Tag Archives: Gillian Cross

Here we go again…

I start this morning with a heartfelt sigh. It’s not because the day outside is so dark it looks as if the sun has been switched off, or there is a high and wuthering wind tickling the eaves of my house, or because I’ve only barely got enough decaf left for one more cup, but because a friend shared this article with me.

If you’re not the ‘clicking on links’ type (and to be honest, I can hardly blame you), this is the title of the offending piece: ‘Children’s fiction is not great literature.’

Well, now. Let’s just think about that one for a minute.

Image: unrealitymag.com

Image: unrealitymag.com

My first issue with the piece is this: I have no time for articles about children’s literature and/or YA literature which rely on the work of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer as their sole examples of the genre. This article mentions both these authors in its first paragraph, and doesn’t trouble itself to examine any other works of children’s fiction. Newsflash: there are far more books in the children’s lit. firmament than Harry Potter and Twilight. Honestly! To begin with, while I loathe the Twilight books with a passion, Meyer has also written a wonderful SF-themed, philosophical book titled ‘The Host’ which, despite being made into a movie, doesn’t seem to get enough credit – and which certainly isn’t mentioned in the article. ‘The Host’ deals with the idea of what makes a human being ‘human’, what it means to have a soul, how far one is willing to go for the people one loves, self-sacrifice, courage, and commitment. It is a book for teenagers which needs a large canvas; it examines everything an adult novel does, and more.

The author of the article does, to his credit, admit that some children’s books are better written, and more creatively structured, than adult books – this is undeniably true, though that’s not to say adult books are all bland, vanilla copies of one another. There are adult books which are intense flights of fantasy, or which are structured (‘Cloud Atlas’, anyone?) in wonderfully arresting ways. There are also a lot of bad, boring, irritatingly simplistic children’s books – I am not trying to deny that. However, when a children’s book is excellent, it really shines. I think the transformative power of a children’s book, the potential a good children’s book has to change a whole life, affect the reader’s entire way of thinking, is much stronger than an adult book. This numinous power is even felt by adult readers – I know I often find myself far more deeply moved by the emotional range and weight of children’s books than those written for adults. The issues in children’s books – loneliness, abandonment, powerlessness, love, bone-shattering hate, fear, adventure, injustice, bewilderment, identity, forging one’s place in the world – can be raw, and vital, and wounding, and just as relevant to an adult reader as to a child. Despite this, the author seems to take greatest issue with the ‘fact’ that children’s books just don’t tackle the same issues that adult books do, such as the grey areas of life, or the moral challenges of modernity, or the huge existential questions posed by writers like Joyce and Kafka.

In answer to that, I say: clearly, sir, you have not read very many children’s books.

Image: cafepress.com

Image: cafepress.com

For life’s grey areas, I direct you to the work of the current UK Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, or the moral ambiguity at the heart of Cal, the central character in Catherine Fisher’s magnificent ‘Corbenic’, or the ideas around fatherhood in Gillian Cross’ novel ‘Wolf.’ Can you be a good person while doing bad things? These books will tell you that. So many children’s books deal with existential questions like ‘why am I here?’ ‘why was I born?’ ‘what happens when we die?’ – a few that spring to mind are Terry Pratchett’s ‘Tiffany Aching’ series, in which Tiffany’s deceased grandmother is as important a character as any of the living people in her world, and the timeless ‘The Little Prince,’ a book which teaches me something new every time I read it. Sally Nicholls’ amazing ‘All Fall Down,’ a book set during the time of the Black Death in England, is an unflinching look at mortality and loss and a powerful story about how it is possible to pick oneself up and carry on after suffering more than anyone should have to. It is aimed at young teenagers, but speaks to all ages. A recent children’s book which made no effort to shy away from the brutality of life was Sally Gardner’s ‘Maggot Moon’, a book which examines the horror of fascism and oppression and pulls no punches about doing it. If you want a story about political intrigue, ways to rule a kingdom, justice and injustice, how to distinguish between good and evil, and the terrible necessity – sometimes – to mask your true self in order to live in peace, then look no further than Kristin Cashore’s trilogy of ‘Graceling,’ ‘Fire’ and ‘Bitterblue,’ all aimed at the 12+ market.

One of the lines from the article which really irritated me was this: ‘Life is messy, life is surprising and, most of all, life is full of compromises.’ The article’s author means that only adult books are large enough to encompass themes like this, and that children’s books are reductive, black and white, and too simplistic to engage with wider themes like the chaotic nature of reality. But that’s exactly what children’s books are best at – dealing with a world which is frightening, unknowable, utterly surprising, sometimes a total and inexplicable mess, and where a child’s will often has to take second place to that of an adult. Mess, surprise and compromise are three of the central props of children’s literature. What could be more chaotic, or surprising, or fraught with compromise, than having your home life devastated, or war destroy your country, or being thrust into a new family with little or no warning, or having a parent fall ill, or being made homeless, or stateless, or being forced to face up to a changed reality: ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’? ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’? ‘Code Name Verity’? ‘The Silver Sword’? ‘I Am David’? ‘Elidor’? The ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy? ‘A Monster Calls’? ‘Bog Child’? There are so many books about themes like this.

I could go on, but I’ve gone on long enough. Let me just finish by saying that I am the first to admit there are a lot of silly, overwritten, copycat books aimed at children and young adult readers – they are not all masterpieces of modern literature. As well as that, of course there are things children’s books (as distinct from YA books) won’t deal with, such as sexual relationships, or marriage, or anything in that realm, and that’s perfectly appropriate. However, if you’re willing to look for them, you’ll find children’s books – good ones – are just as profound, life-changing, meaningful, brave and beautiful as the best of literature written for adults; they pitch their ideas just as widely, and they deal with as full a range of human emotions, fears and needs.

And I won’t let anyone say otherwise.

Image: m.inmagine.com

Image: m.inmagine.com


Some Saturday Reading

Yesterday (a little ahead of schedule) I finished my second draft of the WiP. It’s by no means ready for public consumption yet, but it’s that little bit closer to being how I want it to be. The end is still not right – it happens too fast, and almost seems like an anti-climax after the story that comes before it, and I still have some work to do with my protagonist (though she’d like to say thanks to everyone for asking after her, and wants to let you all know she’s much happier now that she gets to kick some butt).

So, I thought maybe I’d write a quick post about what I’ve been reading, and some of what’s on my to-be-read list. I’ve just finished ‘What’s Left of Me’ by Kat Zhang, which I really enjoyed, even if the author is so absurdly young that it’s made me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life.

It’s a wonderful concept – the book asks how would you cope if there was more than one soul, more than one consciousness, in your body? In Zhang’s imagined world, people are born with twin souls and they spend their early lives inseparably entwined. After a certain age, though, doctors begin to get worried if one soul doesn’t prove itself to be ‘recessive’ and begin to fade away; if this doesn’t happen naturally, children are brought for treatment to ‘help’ one of their souls to disappear. As is made clear throughout the story, each soul is a distinct personality – it’s not a case of someone hearing a voice in their head, or anything like that. The main characters in this book are Addie and Eva, two unique young women who happen to share one body. It’s a book that asks hard questions like what it means to be a human person without any power, not even the power to move your own body, and what rights you should expect; it asks questions about psychiatric care, and how doctors with no experience of the condition they’re treating can possibly know what’s best for a patient. It made me wonder about individuality, and how it would feel to be inside a body which may be doing things you find abhorrent, but over which you have no control. The writing is good – it’s clear, and the plot moves along quickly. At times I did feel as though the larger issues were somewhat glossed over – or, more exactly, I felt that the author didn’t make the best of the wonderful ideas on show – but this book is the first in a series, so it remains to be seen what she’ll do with the characters. I’d recommend it. It has tinges of Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’, but is a very different book in terms of style.

I also recently read ‘Wolf’ by Gillian Cross – this is not a new book, so it might be hard to find. The edition I have dates from 1992, and I’m not sure if there are more recent editions.

It’s definitely the kind of book I like – unique, original, a bit crazy, peopled with memorable characters and a plot which seems completely unfettered in places, giving the story a sense of freedom and unpredictability. Our protagonist is a young girl who lives with her grandmother, except for occasional breaks where she is sent to live with her mother. These breaks are always preceded by a strange midnight visitor to her grandmother’s home, and the girl (Cassy) isn’t sure who the visitor is. The book shows its age in terms of technology – telephone boxes, no internet, and so on – which is great for readers of my vintage, but even so the story throbs with life, exploring the meaning of family and love, and what it means to not be sure of who you are. It’s excellent – if you can find it, I recommend it.

I also read ‘The Emerald Atlas’ by John Stephens not so long ago; I’d had this one on my radar for a long time.

It was good, too – a nice long, complicated, twisty storyline designed to get the neurons firing. It involves time travel, three siblings who must unravel the mystery of their missing parents, and figure out how to use a strange book with incredible powers in order to save an entire village from an evil witch and her undead warriors. I did like this book, but not as much as I thought I would – some things irritated me, like the fact that the author decided, conveniently, that two versions of the same object can exist at the same time. As in, if someone travels back through time clutching the mysterious book, which also exists in the past, that both versions of the book can exist for about half an hour before one of them will disappear. That annoyed me because I thought it was a cop-out, of sorts! I really liked the writing, though, and I loved the siblings’ relationship with one another. So, overall, this one is worth a try. It’s the first part in a series, too, so perhaps things will improve.

I picked up Frances Hardinge’s ‘Twilight Robbery’ last weekend, so I’m looking forward to getting into that. I read the previous book to this one, ‘Fly By Night’, a few years ago and wasn’t too sure about it, but the writing is good enough to entice me to give it another go. I also have ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’ by Michael Chabon on my to-read shelf; this, despite the title, is not a children’s book. I do occasionally dip my toes into grown-up literature, too!

I’m off to enjoy some words that I didn’t sweat and agonise over, for a change – I hope you find some time to read and/or write this weekend, too. Whatever you do, enjoy and take care.