by Lindsey Fraser

Daring to be adult

October 28, 2009 | by Lindsey Fraser

There are those in the children’s book world who become quite frilly-lipped when an ‘adult writer’ tries his hand at writing for a younger audience. Often their doubts are well-founded, but in some cases (predictably those who have taken the matter rather more seriously than others) the results are what we’re all looking for in our books: a satisfying, challenging and memorable piece of writing. Except, of course, that it’s written for children.

And what’s a child, after all? Aren’t children just the same as adults, but without the experience amassed through having lived longer?

Tom Pow’s foray into the world of picture books – What is the World For? and Callum’s Big Day – wasn’t a million miles from the poetry for which he is best known. There is a similarity of approach, from the economy of language to the shape made by a line of words lying across a page. In The Pack (Random House Children’s Books), Pow’s second novel for young people, he exposes further connections with his literary past, scripting and stage managing a complex novel with skill and confidence.

The story is set in the future in which a depleted, lawless city has fractured into gang-branded sectors where homeless children latch onto the perverse authority of the gang leaders. There is a desperation to the ruthlessness with which they carry out their leaders’ business – an instinctive need for a structure, but a blindness to its cruelty. Bradley’s appearance in this bleak landscape is solely for the purpose of rescuing his kidnapped friend – Floris. Together with Victor and their dogs, they have lived on the fringes of the city, aware of its dangers, but under the relative protectorate of the ubiquitous Old Woman who offers them the sustenance of stories and occasional nutritional support. They remember enough of the past to know that theirs is an unfortunate life, but they also appreciate its values and the importance of their friendships. Floris’ kidnapping – in revenge for a little light fraud – catapults the fragile community into total disarray, the loss of one of their group rupturing any sense of security. The dogs are essential to the group’s social dynamic, the relationship presented as the epitome of that of man and his best friend. Indeed the benevolent symbiosis occasionally blurs their identities, so that they adopt each others’ characteristics. Pow evokes the physical, emotional and mental interaction between youth and dog with great clarity. Each provides a half of their whole – so the loss of an integral part of the relationship is devastating.

Scabbit Isle, Pow’s first novel, was an accomplished ghost story, but The Pack demonstrates a deepening and strengthening of his writing and storytelling skills for 10 to 14 year-olds. He has powerful philosophical points to make about the nature of story and identity, and of loyalty and trust, but never at the expense of what is a demanding and compelling plot. His language remains that of the poet – self-conscious in the best sense of the term, constantly nurturing both characters and ideas. Heartfelt and beautifully descriptive, it offers a narrative path which will encourage young readers into accepting the undoubted challenges of this passionate, often troubling novel.

Nicola Morgan took some time to find her feet as a novelist for young people, but since the publication of her first novel, the acclaimed Mondays are Red, about a boy living with the condition, synaesthesia, those feet have been treading ever more adventurously and confidently. Fleshmarket followed, an intense and dramatic historical thriller set in 19th century Edinburgh in which the author echoes contemporary concerns about the ethics of medical research through her own meticulously researched plot. Morgan’s latest novel, Sleepwalking (Hodder Children’s Books), is set in the future drawing on a wide range of literary influences from Orwell to Huxley, with a sprinkling of Stepford Wives thrown in. The Citizens comprise a community emasculated by its desire for life to be calm and undemanding. Drugs control emotions, ensuring consistent content but no excitement or joy, while the weather is programmed to trouble the Outsiders, an underclass which is tolerated only if it remains well hidden.

Critically, the Citizens have only limited language and it is this motif in Morgan’s story which is perhaps most powerful. Her argument that language is thought, and that only through free use of language can the truth be known and understood, drives the plot in which four young Outsiders are sent to infiltrate the world of the Citizens. Their task has been planned for years, but when illness threatens the future of the Outsiders, it must be launched long ahead of schedule. The young warriors are dependent only on their wits, imagination and courage, attributes for which the Citizens can have no understanding. Morgan is a verbal sculptress, creating images of vivid physicality so that the world of the Outsiders and Citizens is entirely credible, indeed disturbingly so. The twist at the end is chilling, even on re-reading, and establishes the possibility of a sequel.

Catherine MacPhail is the darling of the many schools she visits in the course of her hectic schedule. Her openness and exuberance is reflected in stories which speak for, rather than to her readership. She is a people person, and her writing is driven by her characters more than their ideas. MacPhail writes about their relationships, their kindnesses, their cruelties, their thoughtlessness and their good hearts. She also writes about their imaginations and the battle between head, heart and instinct. In Underworld (Blooms-bury), an outward bound trip goes horribly wrong when a rockfall traps a teacher and his pupils underground. But what could be a straightforward adventure – with a trademark MacPhail spooky element – is given depth through the characters who share the experience, their various personalities writ large when under the terrifying pressure of their ordeal.

MacPhail gives a resounding voice to Scottish children, her acute ear for their repartee allowing some laugh-out-loud moments amidst the tension.

The delightful, but ever-so-slightly obsessive Mr Marks is a wonderful creation, so that the reader is concerned not only for their contemporaries but also for this well-meaning man whose life comes to depend on a disparate group of youths with very little in common. MacPhail’s novels are performance pieces and ideal for reading aloud, but they offer more than passing entertainment. They hold their characters to account, and in doing so, her readers will find themselves asking endless ‘what if?’ questions. She doesn’t ask her readers to grow up before they’re ready. She knows that life’s quite complicated enough for now, thank you very much.

Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie novels, first published in the 1970s, remain as popular as ever for their clear sighted illumination of a political and religious impasse so knotty that it has changed depressingly little since. Lingard, who grew up in Belfast, focused on the relationship between two protagonists who practised different religions, a situation as inflammatory as it was impossible at that time. Kate MacLachlan’s debut novel, Love My Enemy (Andersen Press) is set in today’s Northern Ireland where she too grew up, and offers a compelling companion to the earlier work. Like Lingard, MacLachlan centres on a love story terrorised by the cold fury of religious bigots. It is unlikely, even had she wanted to, that Lingard would have been allowed the graphic descriptions of which MacLachlan makes such powerful use. But Lingard doesn’t date by comparison. The writing styles shed light from different perspectives, and the same lingering questions remain at the end of both novels.

Frances Mary Hendry’s Angel Dancer (Bar-rington Stoke) is as small and perfectly formed as Brenda, whose utter obsession with ballet eventually leads to tragedy. The reader searches through Brenda’s sister’s matter-of-fact narration for the moment when the situation might have been saved, but the end seems as inevitable as it is bleak. Set in Glasgow’s Maryhill in the post-war years, a family buys into a child’s obvious talent, each of them sacrificing something in order to finance the girl’s dream. Perhaps it all fell apart because within that family there wasn’t the necessary vocabulary to articulate worry; perhaps it was never meant to be, a tenement child wasn’t supposed to follow such a particular dream. Slight though this book may look, its story is heavy with meaning.

The Story House (Orion) is anything but slim, a hefty, satisfying volume of interlinked stories written by Vivian French and illustrated by Selina Young. There’s one for every week of the year, with linking stories which bring the setting – a rickety, rambling house – to life. French’s characteristic narrative gaiety is as captivating as ever, while the illustrations add their pennyworth, and often dance off in their own direction. It’s easy to envisage younger children lying tummy down with this book, salivating over its selection-box of stories (they don’t need to be eaten in order).

As the Old Woman in Tom Pow’s The Pack repeatedly asks her charges, “What cannot crumble? What cannot be burnt or broken?” The answer, of course, is “stories”.

Vivian French’s The Story House, illustrated by Selina Young, has many mansions.

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