Back in November, The Guardian awarded David Almond its children's fiction prize for his novel, A Song for Ella Grey, which is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.
I haven't read that novel, but I learned about it earlier this week when colleagues in children's literature began talking about a letter Lynne Reid Banks had written to The Guardian, objecting to the book being selected for its prize. (Banks is the author of The Indian in the Cupboard and its sequels. Readers of AICL likely know that there are many problems with that book. From the idea of a white child having life/death power over a Native person and responsibility for the care of that person, to the stereotypes that are throughout the book, the list of what-is-wrong with the series is long. I've written a little about it but am, today, thinking that I ought to do a chapter-by-chapter look at it.)
Subsequent to the letter Banks wrote to The Guardian, BBC's Radio 4 invited Almond and Banks to be on its Today program. I listened to, and transcribed the program, for those of you who might want to know what was said but are not able to listen to the archived segment.
Yesterday, The Guardian published a handful of letters others wrote in response to Banks. Among them is one by Perry Nodelman, who wrote:
But some people not yet 12 experience lesbian desire, and/or swear or drink; and others live with older people who drink, swear, and feel no need to hide their lesbianism. I assume, then, that what Banks really objects to is fiction for young people that diverges from a supposed norm of ideally innocent (and heteronormative) childlikeness. Such fiction rarely represents anything like what most young people experience, and exists mainly to assure adults that childhood is actually more innocent and ideal than it usually is. Those who chose Almond’s more honest novel as a prizewinner should be lauded for not sharing in this sad game. Perhaps novels about younger young people might win more prizes if writers could figure out how to make them less dishonest about the lives of “people up to the age of 12”.Early in graduate school, I read Perry's books and articles on children's literature. His thinking has been important in my thinking, precisely because of what he said in his letter above about honesty and the lives of children.
As I think about what Banks said, I think she's stuck in that dishonest space Perry writes about, and in some way that I've yet to put into words, it echoes Meg Rosoff's objections to Myles Johnson's Large Fears. Here's my transcription:
Banks/Almond interview begins at the 2:45 hour mark Moderator: David Almond is a celebrated writer for children and teenagers and he’s just won the Guardian children’s book prize, which is a big prize, for his novel, A Song for Ella Gray. Now, the novelist Lynne Reid Banks, first famous for The L-Shaped Room and then, author of many books, including The Indian in the Cupboard, for children, that sold many, many copies, went out and bought the book, as a result of that winning The Guardian children’s book prize. In fact, she bought two copies for her twelve-year old grandchildren. Then, having looked at them, she went back to the shop and handed them over because, and she said this in a letter to The Guardian itself,
“In the first five pages there is lesbian love, swearing, drinking, and enough other indications that, once again, this is not a book for children.”
Well, Lynne Reid Banks is with us, and David Almond joins us from our Newcastle studio. I suppose, David, to defend yourself, we’ll talk to you in a minute. Lynne Reid Banks, were you surprised? Were you shocked? And if so, why? Banks: Well, I was surprised because I’d read David Almond’s really beautiful description of how this book was inspired by the Odyssey and how this had worked in schools and I’m certainly not… Moderator: And you’re an admirer of David’s writing… Banks: A great admirer. He wrote Skellig. He’s done some wonderful books. What I’m quarreling with is The Guardian, for giving this prize under the name of a children’s book award. If only there were a separate award for teen aged, young adult writing, then he should have won it, I’m quite sure. I haven’t read the book yet because I am so disappointed that its obviously not suitable for what I call and categorize as children, which are people up to the age of 12. Moderator: I suppose we’re getting into a categorization argument, aren’t we, David Almond, but just explain who you were thinking of when you wrote the book, what kind of age? I know you don’t target it in that way but what kind of age do you think the readers would be? Almond: When you write you really don’t think about the target age. You think about the characters you’re writing. You think about the drama that’s involved in the story. The drama is described, narrated, by a teenager of about 17. So I had a sense that yes, maybe the main readership would be of that kind of age. Moderator: What they call young adults in bookshops? Almond: Yes, young adults. But this book is being read by 12-year olds, 13-year olds, and I’m getting fantastic responses from them. They recognize something about the beautiful troubling drama of growing up. Moderator: Give us a little extract. Could you? Just to give us a feel and then we’ll talk to Lynne Reid Banks again about her feelings. Just tell us where we are in the story and just give us a few lines.
Almond: This is right at the start, where Lynne wrote about and Claire and Ella are on a sleepover together and Claire is telling the story.
“We were in bed, the two of us together. Ella turned to me, and she was smiling. “Claire! I’m in love with Orpheus." "But he hardly even knows you bliddy exist!" She pressed her finger to my lips. "I keep on hearing his song! Its like I’ve known him forever! Oh, Ella, it's destined! I love him and he'll love me. And if you hadn’t called me that day and told me to listen," she kissed me, "none of this would have happened, would it?" I pulled me clothes on. She kissed me again. Thud went my heart. Thud.
Moderator: Well, that’s pretty powerful writing, Lynne, isn’t it? Banks: I think David Almond is one of the best writers for young people that we have. But 17 year old adults are not children and although, of course, I didn’t expect him to say ‘thank you so much Guardian, I reject the prize’ because this book is not for children… Moderator: Let’s not have an argument about The Guardian. Its quite interesting… What are the problems. If you go into a bookshop these days and people often comment on this, is that books are categorized by age. Banks: No, they’re not. Are they? Moderator: Yes, I’m afraid they are and it drives authors mad because 10-12, 8-10, 12-15… Banks: Oh I see what you mean… Moderator: Children’s don’t think like that, do they? Banks: No but I think if you would append the word children to a prize as is also with the Carnegie Medal which is the highest award we give here for children’s writing, and if year after year you give it to dark, dystopian, violent, in some cases, downright cruel books, I don’t know quite where people who are writing for children, which of course David Almond has also done, where do we come in? We don’t seem to have a prize of our own anymore. Moderator: Well, David, you’ve won the Carnegie Medal yourself, for Skellig, I think, what would you say about a parent who is listening to this who may have an 11-12-13 year old who reads a lot and is quite emotionally secure as you can be at that age, and hear this discussion and say ‘hmmm this is the rewriting of the Orpheus story by you, its pretty steamy for a 12 year old… Should I buy it or shouldn’t I?” Almond: Well of course I’d say… (laughter) Moderator: Asking an author to say ‘don’t buy my book' yes, tricky one but you know what I’m asking you… Almond: Absolutely. But the Orpheus story itself is such a powerful, elemental tale. When I was a teacher I used to tell the Orpheus story to 9-10-11 year olds. They were totally gripped by it and this is just a new version of that story. And the thing about children’s books is if you go into the children’s book department you will find all kinds of wonderful, experimental, creative, energetic books. That’s where people should be looking, and not thinking about where should we categorize this book or that book. This is an amazing world. People really believe that books can change peoples lives. Moderator: A lovely moment of agreement. Lynne Reid Banks. David Almond in Newcastle, thank you both very much indeed.
By diversity, they mean “books by and about all kinds of people… boys, girls, all different colours, all different races and religions, all different sexualities and all different disabilities and anything else you can think of – so our books don’t leave anyone out.”
Benjamin Zephaniah whose Terror Kid is the Guardian Teen Book Club choice says:
“I love diversity. I love multiculturalism… It makes Britain´s music interesting. It makes our food interesting. It makes our literature interesting and it makes for a more interesting country … To me it’s not about black, white, Asian; it’s about literature for everybody.”
And there you have it: the criterion must be the quality of the literature. I see little value in writing or publishing books to satisfy some sort of quota to reflect the percentages of ethnic or racial populations or other minorities.
The Guardian published a list of 50 books
chosen to represent all manner of cultural diversity, from the amazing Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman to Oranges in No Man´s Land by Elizabeth Laird.
Here are a few of my favourite books that are outstanding in every way and that also open windows on to different ways of seeing the world.
The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, is a wordless book about the experience of emigration/immigration, following the lonely journey of a man to a new country where everything is different and inexplicable. (He signed my copy when he spoke at a Children´s Books Ireland conference a few years ago and it is one of most treasured possessions.)
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, is a graphic novel based on her experiences during the cultural and political upheaval of the Iranian revolution after the overthrown of the Shah. This is a real eye-opener from the first pages showing tiny girls swathed in unfamiliar and unwanted veils in their school playground.
My Dad´s A Birdman, by David Almond, illustrated joyfully and colourfully by Polly Dunbar, is a terrific book about a young girl and her dad who is so overwhelmed with grief that he goes off the rails. It is suffused with love and tenderness and faith in the act of flying as Dad and daughter take part in a madcap and magical contest to sprout wings and fly across the river.
by R.J. Palacio is the story of Auggie, a boy with a shocking facial disfigurement who is
grade after years of home schooling: imagine how he is dreading it - “I won´t describe what I look like. Whatever you´re thinking, it´s probably worse.
I would like to add two more joyful books to the mix:
From Tangerine Books, a wonderful picture book
, Larry and Friends, by Ecuadorian illustrator Carla Torres in collaboration with Belgian/Venezuelan writer Nat Jasper celebrating the modern melting pot that is New York.
Larry, the New York dog, holds a party for all his amazing immigrant friends among them Magpa the pig from Poland who became a tightrope artist, Laila the Iranian entomologist, Edgar the Colombian alligator street musician, Ulises, the Greek cook and a host of other talented and tolerant newcomers to the city – all apparently based on real people and how they met up.
The book project was successfully funded by kickstarter – see more about it here
As you can see, the illustrations are divine - this is Layla, the Iranian entomologist who works at the museum.
And finally, another great classic is The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1963), possibly one of the earliest American picture books to feature a young African-American hero – although this is never mentioned in the text. It simply tells the story of a young four year old boy discovering snow in the city for the first time.
You can also find me on Twitter @MaeveFriel
Penguin has unveiled its plans for Skellig author David Almond's first novel for adults, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, with separate cover looks for the Viking and Puffin editions and a double-facing publicity campaign.
The story is narrated by Billy Dean, who lives in the fictional town of Blinkbonny. He finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world following the disappearance of his father, and he also comes to learn what happened on the day he was born.
Something Cold War-ish must be in my reading water. I seem to be choosing books with a Cold War themes fairly regularly -- David Almond's The Fire-Eaters
, which centers around the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cecil Castelucci's Rose Sees Red
, which is set in the early 80s with the Cold War tension as a back drop to a friendship that develops between an American and a Russian immigrant, and now, The Apothecary
. It's not the side effects of too much dystopian ya for dessert, I promise.
It was for dinner.
Nonetheless, if you find yourself feasting on dystopian but are looking for a little diversity in your dark, The Apothecary
serves it up fresh and fun. The story centers around Janie, a teen whose writer parents are marked as Communists during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s and thus forced to leave LA for London where they get jobs writing for the BBC. At her new school, Janie meets a boy, Benjamin, who wants to be a spy, a Russian boy whose father is, and a chemist-apothecary-physicist triangle trying to contain the effects of a nuclear bomb.
There are so many twists, James Bond-like chase scenes, an unexpected apothecarian surprises, replete with a serum that turns humans into birds and another that can make them invisible, as well as the threat of a nuclear bomb that does go off. It's all there in spades.
The biggest leap of faith I found strained in the novel were the serums. The book is so solidly set in the Cold War, that to expect a character, let alone the reader to buy into the fact that chemical compounds can do what alchemists believed they could do hundreds of years ago is tough. The author acknowledges this by having her character say that it would have been hard to believe her friend could turn into a bird if she hadn't actually seen it happen herself. Still, for me, it disrupted the fictional dream. I believed that chemstry and physics could come together to undo the destruction of a bomb, but to tie that right into the magicalness of herbs was a stretch.
Then again, I spent my teens in the Cold War era. I'm bomb scare scarred. Today's young audience will likely have far less trouble taking that leap. If the reader does, the book continues on in a fast-paced, no-holds-barred, edge-of-your-seat ride to the very end.
One other interesting note. The book is told from the perspective of the main character, Janie, albeit as an adult. I haven't run across too many POVs from this angle of late, and Meloy plays it lightly, allowing the adult only to surface at the very beginning and the end to lend the story an air of continuing mystery. It's well-balanced and a great example of how to use the adult POV to a writer's advantage.
For more great reads and winter distractions, sled on over to Barrie Summy's
website. She's serving them up hot...and with marshmallows!
The second in our new series of Sunday guest blogs by booksellers who work with children’s authors. These guest blogs are designed to show life behind the scenes of a crucial but neglected relationship – the one between a writer and a bookseller. These days, such relationships are more intense and more important, as increasing numbers of authors go on the road to promote children’s books – a goal shared by the booksellers who will contribute to this series.
The Bookcase is a ‘small independent bookshop with a big imagination’ situated in the village of Lowdham, eight miles north of Nottingham. The Bookcase’s proprietor is Jane Streeter (second from right), who runs the shop with a friendly team: Louise Haines, Jo Blaney, myself, Marion Turner and Kendall Turner (pictured left to right above). Three years ago I (as one of the assistants) began a reading group at our local village school. This coincided with our 10th Annual Book Festival. So, to celebrate, I went in once a month until we had read 10 books. The 12 children read each book and then wrote a review, which formed the basis of a display at our book festival. We read all sorts – from contemporary authors to Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton – and one poetry book. I have used a few different poetry books, but the first was Carol Ann Duffy’s The Hat, which was very timely as I’d handed it out to the children just before she was announced as the Poet Laureate! We’ve also used Gervase Phinn’s There’s an Alien in the Classroom, and others over the three years we’ve been involved in the project.
Each month I went into school so that we could have a discussion, which made the youngsters feel very grown up!
The idea became so popular that I have been approached by other schools, so this year I am working in four schools – always with Year 6 children. The group is aimed at the more able readers. (The thinking behind this is that so much is done to encourage the less able readers: those who are keen readers need some sort of outlet for their enthusiasm.)
This year, I have found a real difference in ability from one school to another. Not only is the reading ability markedly higher in one school, but the children are much more mature. This makes it harder for me to choose appropriate books, so I’m always keen to hear of the experiences of others who work with children of a similar age.
Michael Morpurgo is, of course, unfailingly popular, but I’ve also had real success with Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother and Morris Gleitzman’s Once. In both cases, several of the children have gone on to read the sequels. We have offered a discount to reading group members who have ordered sequels.
After Christmas I will be discussing David Al
.. The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond Oliver Jeffers, illustrator Candlewick Press 4 Stars Inside Jacket: Since all the jobs on the quayside disappeared, Stan’s Uncle Ernie has developed an extraordinary fascination with canning fish. Overnight, life at 69 Fish Quay Lane has turned barmy. But when Uncle Ernie’s madcap obsession takes …
While trawling through my sadly neglected Google Reader (these late running Sox games are killing me!) I came across this piece from the BBC. For me, the draw is the appearance of John Simms (also known as The Master, for those of you who are not Whovians)as the dad.
I know I've said this before, but I am so leery of book to film adaptations. It seems that there is less and less of a relation
I read Kit's Wilderness by David Almond for my YA lit class last summer. I didn't like it.Kit's Wilderness
I read Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd this weekend and absolutely loved it.
But, when I was finished Bog Child on Monday morning and was thinking about it (because it is a book that stays with you) I was struck by the similarities in the stories, and how one was so much more successful than the other.
is the story of Kit, who moves to an English mining town to help take care of his elderly grandfather. He and his friends play the game of Death, to scare themselves. His grandfather tells him the stories of the mines, of his family. He develops a relationship (not friends, but almost) with the school troublemaker. He writes a story about a pre-historic cave family that's woven in throughout the main story.
Look, Kit's Wilderness
is a Printz winner and I haven't liked the other books by Almond I've read. The story was good. But... it was heavily layered and full of symbolism and parallels. I don't mind that--it usually makes a good story, but the craft
of the story was just so obvious. I could see what Almond was doing as I was reading it. When the craft of a story is so blatant that I notice it as I'm reading? Then I can't enjoy the story. I don't want such things to be obvious until I put the book down and start thinking. In this, the parallels were SO OBVIOUS. The book should come with a frying pan, because it kept hitting you over the head.
Now, Bog Child
is completely different.
Fergus lives in Northern Ireland, near the border with Ireland in 1981. One day he finds a body in the bog and assumes it's a victim of the increased violence since Bobby Sands died. But, the body in the bog turns out to be from the Iron Age. Fergus must navigate life in Northern Ireland with a hunger-striking brother in prison, being recruited into IRA activities, and the archaeologists trying to discover the story of the body he dreams about at night.
So the similarities are:
gets its bleakness from the winter season and mining landscape. Bog Child
's is from the political undercurrents and family tension.
Pre-historic Story--Kit writes a story about a cave family that's woven through, Fergus dreams the life of the Bog Child leading up to her death.
Parallels--Both have several parallel stories and layers.
The story Kit's writing in English class parallels what is going on in his day-to-day life in a way that's so obvious I couldn't handle the book. Bog Child
is subtler--Fergus's brother is starving himself in prison, the Bog Child is living through a time of famine, and there are subtle hints that Cora might have an eating disorder, starving herself for another reason (although this is NEVER said and might be me reading more into the text, but I'm willing to write a pretty strong paper on why I think this is so.)
All in all, Kit's Wilderness
left me cold, while Bog Child
haunts me. I had to force myself to finish the first (hello homework!) and couldn't put the second down.