Archive for ‘children’s literature’

September 1, 2017

Further self-promotion

(In lieu of any actual blogging, until this cruel thesis is over; you weren’t seriously expecting a Books I Read in August post.*)


I’m one of the academics interviewed as part of this project by Connie Jeffery on the history of British children’s literature, and its role in “shaping” ideal children. There are five twenty-minute podcasts, organised broadly chronologically up to the mid-twentieth century, and it’s impressively lucid, particularly if the other people interviewed were anything like as waffly as I was. Connie’s framing (morality) is one I rarely have to think of with regard to my research, so apart from being a fun thing to do, this was also an interesting exercise in putting my own work in a different context.

Go and listen!




* (I read no books in August.)

August 27, 2017

Some Borribles


While on the subject of things I’ve written in places other than this blog:

I was in Ireland late last summer, for a conference in Galway and general reunions with lovely people in Dublin, and while I was there took the chance to rummage about the Michael de Larrabeiti archive, which is now housed at TCD (it moved there almost immediately after I’d left, which seemed rather pointed). I’ve been sort-of-kind-of working on the Borribles books for years, though they’ve been pushed into the background for a bit while I finish my thesis. The archive made me really want to come back to them, though–I’m surprised (and a bit relieved) that no one has taken the opportunities offered by the last few years to think about these books in this historical moment. Almost a year later, I still haven’t sat down to think through all the notes I took, and I really want to go back and rummage some more. (I’d also really like to speak to someone working on German history in the 70s and 80s, to make sense of some of the correspondence about the translations of the books–if you might be that person, please let me know!)

tardiIn any case, here’s a short thing I wrote a few months ago for the Newcastle University Children’s Literature Unit blog, on libraries and archives and canons and the relation in which these books sit with all of them. I’m hoping, soon, to give proper time to writing about the books and canonicity as part of my next project. For now, that link leads to a much shorter version, and as a consolation I offer a French edition of the first book, with cover art by Tardi and with a title that is an absolute joy to say.



August 1, 2017

Joan Aiken, The Stolen Lake

I’ve been ill, and so I’ve been comfort-rereading the Wolves Chronicles. Here is some thinking about one of them in particular.

TheStolenLakeThe Stolen Lake is set in an alternate history in which, during the Saxon invasion of Britain, a large community of (Romans and Briton) refugees fled to South America and founded the countries of Hy Brasil, New Cumbria and Lyonesse. This occurred soon after Arthur had left for Avalon; Guinevere was still alive, however, and knowing that Arthur would probably come back over the water had the lake transported in frozen blocks to New Cumbria, so that he would have somewhere to come back to.

There … is some stuff going on here. It’s never entirely clear to me what aspects of our world’s history do and don’t make it into Aiken’s alt-histories. Catherine Butler and Hallie O’Donovan (in Reading History in Children’s Books) point out that though it’s tempting to try and find a/the jonbar hinge in the Wolves series and extrapolate what changes might have stemmed from there, it’s all but impossible to do so; that form of alternate history is simply not the framework within which this series operates. I do understand this, and I don’t think this is an attempt to read the book in such terms. But there is, as I say, stuff going on, and I’m particularly interested in trying to parse for myself what it’s doing with regard to my own pet subjects, space and empire. The other books in the series don’t really suggest much is going on with the British empire–the monarchs we see are all benevolent and vague, and things like the East India Company aren’t mentioned. On the other hand, there are trading ships travelling across the world, pirates, and missionaries in China. Meanwhile, British material culture is broadly as you’d expect it to be for the mid/late 19thC. This is all fine; we’re in that familiar space of British children’s literature where the country is small and decent and there is no shortage of tea.

But then we leave the British Isles and it gets newer and more interesting. That long ago flight to South America described by this book takes place in 577AD. We’re not sure what it means for (our world’s history of) Spanish and Portugese colonialism, if the Americas are already widely known within Europe and large parts of South America are already essentially a British colony. Several minor characters have names like Jose or Gomez, but this could either signal an Iberian influence that happened anyway or simply be a shorthand for “South American” (since in the world in which the book is written, the Spanish and Portuguese did conquer the region). Scraps of information suggest that the Inca empire has continued in some form into the book’s present (sometime in the mid-19thC), though they don’t come into this book’s plot. It’s also not clear what the racial makeup of the three Roman colonies is–did the original colonists kill most of the natives, intermarry with them, or were the lands just mostly empty, terra nullius except for that one picturesque and unnamed tribe who shrink heads? (Of whom more later.) There are ancient temples on mountains here, but they are dedicated to “Sul” (New Cumbria’s capital is “Aquae Sulis”), who is also somehow Medusa. Hy Brasil (the book’s afterword explains what Hy Brasil was) is ruled by a king named Huascar, son of Huayna Capac, and there is a hint that the country will soon be taken over by Huascar’s brother, Atahuallpa; all pretty much as recorded, just a slightly different empire and three centuries late.

[According to Neil Philip, a major scene in Alan Garner’s Elidor was based in part on Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which dramatizes Atahualpa’s encounter with Pizzaro. I’d love to know (someone must) whether Aiken had likewise seen or read Shaffer, or if for some reason there was particularly widespread interest in the Incas in 1960s and 70s Britain and both Aiken and Shaffer were affected by it.]

stolen lake gorey

Bodily transporting a myth across continents is fraught at the best of times. In Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, for example, we’re told that the Greek gods have moved their centre of operations to New York because America just is the centre of things now, so *shrug*. It’s a piece of imperial thinking that is so basic to the structure of the books that even the increasingly politically aware novels later in the series never quite get away from it. Riordan struggles to navigate this (as does Gaiman in American Gods, from what I remember of it) but I’m not convinced that there’s a way to do it that doesn’t invoke and then validate geopolitical inequalities. In this case, the myth is being transported specifically to a (current) colony, which makes this aspect of the situation even more acute.

Then there’s the fact that the Arthur myth itself is one that is inherently about landscape–Arthur territorially binds Britain (see Subramanian, 2017, or just take my word for it that I have a thesis chapter on this), is buried under Britain, will rise to save Britain. It makes sense, then, that the myth can only be relocated by relocating a part of the landscape itself. [That image of individual ice blocks being transported by ship (at some point they must have crossed the equator, I protested) also calls to mind that recurring image, in British children’s literature of the mid-century, of Americans buying up British heritage buildings and relocating them. (I have no idea if this happened often, yet the prevalence of the image has convinced me it did. Wikipedia suggests that there were at least a few prominent instances.)] Unsurprisingly, we discover that Arthur is inscribed upon the local landscape as well–travelling into the mountains the characters see huge geoglyphs that resemble their companion’s birthmark.

Above I suggest that we’re not really being invited to consider these books through the lens of European imperialism, but Ginevra, this version of Guinevere, is a nightmare colonist. Not only has she showed up and reshaped the entire landscape as well as instilling her own weird religious system, but she is preying upon her subjects in more horrifying ways. It turns out that she is a sort of cannibal, who has stayed alive for these several centuries by murdering and consuming local children. (Again, it’s not immediately obvious how race works in New Cumbria, but the racial politics of the situation also seem striking.) In order to protect them from Ginevra and her minions, local parents send their children to work in the mines underground where, horrific though the conditions are, their chances of survival are marginally better. The princess of the comparatively idyllic neighbouring kingdom of Lyonesse finds the existence of an entire industry based on child labour horrifying, but Dido Twite, Aiken’s London born, working class protagonist is less surprised. “It should not be allowed. It is not so in Lyonesse.” “It is in England.”

It’s possible, then, to read Ginevra not only as individually monstrous (though she is), but representative of much that is monstrous about 19th century Britain, a country known for treating its own working class children badly, as well as for consuming and imposing catastrophic change upon other peoples in other places. There’s also, in the image of the grief-stricken queen mourning her lost husband, more than a hint of Victoria (who of course, in Aiken’s world, is never crowned).

What, then, of Arthur/Atahuallpa/Gwydion/Holystone? “The whole of Roman America apart from that is in a disgraceful condition of tyranny, anarchy, and misrule. Time it was the High King came back; someone who will be accepted by the people and set matters to rights,” says a friend and ally from a neighbouring kingdom. In one sense, Arthur is as much of an import as Ginevra. But he has been reborn here in South America, has an Inca name (not that we’re told that that’s what “Atahuallpa” is); he is even described as having “pale brown” skin. His followers are eager for him to reunite “Roman America”, and this is in keeping with the character’s British roots (as I’ve said, one of the Arthur myth’s functions is to bind Britain into a single territory), but the idea of a single ruler of possibly divine provenance uniting the empire also runs in tandem with our-world stories about Atahuallpa as the last Sapa Inca.

A benevolent combining of the two continents (Europe and South America) and their histories and politics, then? It’d be nice, but neither in our world nor the world of the book is any equal footing ever possible. The need for a king like Arthur is in keeping with the myth, sure, but it’s also framed within a rhetoric that imitates current constructions of South America as lawless:

And as for the things that go on in Biru, you’d never believe–brigandage, cannibalism–I believe they even sacrifice their grandmothers to Sul. Grandmothers! in the streets of Manoa you daren’t go out at night because robbers make off with the silver manhole covers; you could fall straight into the sewers and get washed away.

And there are those shrunken heads. Almost the only instance of Ginevra embracing anything local is in her fondness for these heads as decorative objects–we’re told also that “Foreign travelers buy many of them; they are one of Cumbria’s principal exports”, wording that does at least implicate those tourists (probably North American and European?) in the continuation of the practice. We know that Arthur, an enlightened monarch, plans to concern himself with “Dissident elements in Hy Brasil … abolish practice of head shrinking … joint action to exterminate the aurocs … improved conditions in the silver mines …”; fair enough, I suppose, but the continued invocation of South America as a space of headshrinking and lawlessness is still uncomfortable.

Which is to state the obvious, and say that however much this may be more complex than many British fantasies that unthinkingly appropriate other spaces,  The Stolen Lake‘s charming alternate history is of necessity drawing on an imperial vocabulary that means something.

July 17, 2017

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Island at the End of Everything

hargraveWriting about Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars, I said that one problem I had with the book was its inability to establish a baseline reality for its world; the reader had no sense of what was and wasn’t possible in this world, and so moments that might otherwise have been startling or meaningful lost their effect.

Which is why, despite my own genre leanings, I’m very glad that her second book isn’t a fantasy. The Island at the End of Everything is set in a version of our world, in the Philippines at what appears to be the beginning of the twentieth century. The book opens on the island of Culion, an island populated by those “touched” by a disease (that we soon realise is leprosy) and their families. Our narrator and protagonist, Amihan, is one of those untouched–she lives with a mother who is affected by the disease. Unfortunately, the state authorities (or their representatives on the island) have decreed that harsher rules of segregation are needed if the disease is to be isolated and wiped out. People from all across the Philippines who are affected are to be brought to the island, while those adults who do not have it can still choose to live on Culion but only in areas designated “clean”. All children who do not have the disease are to be shipped off the island and sent to orphanages.

One of my favourite short stories is Karen Joy Fowler’s “King Rat”, which I’ve never yet managed to make my way through without crying. “King Rat” is about the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and more broadly, the visceral awfulness of stories in which parents and children are forcibly separated.

Shortly after I met Vidkun, I wrote my own book. This was an illustrated collection of short pieces. The protagonists were all baby animals. In these stories a pig or a puppy or a lamb wandered inadvertently away from the family. After a frightening search, the stray was found again; a joyful reunion took place. The stories got progressively shorter as the book went on. My parents thought I was running out of energy for it. In fact, I was less and less able to bear the middle part of the story. In each successive version, I made the period of separation shorter.

I quote Fowler because I can, and because every excuse to do so is a good one; also to explain that I, like the narrator of this story, find this form of separation particularly hard to bear. The opening sections of The Island at the End of Everything are wholly taken up with the ripping apart of this small family, and the more straightforwardly sentimental it is (Ami and her mother calculate the number of letters they’ll have to write if they are to write one a day until Ami is allowed back on Culion again) the more I’m willing to commit to the book entirely. Which is all fine, except that the book is doing other things as well.

At the behest of the authorities, and particularly of Mr Zamora, the horrifying representative of the state, the children are removed from the island. Zamora is (I don’t like this comparison, let us have one conversation this year that’s not about Harry Potter) Umbridgelike, not only in his position as representative of deeply awful state institutions, but in a bigotry and sadism which start out seeming like they’re merely a feature of the institution he represents but that is revealed to be teetering on the brink of of something dark and unbalanced. (I’m forcibly restraining myself from making comparisons to other political leaders of this moment.) He hates and is terrified of the people he has been forced to work among–his obsession with “cleanliness” underlining just how afraid he is of catching the disease. This is not his only flaw–he is a naturalist, obsessed with butterflies (there’s some wordplay around “leprosy” and “lepidopterist” that fortunately isn’t made much of). To Ami, this mostly means that he kills butterflies, poisoning them in a bell jar that he keeps for the purpose. Her nanay (mother) is also fond of butterflies, though she, of course, has taken the opposite approach, planting a butterfly garden in the hope of bringing them to her home. (It hasn’t worked. “‘Not a single butterfly came last summer, Ami’ says Nanay. ‘I don’t think they like it on Culion.’”) The butterflies will turn out to be Significant–the evacuated children will force Zamora to drop his specimens and lose some on their way off the island–and when Amihan returns to say a final farewell, there they are, gloriously.

The butterflies are also the element that destabilises the book’s realism. In most senses this absolutely is historical fiction; the presence of the butterflies is such that we’re forced not to read the book in an entirely realist mode–it’s not magical realism (you could make an argument for The Girl of Ink and Stars being in or adjacent to that genre, though I don’t know that I’d be convinced), but I think it’s probably closest to fabulism.

Other people will probably write at length about this book’s found family, its implicit queer relationship, its evil scientist plot. All of these are handled varying degrees of well, and none of them made a huge impact on me. What stuck with me, I think, was something less tangible. In a dangerous attempt to return to Culion, Ami, Mari and Kidlat risk their lives on the sea, so that we see Ami “[...] think of all the things beneath us, the fish and the coral and the sharks.” There’s some of this sense in the early chapters as well, which feature characters both living with and very carefully not thinking about the thing that is going to kill so many of them and/or their loved ones. Which is to say that the lasting impression of this book for me, reading it in this year and at this time, is one of people giving themselves up to huge, fatal forces, and doing what needs to be done in the knowledge that things are ending, and ending soon. Until its final act, which is a reassuring return to normal operations (though perhaps not for Ami, for whom such a life has never been normal), the main emotive thrust of the book for me was a sort of gentle apocalypse.

May 7, 2017

Malorie Blackman, Chasing The Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Here be spoilers]

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

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




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

April 30, 2017

Another Carnegie Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


Booked, by Kwame Alexander

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

Chasing the Stars, by Malorie Blackman

Where Monsters Lie, by Polly Ho-Yen

Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence

The Girl of Ink & Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheatle

Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon


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



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

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





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


March 2, 2017

Shalini Srinivasan, Gangamma’s Gharial

gangamma (I spent a good hour or so of today trying to find and link to a completely charming short story by Srinivasan that I’m sure I didn’t imagine. There’s a yali in it. If anyone reading this remembers where it was published and/or can find a link, I would be very happy to read it again.)

There’s a vast, overarching conflict in the background of Gangamma’s Gharial of which we see only a fraction. “A long time ago”, a conflict between a small group of twelve yakshas and the rest of their more ascetic community led to a confrontation on a certain hillside. The twelve were defeated, but achieved at least one of their objects–the blue lotuses that they had cultivated in their palace outside time now had a place to grow. The local landscape suffered somewhat, as did the nearby village. The only part-witness to what had happened was a small girl, now left alone in the world. Clutching an apple seed that she has found at the scene of these events, the small girl travels north, to find it a suitable climate in which to grow. Centuries later, the hillside in question has morphed into the temple town of Giripuram, known for its temple (sacred to twelve gardener gods), and the Giripuram tank which is the only place in the world where these blue lotuses grow.

Other places have other blue lotuses but the finicky and snooty blue lotus of Giripuram grew only in the small Giripuram tank. It was a small bluey-purply lotus with a spicy-sweet smell of cinnamon and pine. It was said that its scent could drive away any grief or sorrow–temporarily, of course, for even magical flowers can only do so much. Just three Giripuram gardeners–three people in the entire world–could grow it.

Gangamma, an old woman who grows flowers to sell, is one of these three gardeners. In mysterious circumstances one morning she comes into the possession of an earring, shaped like a gharial and bearing a suspicious resemblance to a piece of jewellery that we, through the eyes of a young girl over a thousand years ago, have already seen tumbling into the lake. The gharial turns out to have some unexpected powers–when worn, it can instantly transport the wearer anywhere they wish to go. It can, however, only travel to a particular place once–great for travelling, not so good for getting back. Gangamma’s first trip is to the mountains in the north, where it’s considerably colder–and where a young girl, feared by the locals because rumour has it that she’s immortal, tends an apple tree with only the tree itself and a friendly chough for companions. Attempting, in an impulsive moment, to steal the tree and take it back to Giripuram, she finds herself transporting all three, and saddled with a new assistant gardener. “Ondu” (the girl will not give Gangamma her real name) is annoyed at her kidnapping and rude to Gangamma’s friends and colleagues, but she does have a way with flowers.

There are, as I imply above, two stories here. The one that we see most of is this smaller, more domestic one: of gardeners and found families and local community and rivalries. Gangamma and Ondu work well together, despite their major differences–Ondu likes wild flowers, Gangamma likes masala in her dosai–in large part because Ondu is openly rude to all the people Gangamma wants to be rude to (quick, someone do a reading of Ondu as the embodiment of Gangamma’s repressed desires). It’s good; it’s comic and full of sudden, clever observations and broadly-drawn but recognisable characters. (“She had forgotten how annoying Kempu was until you knew him well enough to like him despite it.”)

But there’s also the bigger plot–the one where yakshas purify themselves until they turn into diamonds, where there are palaces under the North Pole, where it’s possible to travel to other planets (or at least moons of planets–Gangamma and the Gharial spend a while hanging out on Ganymede when things on earth get particularly bad). The yaksha plot is correspondingly more elevated and tragic. Jayanti, the yaksha of whom we see the most, has deeply conflicted loyalties, particularly with regard to her brother, one of the twelve rebels and now existing in some residual form in Ondu’s chough. There’s a lot to play with here–the idea that Ondu has been living parasitically off her friends, to what extent the yakshas’ presence in these objects (trees, birds, jewellery) is really them–is the gharial less far gone than Jayant and Mahendra just because it happens to be able to speak? Are all yakshas as brahmanical as the ones we see here, or is this not true of the more liberal groups of yakshas whom the gharial mentions?

I’m a big fan of the ‘small people getting caught up in forces bigger than they can control’ plot, and the shift between the yakshas and the humans (and whatever Ondu has become) works really well for that smaller scale story. I like the reminder that Giripuram–its landscape, its temples, its lotuses, its entire ecosystem–is a mere side-effect of inter-yaksha rivalries across millennia. On the other hand, the deliberate decision to focus on the small scale story works best when we know what those larger forces are. By the end of Gangamma’s Gharial we know about as much as Gangamma and Ondu (which is to say, not very much) and perhaps that’s the point. But it doesn’t feel like the point–it feels like the book could have sustained several chapters of yaksha politics and weird bodies and cloud espionage.

I’m sort of tempted here to compare it to Srinivasan’s previous book, Vanamala and the Cephalopod. Vanamala‘s ending gestures at the possibility of lots more story to come, and there’s a sense throughout of narratives that are big and sweeping but are also tangential to this story–but the book itself still feels complete.

And yet I think I prefer Gangamma’s Gharial precisely for its ambitious messiness and the way in which it spreads its tendrils in several directions at once. (This may be entirely because I haven’t read Vanamala in a couple of years, so please consider this opinion unfixed. It may also be because I share Ondu’s dosai preferences.) Ideally, of course, it’d turn out that Srinivasan is planning several books through which we’ll gradually be able to piece together a sort of superstructure, but even if not, there’s a lot here that I like very much.


January 13, 2017

Chandrakala Jagat and Shakuntala Kushram, The Magical Fish

magical fish

This book was first published in 2013 in Hindi–my copy credits Maheen and Rinchin with writing down the story as they heard it from Chandrakala Jagat, and explains that it had been recreated for a film narrated by Chandrakala herself before the (Hindi) book was brought into the world. Rinchin is credited with the translation. The copy on the back of the book suggests (though it’s not very clear) that it’s based on an older folktale. What it definitely isn’t, then, is a 2016 book, so when it begins with the lines “Once not so very long ago, it so happened that all the happiness started to slowly leak out of the world” I felt, personally, rather attacked. It was all a little too real.

“Everything began to lose colour. Trees turned brown, so did the grass, and nothing grew.”

We’re not given a reason for this state of affairs–the book seems to take for granted the fact that, sometimes, the world is full of weeping; as if this came in seasons rather than being directly attributable to a particular cause. That’s probably true.

“People were always hungry and tired. However much they worked, nothing came of it. No food, no happiness. Everyone was growing sad. So sad, that they started to lose their smiles. Fights would break out every now and then.”

So: we’re at the mercy of an unjust and apparently moody universe; sadness comes in seasons and we don’t understand its cause; “there is nothing to eat, and there is so much sadness all around”. All familiar, along with the sense that this badness is so all pervasive and so senseless that nothing can be done about it–where does one even start, when the hostility of the world seems so large and so lacking in reason? Again, reading this on this side of the last couple of years feels significant–the (for want of a better word) mythologising of 2016 as The Worst Year, however tempting and intuitively true it currently might feel, both relies on and reinforces exactly this sense of everything awful coming out of nowhere, without reason or purpose, as well as creating the impression that there’s nothing one can do–that it’s too big and impossible and confusing and the only realistic response is to give up in defeat now or exhaustion later.

Combating that feeling in the book is an elderly woman, or dukariya, who knows that some action is needed to bring happiness back to the world but doesn’t know what that action might be–until the wind brings her news of a lake behind the mountain and a fish that lives in it and that spreads happiness wherever it goes. Telling her two daughters to “leave your sadness behind or carry it with you,” she takes them with her on a quest to find the fish in its green-green (I love that repeated “green” here, both as translation and for itself) lake. They find the fish, and convince it to leave its safe lake for the sake of a world that needs it–the fish agrees, once the women vow to do their best to protect it.

There’s lots to play with here–the temptation of the quest narrative and the ways in which it casts all problems as solveable (all you need to do is go to the place and collect the thing), the temptation to act individually (though I love that the heroes here are an elderly woman and her daughters), the fish, which actually can save this particular  situation but only by willingly making itself vulnerable; and the community as a whole, who are told what this fish is, how to recognise it (it wears a sparkly nose ring) and what it means, and who must all enter into an implicit pact not to hurt this fish and in doing so fuck this up for everyone. That sense of this new happiness (or at least not unbearable sadness) as fragile and in need of community protection is present on the last page of the book, where we’re reminded that:

That is why you must never catch the magical fish. If by mistake you do, you must let her go. And if you ever meet three women in a boat who tell you this story, you must believe them, for what they say is true.

I’m aware that in reading this book in this way I’m doing it a disservice–for one thing, I haven’t even mentioned Gond artist Shakuntala Kushram’s gorgeous illustrations. But “leave your sadness behind or carry it with you” might be a great motto to carry forward into this year.

December 8, 2016

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Girl of Ink and Stars / The Cartographer’s daughter

I read this as The Girl of Ink and Stars, got to the acknowledgements page and saw the author thanking Victo Ngai for the cover art, and was briefly very confused (I’m sure I can recognise Ngai’s art when I see it)–but it’s here, on the US edition of the book, titled The Cartographer’s Daughter. I’m not enamoured by either title–the UK one is a bit too twee, and the US one too much in the Man-With-Job’s Female Relation pattern: though that is a scheme I associate with tastefully muted dramas rather than children’s adventure stories. The cartographer in question is absent for much of this particular story, and Isabella is only really defined by that relationship insofar as she too is good at (and passionate about) maps.

The plot: Isabella lives on a corner of the island of Joya, run by a dictatorial local governor. Much of the island has been cut off–there’s a forest around the village of Gromera, and beyond it live The Banished. We’re told very little about how this state of affairs came into being, and none of the adult characters seems to have been around when it happened. (This gives an impression that things have been this way for much longer than the later events of the book would suggest, but I’ll come back to that.) Isabella’s best friend is Lupe, the Governor’s daughter who somehow manages to ignore the oppressive nature of her dad’s society and the literal prison literally under her house. Until she sends a servant (Cata, a girl who goes to school with Lupe and Isabella) into the orchard to get her some fruit–and the girl’s mangled body is found the next day. Finally aware of some of the horrors of the world in which she lives, and of her own complicity in them, Lupe runs away, into the forbidden parts of the island, to find the creature/s that killed Cata, and her father, Isabella (disguised as her own brother, Gabo), and a group of men must go after her.

Reading fantasy, one is often placed in a position of working out how reality functions in this new setting–what is and is not plausible, how myths have developed (or how they are supposed to have developed, since the world is a construct), the relationship between fantasy, myth, history, magic, etc. in this world. Interspersed with the current-day plot of The Girl of Ink and Stars are stories of the island’s past, told to Isabella by her father: stories of the time when the island floated free across the waves, stories of her grandfather and his ship of glowing wood, and of the island’s legendary heroine, Arinta, who saved the island from a fire demon who wished to consume it, but was lost in an underground labyrinth, chased by the fire demon’s demonic dogs. It’s clear that these fantastical stories, dismissed by Isabella’s friends, are going to have something to do with the mystery of Cata’s death (that there are claw marks around her body is something of a clue), but we’re still expecting to have to puzzle this out; still expecting that if Joya’s mythic past is in some sense true, it’s the truth told slant.

It is not.

The early sections of the book work well. The island setting feels a bit generic, but the governor’s power and the powerlessness of the people Isabella knows, the bewilderment of Isabella and Lupe at a curfew that no one is willing to explain to them, the simmering resentment of Gromera’s inhabitants and the sense that it’s all about to come to a head, all these feel right to me. It’s the point at which Isabella leaves Gromera and begins to explore the interior of the island, as well as its history, where to me it begins to feel disappointing. We travel through burnt forests, waterfalls with hidden caves behind them, deserted villages, underground labyrinths filled with fire, heat enough to turn the sand of the beach above into a river of glass, and somehow none of these are memorable. It’s doubly disappointing because The Girl of Ink and Stars is such a slight book, and these images, had they been half as evocative as they ought to (how do you make liquid glass dull?*) might themselves have been reason enough to read it.

I’ve been rebelling, recently, against overly neatly-constructed narrative where we know exactly what we need to know and no more, every incident or piece of information becomes significant later and every object is Chekhov’s gun. There were times when I appreciated that TGoIaS didn’t do this–there’s no neatly wrapped up romance, for example; there’s no reason why the governor should write a full confession of his crimes and hide it in a locket for his teenage daughter, other than because that is something this person does (what does this say about what Lupe considers believable information though?); there’s no reason for the glowing stick subplot except that it’s a nice image. This refusal of traditional narrative structure extends in some part to the ending–Lupe, rather than Isabella, is the one who acts out Arinta’s role and completes her task; Isabella shifts from the position of protagonist (of the story of the island’s salvation, if not of this book) to that of observer and chronicler. (It reminded me, weirdly enough, of a Rider Haggard story–with Isabella as a Holly/Quatermain figure to Lupe’s Leo/Curtis.)

I wondered, briefly, how it was possible for so much information about the rest of the island to be lost in what can’t have been that great a stretch of time (I’m hazy on time and history in this book/on Joya), and then remembered how many illustrations of just this we’ve been able to witness in the recent past. I wondered how Isabella’s mother had come into possession of a map that also showed, when soaked with the right sort of water**, a detailed plan of an underground labyrinth that had apparently only ever been entered by a mythical hero who never returned. I had several questions, but didn’t particularly mind their lack of answers.

I said, above, that we’re expecting the truth told slant; that the myth is true, but true in the way that myths are; that Arinta did save the island, from a demon or from a natural phenomenon, but that the myth is the distilled form. It is not. Isabella and Lupe follow her underground, confront the creatures below, use the sword Arinta left down there to vanquish the demon. It’s hard to understand how mythic knowledge can be dismissed by the characters in this world when it’s more accurate, at the most mundane level, than even Gromera’s understanding of its recent past. We even discover that the story that the island was once free-floating is true–at the end, it’s on its way to “Amrica”. I should be charmed, but I’m not.




*(I’m aware that the question of the solidity of “solid” glass is itself a Thing.)

** In a thesis chapter on The Hobbit, I have a section on the map in that book, and the fact that it has on it hidden information that can only be read in the moonlight on one day of the year, and what this might say about mapping and knowledge and adventure stories and space. Some of that probably applies here, somehow.

October 14, 2016

Alex Wheatle, Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights

Liccle Bit, the first of this series (trilogy?) was on the Carnegie nominee list this year, but never made it to the shortlist. Crongton Knights, I suspect, will be eligible next year, and I’ll be interested to see whether it is short (or long)-listed. It’s on the Guardian Children’s Fiction longlist–the shortlist is not out yet. (This is mostly a post about Crongton Knights.)

“Liccle Bit” is the nickname of teenaged Lemar, the second shortest boy in his class. His height, as his friends McKay and Jonah constantly remind him, is one reason he’s unlikely ever to be in a relationship with Venetia King, the hottest girl in school. Bit lives with his mother, grandmother, his sister Elaine and baby nephew Jerome; his mother’s the only member of the family with a job, and there isn’t much money for cool haircuts and the other minor luxuries that he thinks might make a popular girl notice him. As it happens, Venetia has noticed him; Bit is a talented artist with work in a forthcoming exhibition, and Venetia needs someone to draw a portrait of her. The two become friends, even as Bit learns that the portrait is to be a gift for Venetia’s boyfriend.

Meanwhile, Bit has gotten tangled up in events of which he really wants no part. Elaine’s ex boyfriend (and Jerome’s father) is local gang leader Manjaro. As a result, Manjaro knows Bit, and calls upon him to run various errands- and Bit is too afraid to say no. Things come to a head when he’s asked to conceal a gun for Manjaro for a few days.

If this feels rather heavy on character summary, it’s because characters and relationships were central to my experience of the book. Liccle Bit is fundamentally kind to its characters–it makes room for Bit’s mother’s anger at his father and his father’s current happy marriage, Manjaro’s ruthlessness and violence and the possibility that he might want to be a good dad, and even finds space for us to step back and notice Bit’s own biases. Everyone makes sense as a complex, real person (except perhaps the wise, kind grandmother; but presumably those do exist outside literary cliche).

I liked Liccle Bit, though I took a while to warm to it. Crongton Knights, though, I fell into straight away.

Crongton Knights is told from the perspective of Bit’s friend McKay, and is set a few months after the events of the earlier book. Life in Crongton has been tense ever since, though things are returning to normal. Venetia and Bit have continued to be friends, which is why when she breaks up with her boyfriend and discovers that he has pictures of her naked on his phone, she asks Bit for help. Venetia, Bit, McKay and Jonah, along with a couple of friends they’ve picked up on the way, have to make the long journey across Crongton to find Sergio, get hold of his phone, and delete the pictures, on the way becoming entangled with enemies of McKay’s brother, Nesta.

This is a quest narrative. For some reason, my Kindle edition of the book skipped straight to the prologue of the book and so I missed the map at the beginning on my first read though. But: there’s a map! There’s a small but determined fellowship of friends and allies, walking though dangerous territory to complete a quest, and there’s a map.


Early in my first read through Crongton Knights, I was already aware that I had sunk comfortably into it much more quickly than with the earlier book. I assumed that my rapid involvement in the narrative was simply a byproduct of reading series fiction–that I recognised character and setting and was thus able to find my bearings immediately (pause to consider what it means that that metaphor is cartographical). That’s probably true, but it’s also true that I’ve grown up on fantasy quests. The shape of this story made sense to me in ways that Liccle Bit could not (and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that LB is drawing on genres and/or narrative traditions that I don’t know as well), even before I found the map.

It makes sense to McKay as well. McKay likes the Lord of the Rings movies and Arthuriana; it seems perfectly plausible that he’d conceive of  this mission as a heroic quest. Bit would not have told this story in this way. It’s hard to express why this is impressive writing without running the risk of sounding very trite (perhaps I am sounding very trite now); it’s to talk of the sort of fundamentals that surely we all take for granted by now (of course the shape of the story is a result of who’s supposed to be doing the telling) except that taking things for granted can mean not thinking about them at all, and they should be thought about. To shift between the rhythms of different genres with the same set of characters and relationships isn’t just a matter of skill (though it is skillful), it feels important to what the text does, and how it conceives of itself.

There are other reasons why I think this is great. One of them is purely personal–in the week before I read Crongton Knights I was in Dublin, doing some work with the Michael de Larrabeiti archives, and so ended up rereading large swathes of Across The Dark Metropolis, which is another beloved story about a band of loyal young heroes travelling across a dangerous London. After that, this book felt like coming home.

It also, I think, has something to do with language. Apparently Wheatle has invented much of the language used by the characters in the Crongton books, bringing together “elements of US Hip-Hop, Jamaican dancehall, old school reggae and every other sub-culture I thought could supplement my concoction.” I’m very obviously not in a position to suggest that the result feels “authentic”, whatever that would mean; Crongton is far enough from any of the cultures I inhabit that I’m not sure I can tell the South London bits from Wheatle’s additions. But I have, inevitably, been reading the books in the context of the discussions around e.E Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce.

A couple of paragraphs above I mention fundamentals that too often are taken for granted in writing–perhaps the most basic of them is the idea that things can be represented in any meaningful way at all. To invent a fictional language (and I’m speaking here of languages that are supposed to feel “plausible” within their frames of reference; nonsense verse and deliberately silly dialects are doing other things entirely) is to suggest, implicitly, that languages are inventable; that this big, interconnected, evolving thing is actually basic enough that a convincing imitation can be produced in the head of just some guy. But fine, all representation is suspect, the word is not the thing, language is inherently reductive, life goes on.

In a recent article, Lili Loofbourow discusses the powerful and reductive nature of naming, before noting that:

We have shown the same proficiency when it comes to labeling behavioral patterns in minorities and members of other cultures. One of anthropology’s early problems as a field was the worrying ease with which white people could label behaviors and systems that weren’t their own. Ethnocentrism makes it simple to diagnose the peculiar habits of others while you, the implied (white male) observer, remain gloriously exempt. Science plays a huge and important role in the world, but the fantasy of scientific objectivity can bleed dangerously into other areas: that fantasy being that you, as the detached observer, are the one capable of universality, of transcendence. Of objectivity. Of naming.

It’s possible that I’m flattening the author’s point here in extending this from naming and the creation of particular vocabularies to all language ever (sorry Lili, if you read this), but it’s reasonable to suggest that, even if All Representation Is Suspect, questions of who gets to represent what and who gets to present what as real are tied to specific histories and power dynamics. One of the many good posts on When We Was Fierce is this one, by Jennifer Baker, which has a useful section on the ways in which Charlton-Trujillo’s constructed AAVE doesn’t work. Baker notes, crucially, that it is “perceived (and current reviews from White reviewers see it) as ‘real.’” Here, the power to simplify and misrepresent is inherently bound up in race*–the author, who is (afaik) not African-American, writes a book presenting a community in a particular way, and an overwhelmingly white publishing industry endorses it as Truth.

In the interview I link to above Wheatle places his own linguistic innovations in the same tradition as Tolkien’s, and I think that framing is important. Not only because it positions them as something akin to fantasy (and therefore frees them of some of that burden of representation, possibly? Though only if one came to the book as I did, after having read that interview), but that Tolkien’s labour in inventing languages, whatever one may think of the utility of such an exercise, is presented as Work. Whether you think of him as a philologist doing philologisty things or as a massive nerd wasting far too much time and energy on making stuff up, language is positioned as difficult, requiring effort, not just something you can casually create. Wheatle’s invocation of Tolkien, then, helps us to frame his books within that tradition of innovative language, rather than the one where creating “believable” dialogue can so easily lead to a mass of lazy stereotypes.

(On the other hand, one of the functions of secondary world fantasy of the sort Tolkien gave rise to is as an outlet for the sort of colonialist anthropology that deems Other societies and systems and languages eminently classifiable/categorisable; what does one do with that?

I’m not sure. But Crongton Knights has a character who “wrapped untold ice cubes in my flannel” and that “untold” is so good, and pleased me so much.)



* Whereas Wheatle is a Black British writer from South London, writing about black and brown kids in a fictional/ised South London.