Review: Little Darlings, by Jacqueline Wilson

My little sister has recently discovered the joys of reading. On a recent holiday it was only her new-found habit that gave us respite from ‘can we go crab fishing/to the beach/have an ice cream?’, so I am very grateful for this. It should give her years of pleasure, and help her in school immeasurably. But there is just one problem with this. She refuses to read anything that isn’t by Jacqueline Wilson.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Jacqueline Wilson as much as the next girl. I was at my most Wilson-obsessed at about my sister’s age (nine), reading The Suitcase Kid about five times in a row at one point. But I didn’t read Wilson exclusively. There was some Alice Through the Looking Glass, Goosebumps and Little Women to accompany The Suitcase Kid. Fourteen years later, neither threats nor bribery can convince my sister to read anything else. Not even the promise of crab fishing moved her.

So I am understandably concerned that my little sister is getting an incredibly limited literary diet. Some of Wilson’s books are brilliant, but as with any prolific author, some of the themes and characters tend to blur into one another somewhat. Unfortunately, Little Darlings falls into the latter category. A standard Wilson tale in which the children are more mature than the parents, and are either neglected or function as the parent themselves.

Destiny and Sunset are two girls from very different backgrounds. Whilst Destiny lives on a council estate with her single mother in the North of England, Sunset is the daughter of a rock star and a model whose days are filled with photo shoots for trashy magazines and playing with the nanny. They forge an unlikely friendship, and the book focuses on its development and their attempts to sort out their very different family problems. Destiny is worried as her mum is losing lots of weight and seems very weak all the time, whilst Sunset cannot get either of her parents to behave like adults – especially when her Dad leaves them all for another woman…

The book takes up the themes of most of Wilson’s work – children looking after parents, broken homes, poverty, feeling isolated etc – and adds an OK magazine lifestyle. Its messages are staid and predictable: Destiny’s family is poor but rich in happiness, Sunset’s family is rich and yet fractured. That both girls could have the same father is an interesting plot device, as it not only provides a tangible link between the two girls, but also makes difficult reading for an adult. Destiny’s mother is childlike, believing that Mickey (ostensibly Destiny’s father) will rescue them from the poverty they live in and be a parent to Destiny. At first Destiny buys into the fantasy too; it is heartbreaking to witness her gradual realisation that Mickey will never want anything to do with them, and comfort her mother. And it is this plot device that leads to the most shocking element of the novel.

SPOILER ALERT

It is impossible to discuss this novel without mentioning the ending. All through the novel Mickey wants nothing to do with Destiny or her mother. They are swept aside, and Sunset gets in trouble for even mentioning them.  But when Mickey’s agent accidentally learns of Destiny’s talent for singing, she is invited to take part in a reality television show where celebrity parents show off their talented offspring in order to help revive Mickey’s flagging career. The novel ends with Destiny, her mother and Sunset all happily preparing for the show, overjoyed that all their dreams have come true: Sunset has a true friend in Destiny, Destiny’s talent has been realised, and Destiny’s mother has the promise of no longer living in poverty. As an adult reader, however, I found it deeply disturbing. It is painfully obvious that Destiny is being exploited and that Mickey only wants to know her out of self-interest, and yet it is presented as a ‘happy ending’. It is either a rare cynical ending to a Wilson tale, or a startling departure from her usual morality. The child characters – and perhaps child reader – end the book thinking that it is great the family are finally united, which I find problematic considering the evident exploitation of the child. Perhaps I am underestimating the capacity of child readers to recognise this element that is never explicitly stated; I shall have to ask my sister when she finishes the book.

Overall, Little Darlings feels like a hotchpotch of other Wilson novels, with celebrity thrown in. But the ending reveals a rare darkness in Wilson’s work, setting it apart from the rest of the canon.

By Lauren

 

Review: Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers

Playing on repetition, apparently very dear to child readers,but adding a surrealistic twist to it, Stuck, Oliver Jeffers’s latest picturebook, is 100% efficient. Premise: a little boy gets his kite stuck in a tree. What do you do in this situation? Well, throw lots of other objects into the tree, of course. Lots of objects. Including the most… unexpected.

The pictures are as bright and funny as can be expected from the famous artist, and the matter-of-fact tone of the absurd sentences is guaranteed to make everyone laugh. It is also, importantly, a great read-aloud book, with clever variations in pace and tone which the adult co-reader will pick up on easily.

There is absolutely nothing wrong anyone can possibly say about Stuck; it is a good example of a completely successful picturebook, nothing less and nothing more.

Review: Toby Alone, by Timothée de Fombelle

You know a children’s book in an English bookshop is a small miracle when it’s been translated from another language. Don’t want to sound sarcastic, but the English and the American translate enough books per year to fill a small corner of a bookshelf in a dolls’ house. It is fact. When in France, Italy, Greece and South Korea every bookshop contains pretty much as many homegrown books as translated ones, in England and the US the ratio is laughable – apart from Tintin, Astérix and the Moomins, there aren’t many foreigners in the Anglophonic hegemony.

But not only was Toby Alone translated (Walker Books), it was also extremely well translated, as Sarah Ardizzone won an award for it. I was delighted to hear it, and to see the book at Waterstones’, because Toby Alone is one of these few truly magical children’s novels which make you want to grab the nearest person by the collar and beg them to read it. A truly delightful, beautifully crafted, tender novel, Toby Alone is already, in France, a modern classic.

The premise is catchy: one-and-a-half-millimetre-tall Toby lives, like everyone else, on a great Tree-World outside of which, he is asked to believe, there is nothing. His father is an inventor, and has discovered the awesome properties of the tree sap. Properties which can be used for good… or bad (understand: for profit). And some people want to use it for profit. As a result, the tree is dying. Toby’s quest is, at the same time, to save the tree, to save himself, to save his parents, and to learn the truth about the World he lives in and the foreign people who sometimes invade, and who must come from somewhere…

Throw in a strong-headed young girl, a ruthlessly ambitious enemy, and some hilarious comic relief characters, and you get one of the most colourful and lively books for children in a very long time.

It is also an old-fashioned tale, with a nostalgic feel for a conservative order, a society of artisans, closet scientists and fragrant cooking. A world in which people’s lives follow the slow rhythm of the seasons. A world where everything is made of living matter to be feared and protected. The novel makes no mystery of its ecological dimension.

The main reason, I think, why it was translated into English (apart from the fact that it is a gorgeous book, but we have many other splendid French books that never get translated) is that the socio-cultural background is absolutely universal. Toby Alone will be readable tomorrow and in fifty years’ time, here and in Paris and in Tokyo. I am very glad Walker made this important and beautiful novel available to English children, and the second book in the duology, Toby and the Secrets of the Tree, is almost as good.

by Clémentine

In Defence of the Present Tense

On September 8th, at Homerton College, Cambridge, Philip Pullman gave a lecture on Philippa Pearce and Tom’s Midnight Garden, choosing the concept of time as his main focus.

As expected, the lecture was brilliant: funny, erudite and confident. Judging by the questions asked after the lecture, the most controversial aspect of Pullman’s talk was his take on the current ‘trend’ for narratives for children and teenagers in the present tense.

‘I see texts in the present tense everywhere,’ he declared, ‘whereas when I was young they didn’t exist. Recently, I visited a Creative Writing class at a university and almost all students were writing in the present tense. When I asked the teacher why that was the case, he admitted he hadn’t even noticed.’

While not directly attacking such narratives, he made no mystery of the fact that he was in favour of the ‘conventional’ past tense. The audience’s responses were interestingly mixed. Someone said – strangely – that she was currently writing in the present tense, despite the fact that she didn’t like reading in the present tense. Other people made bold assumptions that ‘young people’ now preferred the present tense because of the immediacy and the spectacular aspect of that tense. Translation: young people now live solely in the present and need constant stimulation to be able to read (if they manage it at all). Finally, someone laid the blame on a vicious circle at the level of the authors, who ‘feel obliged’ to write in the present tense. Pullman elegantly refrained from making any definite judgement on the matter.

I’m ambivalent. The present tense has never bothered me, either when I read, or as a ’concept’. In French, my mother tongue, you can write a narrative in more tenses – two different forms of past, and the present (not mentioning the very experimental future tense). Writing in the ‘simple past’ (which is ironically absurdly complicated) makes for a ‘classical’, formal narrative. Writing in the ‘composed past’ is the most informal, relaxed form of narrative (Young Nicholas is an example). Writing in the present tense isn’t connotated either way – you can mould it to make it sound grand, philosophical and nouveau roman, or to make it sound fun, immediate and energetic. A neutral tense, in other words.

It’s a bit easy to assign a form of ideology or social commentary to the present tense. Yeah, it’s tempting to say that it will appeal to people who live in the here and now, refusing to look behind and to pay their respects to their elders. It’s tempting to blame reality TV and live events and the Internet (vade retro).

But we can also look at it another way. Suspension of disbelief in the present tense may actually be more difficult than in the past tense. It might require more imaginative skills than the past tense, and a better ability to navigate between different temporal levels. Especially as narratives in the present tense are often full of flashbacks and flash-forwards. What if narratives in the present tense were actually more complex and demanded more sophisticated reading skills?

Being multimodal young adults constantly plugged in to our iPods, constantly receptive to current affairs, constantly reactive, might very well enhance our ability to imagine ourselves everywhere and everywhen at the same time. Reading and writing in the present tense isn’t necessarily a blind declaration of carpe diem.

by Clementine

The Literary Equivalent of Clean Knickers

 One thing an e-reader was supposed to do was to remove ‘library anxiety’ – otherwise known as the worry that people will judge you by the book you read. Unfortunately I seem to suffer from this unfortunate ailment more than ever before, since my kindle wormed its way into the heart of my commute.

You see, all I seem to be able to read on it, is – for lack of a better word – trash (see episode two). If I purchase something on there I deem good, I immediately have to rush out and buy a paper copy. If it is something that I know will be good, or I will read more than once, then of course I want it in a form I can lend to people. In a form that feels much more substantial than a file on an e-reader, that I can read without having to charge a battery. One of my favourite things about my kindle is that it is an ideal receptacle for books that I want to/have to read, but would never deign to give shelf space to. They are all available and there for me to read, but hidden away. Being someone who ruthlessly judges others by what they read, e-readers also perform the function of hiding the fact that I am reading a children’s book/chick lit/Twilight. I can sit on the tube, happily caught up in Alex Rider’s latest adventures or Bella’s incessant whining and no one around me is any the wiser. I could be reading War and Peace for all they know. When I started to read books like that on my kindle, the frequently judgemental looks from other passengers stopped. Any lover of children’s books who uses public transport must be well used to these ‘looks’ by now. They are usually given by women in suits.

However, this has given rise to a new anxiety – one that I didn’t expect. I now spend entire journeys worrying that if I died, like, right now, and all that was left to know me by was my kindle, people would think I was an uncultured, unrefined pleb whose library solely consisted of paranormal romance, Jilly Cooper-esque romps and a couple of token free classics (that the examiner would assume were unread). My spirit would be there screaming ‘go to my house! There are adult books there! Proper ones! Middlemarch and everything!’ If I was reading a print copy of the paranormal romance they might (quite rightly) speculate that I had a broad taste in reading and this was only part of it. But the many many books on a kindle could be assumed to be representative of your general taste in books….

This is a literary version of the always-wear-clean-knickers-in-case-you-get-hit-by-a-bus anxiety, if you will. Clearly it is unlikely that if the tube crashed the kindle would survive. And it is also clear that this all arises from my own biblio-snobbery, and if I were a little less judgemental about others I would probably be less worried about being judged myself.

But as I am unlikely to succeed in dropping the snobbery any time soon I will continue to worry and have a spare copy of Jane Eyre in my bag. Just in case. And nice knickers on – of course.

By Lauren