps off and smile at each other for the first time. Their skin and clothes retain the vivid colour they acquired down below; they have been transformed.

And just as we think the crowd who stayed up on the surface have been utterly discarded by the book, a child in a rubber ring turns around to stare at the weird pink and yellow fish that have appeared in the pool. The children have brought back with them some of the wonder of the deep.


September 15, 2015

The Borrowers, Mary Norton

Have a version of a recent column.


I’ve been thinking about apocalypses a lot recently. Or perhaps not. I’ve been thinking about climate change, about worlds that end and worlds that change and the ways in which we might imagine them, and trying to work out what it is that I want from fiction that tries to tackle these things. What I don’t want seems clear: books where these huge things are relegated to background noise as if they weren’t fundamental to how we exist materially and emotionally in the world. What I want are several things at once, the sort of range that is beyond the scope of a single text. I want possible futures that could serve as horrifying warnings, and possible futures in which humans alter the ways in which we live in radical, beautiful ways; and I want the quiet, deep sadness of acceptance that the world we love is about to be lost forever. The world (or the publishing industry) seems willing to throw up several horrifying warnings (and endless stories of young white people finding love in hopeless places) but too little of the other things, and they are the ones I really crave.

I found something of what I’m looking for in a 1950s children’s book that can in no way be said to be about apocalypses, or even climate change, at all. Mary Norton’s The Borrowers is a book about tiny, human-shaped people who live under the floorboards (and in other secluded places) in human houses, and who subsist on what they can “borrow” from the humans in whose homes they live. The story (once you get past the multiple frame narratives) opens in an old country house, once inhabited by a big family and staff, as well as several families of borrowers: the Overmantels, the Harpsichords, the Rain-Barrels, the Linen-Presses, the Bell-Pulls, the Hon. John Studdingtons (this family live behind a portrait), the list goes on. But time has gone by and most of the humans have moved out, and so too have the Borrowers. At the beginning of this book, then, the only borrowers left in the house are the small family of the Clocks—teenaged Arrietty and her mother and father, Homily and Pod.borrowers3

We’re seeing all this from Arrietty’s perspective, and all she can really tell is that the humans are slowly leaving. The (human) reader may ask if it was a war that did it or general social change—as far as the Borrowers are concerned, their major resource is drying up. Because that’s what humans (“human-beans”, appropriately a sort of vegetable) are to them; it’s why taking from them is “borrowing” rather than “stealing”. (“Human beans are for Borrowers”, explains Arrietty to the young human boy whom she befriends.) We (presumably) human readers are immersed in the Borrower perspective–if we can’t quite distance ourselves enough to think of ourselves as a mere resource, it’s easy to see this vast, increasingly empty, increasingly run-down house and imagine our own extinction. If the humans are dying out—and the reader can easily imagine this huge, lonely boy to be the last of us—what are the Borrowers to live on? But it’s more than that, more than a mere depletion of resources. It’s the empty house that used to be filled with people–we’re asked, over and over, to imagine a world emptied of the creatures, human and borrower, that once filled it.

This is not to claim The Borrowers as a piece of apocalyptic fiction—or to turn it into a clumsy allegory for our own times and situation. But Arrietty and her parents’s whole understanding of the world and their place in it is unsustainable and they know it—at some level they have already accepted their own ending.

The humans are not (yet) facing extinction, as it turns out. The boy speaks of “railways stations and football matches and … India and China and the British Commonwealth. He told her about the July sales.” There are billions of us–and what if it’s the other way around, and Arrietty and her parents are the only Borrowers left? In later books we’ll learn that this is not the case, that other Borrowers still live in exile, but their numbers have dwindled. Mrs May, through whose voice we first hear of them, thinks they may no longer exist. The Borrowers is suffused with this sense of an ending, and while we’re never explicitly asked to grieve, I think this may be the source of much of its power.



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.