Archive for ‘children’s literature’

May 15, 2015

Insufficiently radical crayons

Although that title makes it seem as if I’m blaming the crayons for the grossly unequal power structures they inhabit, which is clearly unfair. Anyway, here is a column about Daywalt and Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit, which is not about crayons quitting, but about their bodies and labour (identical, in this scenario) being exploited until they die.

 

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Crayons give you power. This is something of which Harold, the protagonist of Crockett Johnson’s 1955 book Harold and the Purple Crayon, is well aware. Harold is able to create around himself the world he wants to see, simply by drawing it. His purple crayon brings whatever it draws to life, be it the moon, a tree, or his own house. Art is powerful and Harold can make art and so there is no limit to what he can do.

We’re not told whether the crayon feels quite the same way.

pink dinosaurThe protagonist of Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit does know how his crayons feel about his use of them, in some detail. Duncan finds a stack of letters from the various colours in his box of crayons, each of them telling him of their grievances. The Red Crayon is convinced that it works harder than any of the others, and that it gets a particularly raw deal on holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. The Purple Crayon has no objections to a life spent drawing dragons and grapes, but does request that Duncan colour inside the lines rather than wasting its labour outside them. Grey would like to make less elephants, Pink would like less gender stereotyping (the only reason it has been used at all is that Duncan’s sister borrowed it once), Peach has been stripped by Duncan of its paper wrapping and feels that its modesty has been outraged. Black would prefer a starring role sometimes rather than being always relegated to the outlines; white isn’t sure why it is being used at all, and Beige’s major complaint appears to be that it is boring, which is hardly Duncan’s fault. Only Green, Yellow and Orange seem to be happy, and the latter two are in the middle of a longstanding argument. All of these letters are written in the colours of their own crayons, and accompanied by the illustrations invoked in them; large grey mammals, Santa riding a fire engine, pink monsters and beige wheat.

But then there’s the letter from Blue, and it is terrifying. Blue is Duncan’s favourite colour, and has been for some years now. He uses it to draw water and clouds and sky. Red may complain that it is overworked, Grey may complain about having to fill in vast areas of elephant-skin, but it’s obvious to the reader that they have a less hard time of it than Blue. Blue is too exhausted even to stand up; it is a mere stub of a thing. Blue doesn’t have much time left.

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Because The Day the Crayons Quit is a misleading title. The crayons can’t quit in this world, even if (after Orange and Yellow put aside their differences) they unionised. This isn’t a story of taking back power, it’s one in which the powerless beg their master to reduce their suffering (or, in Green’s case, suck up to him. Green’s a collaborator). Should Duncan choose to ignore the letters, what can the crayons do? The more he uses them, the closer their lives come to ending. They recognise where the power in this relationship lies. Even Blue, who ends its letter begging for a break opens it by pandering to Duncan’s feelings, and telling him how much it has enjoyed their collaborations. The fact that the letters are written in crayon takes on a new significance—surely for a crayon this is akin to writing in blood?purpdrag

“Poor” Duncan, we’re told, “wanted his crayons to be happy”, and so he does accede to their requests; the picture at the end of the book features orange whales, pink dinosaurs and a green sea. But what of Blue’s insistence that he needs a break? Well, he’s been spared the sea and sky, but in this picture the land is blue, a bus is blue, a hippo is blue. Duncan may be merciful … but he may not. We’re left to wonder how much of Blue is left, whether he even survived this final picture.

Duncan’s teacher gives him a gold star for creativity.

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May 4, 2015

The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award Shortlist (Part II)

And on to the second part of the list (the first is here)!

 

Joan Lingard, Trouble on Cable Street

This is set in London during the Spanish Civil War, against a backdrop of rising fascism in Europe and England. Isabella is fourteen, is half Spanish, half English, and has twin seventeen-year-old brothers. William is a supporter of the Spanish republicans (as are Isabella and their parents), but Arthur is all England for the English and Hitler Isn’t So bad. William goes to Spain to fight in the war, Arthur joins a party of Blackshirts led by a wealthy friend, Rupert, who has a crush on Isabella.

The Blakes are good people and so have a tendency to take wounded people into their home despite Arthur’s opinions. Twice in the novel injured young men are brought home and cared for, and the Blakes are able to save one, but fail to save the other. Isabella has romances with Sean Flynn, who is the Irish boy next door and with Angus Anderson—Angus is rich and Isabella wants to better herself so that’s probably where that’s going.

Where Trouble on Cable Street works is in the way it really brings home the extent to which England and Europe are bound up in one another, and gives us some sense of a multicultural London which has existed for a long time. Isabella’s employers are Jewish, half of her family Spanish, and at one point she informs a colleague that her grandmother was a gypsy—which shocks said colleague but doesn’t have any bigger ramifications (and I feel like it should, in this book’s context?). And I guess hurrah for not necessarily ending up with your childhood boyfriend, and also for assuming that people on the same family can be on different sides.

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Unfortunately, this book feels to me like another example of the sort of historical fiction that pushes the “people in the past were just like us!” narrative*; Isabella and her family provide us with an easy way into this world because they share exactly the same set of values that the reader of this book is assumed to have, and so there’s never any sense of anything these protagonists experience as morally complex. For all its insistence on not discriminating or relying on stereotype, here we are with the hardworking ideal family of immigrants who are attractive and helpful and industrious and super-liberal and great, totally unlike the drunk Irish guy next door who beats his wife, whose kids are quick tempered and whose youngest son steals. Plus it starts over-exposition-y, ends over-abruptly, and I’m not sure what is going on with the cover (see above, and please explain this to me). Entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it’s award-worthy.

 

Bernard Ashley, Nadine Dreams of Home

Nadine is a child from Goma, in the DRC. She is sent by her father, along with the rest of her family, to the UK during what I suspect (the book is short on details, understandably) was the M23 rebellion. Her father did not escape with them and the family have no news of him. This, her inability to understand the local language, and her homesickness combine to make her extremely unhappy. Then a teacher shows her some pictures of Goma on the internet (she can’t operate the school computers herself, presumably in large part because of the language barrier) and from then on she spends each visit to the school library looking at a particular picture of a familiar landscape and dreaming of happier times.

A thing this book does well is to capture the difficulty of genuinely not understanding most of what is going on around you because of a difference in language and culture—Nadine is constantly forced to try to interpret, get things wrong, be unable to apologise, and both the experience of being disconnected and unable to communicate and the frustration that comes with it are invoked effectively. I think it’s good at quite a lot of feelings—the lack of safety that comes with the absence of her father Fabrice—the only member of the family who can speak English; the brutal matter of factness that is sometimes the only response to grief. (“Dad was. We three are what there is now.”) And this scene:

“Nadine’s mother spent Saturday showing her which bus took them to the street market, and how to go to the post office to get money. It was as if she was poking Nadine in the ribs with what she was trying to get her to understand.”

And on the way home Nadine’s mother said “Forget Dad” in the same matter-of-fact voice she had used to buy the bus tickets.

Which works because it’s so clear that the absence of Nadine’s father isn’t just (“just”) the loss of someone she and her mother love, but in a strange country and a strange language, it’s the loss of basic safety and the inability to take for granted one’s ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

There are any number of books for children in which libraries and research play a major role in working through and understanding serious issues—Nadine spends a lot of time in the library but, refreshingly, doesn’t spend it reading. Instead the book focuses on a completely different thing—places and pictures as talismans, dreaming as escape.

I’m not convinced by the ending, but hey.

 

Mel Elliott, Pearl Power

Pearl and her mother have to move to a new house and new town because her mother has been promoted at work and is now the boss. This means that Pearl has to go to a new school, where she feels nervous but reminds herself that she is a mighty girl and can do anything. When a classmate bullies her and teases her for doing things “like a girl” she smiles and says “thank you”.

I really like the artwork here—greys and oranges, primarily, and very simply done. There’s a spread depicting Pearl and her mother leaving town which is just a dark grey map that their red van is driving through, but all the places on the map are marked out in terms of associations and friends and family’s names, and it creates a really lovely effect of community. Also good is the Tom-and-Jerry-ish thing of having the adults and taller children only be visible from the waist down, showing the world at Pearl’s level.

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As a feminist children’s book though? Hm. I like the sense of mother and daughter as single family unit, both vulnerable (we’re told that Pearl’s mother is also nervous about her first day) and friendly with each other. The book opens with a poem about Pearl’s name that mentions “Mr and Mrs Power”, her parents, but we don’t see a father anywhere, just these two women who clearly make up a household.

And there’s a lot to be said for the book’s choice not to abandon things like nurturing and kindness—Pearl may run and do maths “like a girl” and do them well, but she cuddles weeping classmates “like a girl” as well. On the other—the book does make her rather superhuman; she’ll kick a ball to the moon, or run heroically through pain, or meet any sort of vulnerability by shrugging it off and being sure of herself. Which would be great if it came with some sort of interiority, but it doesn’t. Pearl knows what to respond, we’re told several times over. I wish she didn’t, the whole thing just feels superficial.

 

Gill Lewis, Scarlet Ibis

Scarlet, her mother, and her half-brother Red all live together. The little brother has (I think—Lewis doesn’t give us specifics and I don’t feel in a position to diagnose) some form of autism spectrum condition, the mother is suffering from depression (see previous caveats), and Scarlet, at twelve, is trying to balance school with keeping the family fed, clothed, and functional-looking enough that social services won’t swoop in and separate them. Obviously this is impossible, and soon she’s in a foster family with no idea where her brother is and only occasional visits to her mother in hospital.

There’s a subplot involving Red’s fascination with birds, a baby pigeon the two of them were watching over and a strange old lady near Scarlet’s new school who also loves birds. But for once I’m more interested in the humans; Scarlet’s loving but frustrated relationship with her mother and her protectiveness of her brother, the foster family who take her in.

There’s no sense of things being easy here. The system that takes the family into its care is far from perfect and Scarlet is often rightfully angry at it— at the end of the book she thanks her social worker friend Jo for “listening” and she’s right to, but she’d be justified in adding a “finally”. She wonders whether being mixed-race while Red is white might be a factor in separating them and though this is refuted in this case we’re left with the sense that it could be. And human emotions are complex and contradictory.

I haven’t been writing about the books on this shortlist in any particular order, but I’m glad this one is last so that I can declare my allegiance to it. I don’t think it’s the best book on the shortlist (for me, that is Haughton’s) but it feels like the one that most achieves the goals that the prize sets for itself.

Scarlet Ibis doesn’t parade its inclusion of multiracial families or issues of mental health; though they’re essential to this plot, the book only makes them a part of its world. More importantly, it reimagines a society based on community. There’s a magical moment towards the end of the book in which Scarlet’s new school friends think that she has done something terrible, but then they verify her story (well done, responsible kids!), ascertain that she’s doing something they find morally okay, and then stand by her in solidarity and give her what help they can. There are no mean girls here. Whether they are random employees of the local zoo, interfering but kindly neighbours, teenage boys who have just had a foster sister thrust upon them or primary school students, every person in this world is fundamentally decent; it is possible to ask for help and receive it. As a fantasy fan and a children’s literature fan I end up being presented a lot of literature that insists on confronting the grimdarkness of the world by reproducing it endlessly, and to me Scarlet Ibis felt radical in its goodness. This isn’t escapism, it’s imagining a world as it could be.

 

[I thought about writing something here on the subject of the sheer whiteness of children’s literature in the UK, but a) Malorie Blackman’s already said it b) I’ll probably have to say it again once I’ve read the Carnegie shortlist. Consider this a placeholder, in any case.]

 

*The evil twin of the “everyone in the past was bigoted but we know better now!” narrative, except that they’re both pretty evil (or at least misleading and sometimes dangerous). It’s a bit like that Sweet Valley High subseries where an evil doppelganger tries to kill a Wakefield twin and take her place and then the evil doppelganger turns out to have an evil twin of her own. But with history, I guess.

April 27, 2015

The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award Shortlist (Part I)

I’m blogging the Carnegie shortlist again this year (eventually), but thought it would be fun to do the Little Rebels award as well. Eight books, of which these are the first four. I’ve read most of the shortlist–I’ll be writing about the next four in the next week or so.

 

Anne Booth, Girl with a White Dog

A children-learning-about-WWII-and-the-importance-of-tolerance story. That’s a bit reductive, though it is essentially accurate.

Jessie is in year 9, and is learning about World War II as part of a class project. Her father works abroad, something which, hearing the adults around her talk, Jessie blames on immigrants coming to the UK and taking all the jobs. Her grandmother adopts a white German Shepherd, but falls ill soon after (and keeps saying things that make no sense), so that Jessie has to look after the puppy. Eventually her grandmother’s mysterious past, her history project, the cousin Fran’s group of bullies and her best friend Kate’s activism all link up.

There are things here that really work. I’m wary of the collapsing of historical and current events into an overarching argument that these are all manifestations of the same terrible impulses, but Booth gives us enough specifics to partially offset this. The framing project about fairy tales also works—the “modern fairy tale” that Jessie writes for homework is blatant, but still clever. Her voice is funny and dry. And there’s a dark undercurrent to that voice that is the result of her anti-immigrant prejudice, which lasts for a good portion of the book.

I suppose my major issue with Girl with a White Dog is how issue-book-y it feels, which is perhaps an unfair criticism to make of something that is quite openly an issue book. Lessons are stated to us directly—when Jessie has a revelation about prejudice, or about some parallel between the issues she’s reading about and those she’s facing, we are told what it is immediately. And her group of friends is a little too pat—I want to see more kids of colour, queer kids, disabled kids, kids with different sorts of families represented in children’s lit but the particular structure of this plot, and the way it wants to link up various sorts of prejudice, unfortunately enhances the sense of issues being ticked off a list with the introduction of particular characters who all deserve more.

Having said which, a thing that is very well done is Jessie’s relationship with her best friend, Kate. Kate is fond of Jessie’s grandmother as well, is good at maths and speaking to people, is in a wheelchair and plays sitting volleyball at the national level, is very, very political and activisty—Jessie feels vaguely guilty that she isn’t more politically aware, as I suspect most of us do, but consoles herself with the knowledge that not everyone can be good at everything (as I suspect most of us do) and this is Kate’s thing. But then this exchange takes place:

Eventually I stuttered, ‘But … but you won that fight with the bus company. You were in the local paper and everything. It was brilliant. You were brilliant. I thought you liked campaigning.

‘Not campaigning all the time! I want to be lazy, to be nice like you, instead of good old campaigning Kate. And, right now, I just want to be alone, Jess. You’re really not helping.’ And Kate wheeled herself off as fast as she could down the corridor away from me.

I’m quoting this here in part because wanting to be able to be nice is such a simple, painfully accurate description of that feeling. But I think in this book, at this point, it’s a little more important than that. The rest of Girl with a White Dog will be about forgiveness and reconciliation and recognising that we, like other people, are implicated in badness. But this moment between Jessie and Kate isn’t resolved; we’re not allowed to believe that there’s some form of the right words that could make this thing between them go away. I don’t mean to say that they’re not still best friends; if anything, they’re probably more so. But Girl with a White Dog allows Kate her bitterness and perhaps suggests that anger is justified and can sit alongside nobler things like forgiveness.

 

 

Craig Pomranz and Margaret Chamberlain, Made by Raffi 

Made by Raffi is about a boy (Raffi) who likes clothes and bright colours and doesn’t like the things that his other classmates seem to, and who worries about what this might say about his gender identity. Then a teacher teaches him how to knit, and he makes a giant stripey rainbow scarf for his dad, who doesn’t seem to mind that it’s about four metres long. He also makes a magnificent cape for the prince character in the school play, impressing everyone at school, so that both friends and family are shown to embrace his creativity.

raffiGood things: Rainbow scarf! The world illustrated by Chamberlain is a fundamentally nice one; Raffi’s school is populated with students and teachers of various ethnicities and degrees of able-bodiedness, girls who play the same sports as boys and girls who don’t (the boys are a bit less diverse in this regard, for obvious plot-reasons) mum and dad both help out in the kitchen, and the only obvious questioning of Raffi’s behaviour comes from Raffi himself. Even where Pomranz’s text tells us that some children on the bus teased Raffi for his knitting, the accompanying image is one of people who are happy and interested (and the scarf, which is really far too long to be practical). And I like that this isn’t a book about queerness and/or gender identity—though the rainbow scarf would make that reading easy—Raffi might well find that he’s queer, or genderqueer (he does ask if there’s such a thing as a “Tomgirl”) but he might easily be a straight, cis kid who likes to make things. All sorts of options are available here. And I really like the spread in which we’re shown how he makes the cape, as if this was an activity book.

Bad things: that this book can be easily summed up in terms of good and bad things that it does, and that so many of the “good” ones (not enforcing restrictive assumptions on people’s bodies, hurrah!) are about avoiding problems that other books have fallen into. It all feels a bit bland, and I can’t imagine really, really wanting to give the book to a child.

 

 

Jessica Shepherd, Grandma

Oscar and his grandmother are really close, do a number of activities together and love each other dearly. But Grandma is increasingly suffering from dementia and eventually has to go into a care home, and Oscar must adjust to this change.

Grandma is a picture book, told ostensibly in Oscar’s voice and in a constant present tense that makes it feel like a log book or a diary with gaps between the entries to represent the time between Grandma’s first signs of the condition, her diagnosis, the decision to take her to a care home, the point at which she moves in.

It’s all very simply told, and Oscar’s an unnervingly sweet child. He’s sad when Grandma doesn’t remember him or snaps at him, but we’re not shown any anger, or bitterness at how unfair the situation is for her as well as for him, or really any negative emotion—even his sadness is visible only to be followed with immediate reassurance that she doesn’t really mean it. It’s a deliberate choice for an author to make and I can see why one would. But I do wonder if, alongside its demystifying of dementia, it falls into a sort of telling children what the proper way to react is, rather than giving their own feelings a place to go. (I’m thirty and I have unpraiseworthy feelings over dementia and how it has affected elderly people I love; Oscar’s, what, five?) But that’s the thing, it is about demystifying old age and illness, not about demystifying children’s feelings towards these. On the back cover we’re told that Shepherd’s book “has grown out of her experience in a variety of caring roles” and the story ends with a Q&A about dementia, which rather makes my point for me.

But then there’s the genuinely moving bit where Oscar gets Grandma to tell him stories about herself. “I know them all by heart, so that I can remind her if she forgets one day” (there’s a whole world in that sentence). And the art is rather nice and I love that Grandma, Oscar, and Oscar’s younger sibling all have the same sort of hair.

My real objection to the book has to do with Grandma’s hair though. We’re told that Grandma likes to dress up as she used to do, and that she “loves it when Dad brushes her long, curly hair”. I may have howled a “noooooo” and I think that I was justified in doing so. I’m going to speculate that the author has straight hair.

 

 

Chris Haughton, Shh! We Have a Plan 

As has previously been revealed on this website, I love Haughton’s work. The art is just astonishingly cute, the text is often deadpan funny. It is probably unsurprising that I loved this one as well.

Four people (the promotional material says “friends”, but they all look similar and are clearly all looking after the smallest, so who knows?) are walking through the forest and see a bird.

The smallest doesn’t seem to be in on the plan. The others get into position to capture it, and then they “tip-toe slowly tip-toe slowly” (this book is so much fun to read aloud—later they try “climbing slowly climbing slowly” and “paddling slowly paddling slowly”) till they’re near enough to pounce. Three failures later they are somewhat battered and bruised and drenched and nowhere near success. Meanwhile the smallest has offered the bird some bread and gathered a huge flock around him. The others seem ready to take advantage of their companion’s friendliness and catch a few birds for themselves, but the flock turns on them and they have to run away.

So much of this works because of the art. We’re not told why it is that these characters want to catch this bird—are they hoping to eat it? Sell it? Keep it at home? It doesn’t matter. Colour plays a big role, I think; the pink and orange of the bird (and later the yellows and greens of the other birds), shining out against this twilight, purple and blue landscape, is pure desire.

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I’m most of the way through the Little Rebels shortlist now and as I continue to write about them I can see words like “preachy”, “didactic”, “issue” coming up over and over. This is something that is, I think, built into the structure of a prize like this—if we go out looking for “books informed by inclusive/anti-discriminatory concerns or those which promote social equality or social justice” these are inevitable. And while I may sound impatient with this at times, I do think that finding and celebrating these books is worthwhile.

But they’re not the only form that such literature can take, and I think something like Haughton’s book is a useful reminder of that. Is it radical because the prey turns on the hunters? Is it radical because the one member of the group to have any success is the smallest? Is it radical because the smallest seems to be motivated by friendliness/kindness? All of those, but they don’t strike me as more fundamental to the book than that it is funny and beautiful and completely charming.

April 20, 2015

Elephants? Feminism? Something.

wen hsu elephant 2Some recent (and very cute) children’s books involving elephants. I think the essence of this column is that elephants are a) adorable and b) fun to draw?

 

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“Not so long ago” a King decides that he wants to know the weight of his pet elephant. Unfortunately, the kingdom doesn’t have the necessary elephant-weighing technology in place, and no one is entirely sure what to do. Various groups of people try to work it out—fruit sellers and jewellers find their weighing machines inadequate, while the rope makers who try to rig up some sort of pulley system find that their ropes just aren’t strong enough. Bureaucrats and scientists fail. Finally a little girl comes up with the solution—to put the elephant in a boat and measure the change in water level, fill the boat with stones until the same effect was achieved, and then weigh the stones.wen hsu elephant 3 CUTEST

It’s a story many of us will have come across before in some form or the other. Geeta Dharmarajan’s version How to Weigh an Elephant, illustrated by Wen Hsu, names the little girl Lilavati and in doing so opens up the possibility that this is the historical Lilavati, the daughter of Bhaskaracharya to whom his Lilavati is addressed. History doesn’t tell us whether Lilavati herself grew up to be a mathematician, but she has often been adopted as a symbol for women in science in India—a 2008 anthology about Indian women scientists is titled Lilavati’s Daughters, for example. Dharmarajan’s book ends with a section on neglected Indian women scientists as well, signalling clearly that it sees books like this one as having an important social role to play.

The “twins” in the title of Kavitha Mandana and Nayantara Surendranath’s A Pair of Twins share neither parents nor a species but they do share a birthday. (Human) Sundari is born on the same day as (elephant) Lakshmi, into a family of Mahouts. The two babies form a lasting friendship and Sundari often pretends to be a Mahout on Lakshmi’s back—but in secret, because being a mahout is a job for a man. Until the Dussehra procession, when the usual elephant is unwell and only Lakshmi can take his place; with Sundari on her back, of course. A Pair of Twins is ‘about’ gender in ways that How to Weigh an Elephant is not; a longer text for slightly older children, it addresses the harm of both masculine and feminine stereotypes. Sundari’s brother would rather be a musician than a mahout, Sundari would prefer not to have to dress up as a man in order to do the job she has finally been allowed to do.

PoT1Both Dharmarajan and Mandana’s texts are helped by some gorgeous illustrations. Wen Hsu’s work won a Katha Chitrakala award in 2011 and uses cut paper and unlikely colours to great effect (and great adorableness). Nayantara Surendranath restricts herself to a more limited palette of browns and creams and pinks with the occasional bolt of blue. Her art is full of detail: the lines on tree bark, the print on a piece of cloth, be it part of a dress, a curtain or a howdah. Where there are no details she adds them in so that plain surfaces become unlikely things of beauty. And the limited palette serves at least one important purpose; when Sundari, having won all her battles, shows up to take her place as the leader of the parade in a very feminine turquoise blue dancer’s sari (turquoise is the book’s word for it but it seems a pity not to use the vastly more appropriate “ferozi”) the image bursts out from the page.

pot2It’s not clear whether elephants have anything to do with the fact that these two books for young readers are strongly feminist. It’s tempting to come up with a theory; popular science suggests that elephant herds are largely matriarchal societies, and that might have something to do with it. As with most things, the true answer probably lies in the fact that elephants are very cute, but that needn’t stop us from speculating.

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I didn’t have room here to also talk about An Elephant in my Backyard by Shobha Viswanath and Sadhvi Jawa (and that book isn’t really about gender in any way more obvious than that it has a girl for a protagonist) but it might deserve a separate post soon.

March 19, 2015

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library

This new Murakami novella is so pretty. Some more images here.

From this week’s column.

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I’ve known individual libraries to be important to me. The one which was a short enough distance from my house as a child that I could walk there unsupervised so that when I read Roald Dahl’s Matilda that was the building I imagined; the tiny cupboard of a place two blocks from my grandparents’ house in Vasant Kunj that had a complete set of the Asterix comics; the eclectic and bizarrely organised school library where I discovered many of my favourite writers for the first time. Yet I remain bemused by the idea of libraries in general. I love and support the idea of a society where libraries are plentiful, well-funded and well-staffed (in the UK the idea that such a society might be lost seems to be regarded as genuinely world-shattering) but I’m aware that large parts of the world seem to manage without them, and find myself a bit bemused at seeing them thus sentimentalised. Libraries are actual, practical, frequently-used spaces that matter; but the idea of them is often romanticised to the point of being rather annoying.

To fetishise the idea of the library feels like the same sort of thing as fetishising the book itself, and Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library is a beautifully produced thing, just right for being turned into a collector’s piece. A novella turned into a little hardcover book (and priced to match); the front cover has one of the ticket pouches found traditionally in library books; the illustrations are plentiful; the endpapers are marbled. It’s gorgeous. It’s tempting to read it as a reflection of the state of the industry: are ebooks making print books have to work harder? (probably) Is it cynical and blatantly commercial to turn a novella into a separate book? (yes).

But then The Strange Library resists all of this by the type of story it is; the furthest thing from a sentimental paean to books and reading. It’s a horror story set in a library.

MurakamiblackThe unnamed narrator stops by the city library on the way home from school to return his books and look for some new ones. Directed to the building’s basement by an unknown librarian he soon finds himself in the clutches of a strange old man who locks him in a cell with books on Ottoman revenue collection and instructions to memorise them within a month. He learns that at the end of this time the old man will cut off the top of his head and eat his brains. (“If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the payoff be for them?”). There’s horror here, but much of it is quiet and layered—the boy’s faltering acceptance of the old man’s increasingly sinister orders, his unease over the mother and pet bird who won’t know where he is, his memories of the black dog that attacked him as a child. Eventually an escape is planned, and we’re in the territory of children’s fantasy adventure, a genre at which I hadn’t expected Murakami to be quite this effective. Through all of this the illustrations (the whole thing is designed by Suzanne Dean) do quite half the work, altering the mood from silly to scary to both with ease. I’m told that the design of the American and Japanese versions are entirely different, and it’s hard to see how that would be possible without changing the book completely.

As our narrator leaves the building things get darker and darker; not for this story the triumphant escape and happy ending, or even the return to order that are the conclusions to the traditional adventure. We’re left to wonder rather a lot about that black dog.

Even after all of this I’m unconvinced that The Strange Library is much more than a very well-padded short story. But if it is it’s one that reminds us that libraries, like brains, are not always the nurturing spaces we’d like them to be and that, maybe, books aren’t all always that great?

 

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March 5, 2015

February Reading

A slightly better month than January, anyway.

 

Jennifer Marie Brissett, Elysium: I’ve been writing a longer piece about post-catastrophe fiction and my feelings around it and I’m hoping to unpack my thoughts on Elysium as part of this at some point in the near future. But it is very, very good, and also you should read this brilliant review by Niall Harrison (I am biased because I edited it, but it really is.)

 

Robin Stevens, Arsenic for Tea: Stevens’ first book, Murder Most Unladylike, might have been written for me. School stories? Murder mystery? Queerness? General inter-war-ness? Non-white readers of English popular fiction? Come on. Arsenic for Tea is not set in a school and is almost entirely heterosexual (or is it? I know who I was shipping) but despite these flaws it is wonderful–it continues that uncomfortable, strong relationship between Daisy and Hazel, will never allow you a comfortable ending, will make its most loved characters as monstrous as it needs them to be. It’s a funny, cosy crime story, but it’s ruthless in places that are crucial to it.

 

Julia Quinn, The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy: I feel like the whole Smith-Smythe series has been a bit of a letdown after the glorious heights of What Happens in London and Ten Things I Love About You. I’m aware that the form requires some terrible thing to come in between our main characters, but in this case I think it may have been too big a thing, and the fallout felt rather phoned in. Meh. (Edit: I managed to mistitle this and strip Sir Richard of his title. Clearly it did not make a big impact upon me)

 

Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: I don’t plan to list books read for the PhD here, but Affective Communities turned out to be all but irrelevant to my thesis, and very relevant to everything else. People who have spent this time with me will probably find it hard to believe that I’ve spent the last few months feeling very grateful for community and the sort of allyship that is born of ethics, and people who see imbalance without having to be talked around to it, and for all those reasons Affective Communities ended up being important and moving–and this sounds trite, but it wasn’t. Also there’s the thing where Gandhi is just very enjoyable to read.

 

Sheila Ray and Stella Waring, Island to Abbey: Survival and Sanctuary in the Works of Elsie J. Oxenham: Really interesting overview of Oxenham’s books, grouping them chronologically and tracing particular unifying themes in each distinct period. I think it may be time for a new critical study of Oxenham though–it feels like Auchmuty has said everything that needs saying about communities of women but maybe not?

 

Mahesh Rao, The Smoke is Rising: I have a column about this that will be posted once it has been published, but three things: 1. Rao’s prose is gorgeous. 2. Sambhar is ruined forever. 3. I want the sequel to this book that is set in Heritageland and is outrightly SFF or horror.

 

Samita Aiyer and Garima Gupta, The Last Bargain: I’m a bit biased here because Garima Gupta illustrated one of my work projects from a few years ago, but she really is brilliant. This is a short children’s book about a rat named Chooheram who makes one bargain too many and it would be an ordinary morality tale (don’t overreach, kids) if not for the fact that the rat is just mildly downcast after his adventure; the princess (there’s a princess) just goes home and is like I married a rat, it was weird, meh; and the art is gorgeous and features many cows.

Gupta Chooheram

(Many cows.)

December 15, 2014

Manuela Draeger (trans. Brian Evenson), In the Time of the Blue Ball

What a glorious thing this book is.

(From last weekend’s column):

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Are the three Manuela Draeger stories in In The Time of the Blue Ball: Three Post-Exotic Tales, set before or after the end of the world? It’s hard to tell. Meteors rain down upon the earth; the police have disappeared; fire hasn’t quite been invented (though everyone knows what it is) but electricity and marshmallows have.

Approaching In the Time of the Blue Ball in translation (the translator is fantasist Brian DraegerEvenson) means that those of us who do not read French come to it without much context—the publisher’s note that provides some of this context is placed at the end of the book. So it’s only after the un-spoiled reader has read to the end that she learns that these are three of the (so far) ten Bobby Potemkine stories, that in France they are published in separate volumes for adolescent readers. She also learns that Draeger, as the book wonderfully puts it, “belongs to a community of imaginary authors”. She’s a pseudonym for Antoine Volodine, who is himself a pseudonym (or a Pessoa-style heteronym) for an unknown writer.

I was not an entirely unspoiled reader, but there’s something very appealing about taking these stories on their own terms.

Bobby Potemkine is this world’s version of a private detective. In the title story he and his dog Djinn investigate the disappearance of Lili Soutchane, the woman who invented fire. They do this with the help of the battes, insolent flying creatures (on one of whom, Lili Niagra, Bobby Potemkine has a crush), and an orchestra of flies.

There’s an emptiness about the world; a sense that it has been lived-in but then abandoned. Everyone is cold. Factories have been shut down and towns and houses appear un-occupied. The railway station has been destroyed by a meteorite and lies in ruins, still smoking. Children have become increasingly rare. Bobby Potemkine’s world has a past, but it’s impossible to imagine what that past might be.

And yet there is newness everywhere that speaks of beginnings, not endings. In “North of the Wolverines” Bobby Potemkine and his companions must rescue Auguste Diodon, one noodle among many on every plate, indistinguishable from them except for the fact that he has a name and that there’s something not quite right about eating something with a name (though “it can happen to anyone to be eaten by someone or to eat someone. It’s strange, but that’s how it is.”) In “Our Baby Pelicans” (translated by Brian and Valerie Evenson) baby pelicans appear across the city but display no sign of life. Not that our characters think of them as dead; Bobby Potemkine carries his around, strapped to his chest, and speaks to it reassuringly—to no response. It turns out the baby pelicans are merely waiting for their mothers to be invented and thus come into being—which they do when Soraya Gong, a creature who from Draeger’s description I imagine as a gigantic mass of foam, transforms into a mother pelican. Noodles and foam may come to life, living creatures may turn into other things (Lili Soutchane turns into a batte); nothing is fixed in this world and everything has potential.

Volodine/Draeger’s larger project is something he (?) describes as the post-exotic, a concept he’s written on at length in various venues, most of which remain un-translated. But it is a literature of estrangement, one in which things have gone badly wrong, one which treats French as if it too were a foreign language. All of that is visible in these three stories, but so are other things—like kindness, and hope and possibility. A friend compared them to Jansson’s Moomin books, with their small, kind stories against a vast bleak backdrop (“Everything’s happy, yet you feel like everything is destroyed.”) Yet the comparison that sits most comfortably in my head is with Kipling’s Just-So Stories, for their sense of being told, and of being of a time when the world is being set into shape. Volodine again describes the post-exotic as “a literature of elsewhere, from elsewhere, headed elsewhere,” and in In The Time of the Blue Ball I think we may have the Just-So Stories of another world.

 

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November 26, 2014

Susan Scarlett, Pirouette

Everything relates to my thesis right now, even when Noel Streatfeild is writing ballet stories.

From a recent column.

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 Until quite near the end the most (or possibly only) surprising thing about Susan Scarlett’s Pirouette is that its author is really Noel Streatfeild. The author, who is best known for the children’s classic Ballet Shoes, though her brilliant The Painted Garden has featured in this column before, also wrote fiction for adults – including twelve romances under this pen name.

Ballet Shoes is the story of the Fossil sisters, Posy, Pauline and Petrova. Posy is a naturally talented dancer who is given private lessons by the kindly Madame Fidolia, negotiates poverty, learns not to be insufferable to her sisters, and grows up to bepirouette a successful ballet dancer. Pirouette is very different. It is the story of Judith Nell, a talented young ballet dancer acting out her mother’s thwarted ambitions for her without really thinking about it much (Judith’s lack of thought or personality is as valuable to her employer Madame Tania as her dancing skills), when she meets, and is proposed to by, a friend’s brother and has to choose between marriage and a career. Unsurprisingly, she chooses marriage. Streatfeild is brilliant at character in her children’s books as well as her adult ones, but Judith doesn’t give her much scope. For plot purposes she’s something of a cipher, and that fact makes her romance uninteresting—and makes Paul Conquest’s love for her a bit foolish (what is there to fall in love with?) as well.

Far more interesting is Judith’s mother, flawed and infuriating in the manner of one of the less pleasant L. M. Montgomery characters, and contrasted with her kindly husband in familiar Mr and Mrs Bennet style. Mrs Nell’s neglect of her Judith’s younger brother in favour of her daughter (Mr Nell’s neglect is less of an issue) leads young Tim Nell to act out, lie, and eventually steal. And this is where things possibly get interesting—friends of the family advise the Nells to send him abroad.

“The right place for a boy to make a new start is the Commonwealth; more room for a boy who’s kicked over the traces a bit at home.” This in itself is not unfamiliar—Victorian literature often suggests that the whole of the British empire exists as a sort of reformatory school for British children, there solely to provide an occasion for said children to develop their characters. Adventure novels have their protagonists develop heroism through traversing unchartered terrain; more domestic novels send off the unsatisfactory younger son or the school bully to the colonies to sort them out (the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser do wonderful things with this trope). And that’s not even touching on the real history of penal transportation. What’s interesting to me is that the Nells do not choose to avail of this opportunity. “No, I think the Commonwealth deserves nothing but the best and I’m sorry to say the best is not my Tim, not as he is now.”

Pirouette was published in 1948, well into a number of freedom movements across the empire and after the independence of India. But this idea that Britain owes the Commonwealth a duty of care, rather than the latter existing for the convenience of the former, interests me. It’s far from being an ideal political stance—the comic image it creates is of Britain as nurturing patriarch to a loving global family—but I’m curious as to when and by what degrees this attitude crept into the mainstream. I’ve been reading Nick Harkaway’s 2014 novel Tigerman recently, and that too is struggling with the question (in a very self-aware, 2014 kind of way) of the question of Britain’s relationship with what was once its empire.

In the event, the Nell and Conquest families each send their two eldest children to Rhodesia on the promise that an uncle in that country will find jobs for them. It remains to be seen whether these young people are examples of “the best” that Mr Nell thinks the Commonwealth deserves.

 

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November 14, 2014

Jenny Boully, Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them and J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy

Though it’s not really that much about Boully’s book, since I can only speak of it slantwise. Always useful to be reminded of how big and lonely and yearny a book Peter and Wendy is, though.

From a recent column.

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There’s a play, first performed over a century ago in 1904, and a book, first published in 1911, that is about two children and the inevitability and horror and okayness of growing up. The book is named after both of the children, but it (and the play as well) is really about the girl. It begins with the revelation that a two year old girl cannot stay two forever, and it ends with her, an adult, no longer “gay and innocent and heartless” and aching a little for it. The girl is the plot. But everyone forgets her.

I feel a great deal of anger on behalf of Wendy Darling. Possibly more than is merited by the side-lining of a fictional character.

Because of course J.M. Barrie’s most famous work was originally published as Peter and Wendy. And then it was Peter Pan and Wendy, and so over the course of a few title changes Wendy was eventually as cast out of the title as she is from Neverland.

Of course this is all about sex, and not just in the sense that everything ultimately is. Peter and Wendy (I will stubbornly continue to give it that title) emerges from a nineteenth century in which the image of the child is fetishized, in which childhood and desire and death are all tied up in one another in complex (and to this twenty-first century reader often disturbing) ways. The book may begin when Wendy is two years old, but the main action of the plot can only occur when she is on the cusp of adulthood, playing at “mother” in the knowledge that that is a fate that will be hers, about to be banished (and the book always makes it a banishment) from the nursery to a bedroom of her own. Peter is one of Wendy’s pretend children, but also her pretend partner. Peter is surrounded by girl-women who want him to be something other than “a devoted son”; Wendy, Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell, even the mermaids. Everyone desires Peter in his unchanging, unsatisfying youth—even Captain Hook spends an unreasonably long time looking at his sleeping form. Everyone desires Peter and it’s easy to see why he, rather than Wendy, is the iconic figure (Wendy does at least give her name to the “Wendy Hoboully-merely-cover-largeuse”). And yet. That long line of generations of women, growing up and passing through Peter Pan’s life as a line of indistinguishable “mothers” before passing the mantle on to daughters of their own. It’s a compelling image, and an upsetting one. I can’t help but think that the heart of the book is Wendy.

Which is only one of the reasons that Jenny Boully’s Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them is as stunning as it is. Taking its title from the moment of the pirates’ first appearance in Peter and Wendy, Boully’s short book picks up, plays with and refracts everything in the original that is unsettling and intense, all its sex and death and yearning—and of course Wendy is at the heart of it. It’s hard to know what to call this; a monologue or a critical essay or a prose poem or a remix (quotes from Barrie’s novel make up a sizeable part of the text). It’s a joy to read aloud, but we’re never allowed to simply sink into the flood of words—in part because the doubled/split format doesn’t permit this. There are two parallel and intertwined texts here; Boully divides her pages horizontally as if the lower text functioned as a footnote, but sometimes the footnotes overwhelm the “main” text. You’re forced as a reader to read the two simultaneously, holding both in your head at once.

The result of this is a connection with the original work that is multifaceted and intuitive and very hard to write about. It’s a reminder of the ways in which complex texts work, of the sheer volume of meaning contained in a work, that these meanings can be contradictory or unrelated and still sit together in our heads. It’s the adaptation Wendy Darling deserved.

 

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August 24, 2014

Tove Jansson, The Moomins and the Great Flood

Tove Jansson’s birth centenary was on August 9, and I thought a celebratory column might be appropriate. It’s been less than a year since I wrote about Fair Play (here) and I do try not to write about the same author too often, but this was clearly a special occasion.

While in London I also went to this small exhibition about her life and work; if I’d had time I’d have gone back just to look at one particular picture again. Recommended, if you can get there in the next three or so weeks.

 

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Anniversaries are useful things. It is Tove Jansson’s birth centenary this week, and in celebration of her work a number of her books have been published or republished this year, and an exhibition currently on display at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. But this Jansson revival has been going on for some years now among English-language readers, ever since Sort Of Books republished some of her wonderful writing for adults (including Fair Play, discussed in this column in the past). Yet it’s as the writer and artist of the Moomin stories that Jansson is best known, and they are some of the finest children’s books ever written.

“It was the winter of war, in 1939. One’s work stood still; it felt completely pointless to try to create pictures”. The first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was begun the year the war broke out, set aside and completed the year it ended. It was also, for some reason, the last of the series to be translated into English; appearing in a limited edition in 2005, some years after Jansson’s death, and only widely available since 2012.

Moomintroll and his mother, Moominmamma, walk through the great forest in search of a place to build a home. The forest is dark and full of danger, the swamp is home to a giant Serpent, and Moominpappa has gone missing and they may never see him again. The world is vast and unknowable and terrifying, all they can hope for, as Moominmamma suggests, is that “we’re so small that we won’t be noticed if something dangerous comes along”. Jansson’s illustrations add to this effect; the moomins are so tiny, so fragile compared to the landscape around them, and when the serpent appears, the artwork suggests that the moomins are about the size of one of its eyeballs. They are subject to a storm, and to the flood of the title. They are never safe in their smallness.

The Moomins and the Great FloodThis vastness and bleakness is a part of the later Moomin books as well, particularly in Moominland Midwinter (my own favourite of the series). But in the later books there is generally the solidity and comfort of home and family. Here, Moominmamma may have dry socks in her bag, but there is no home to go to, the family is divided, and the world is full of unhappy things. “But you see, sir, it’s really all very sad. Moominpappa has disappeared, and we’re freezing and can’t get over this mountain to find the sunshine, and we haven’t anywhere to live,” says Tulippa the flower fairy to an old gentleman who is also lonely, though his mountain home is made of sweets.

Jansson’s short introduction, and the knowledge that the book was written during WWII make it difficult not to read it in that context. But this effect is enhanced by the artwork, which combines drawings of the style familiar to readers of the other books in the series with painted, sepia-tinged pieces that give the whole a quieter, elegiac feel.

But if there’s sadness, and fear, and a lack of safety, there are still other things in the world. Moominpappa is found safe and well, and has built a splendid home for them all. Disparate creatures, brought together by the ravages of the flood, help one another. Tulippa finds a home in a lighthouse, guiding other lost creatures to safety. In the face of awful things “one’s work [stands] still”, as Jansson puts it. The more I read the Moomin books, the more I value their kindness, their sense that if all we have to hold on to are spontaneous acts of kindness, of generosity, of willingness to make homes and open them those who need them, that these things may –almost—be enough.

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