Wednesday 6 December 2023

Lost for Words by Paul May

I've read more than 60 Carnegie Medal winning books now, and I've found none of them more difficult to write about than Beverley Naidoo's The Other Side of Truth. It belongs to a loose category of winners that appear to originate in an author's desire to educate their readers. Social realism I suppose. I'd include Berlie Doherty's books here, and probably Melvin Burgess's Junk. It's not surprising that adults writing for children should be interested in the effect their writing has on those readers. Here's Beverley Naidoo on why she writes:

"I am frequently asked, 'Have you a message in what you write?' My reply is that writing fiction is quite different from declaiming from a soapbox or through a microphone. I do not write to deliver a 'message'. Yet I believe passionately in the importance of literature that engages with life and our moral human universe."

The Other Side of Truth shines a light on the abuses of the military dictatorship in Nigeria in the late twentieth century and on the plight of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the UK. It does this through the experiences of two young children, Sade and Femi, whose mother is shot dead as they prepare for school in the morning, and who are then smuggled onto a flight to London, where they are abandoned and robbed before being helped by police, social workers and foster parents.

This book was written before the days of the 'hostile environment' or the government plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. And, by the way, I saw a survey the other day that indicated most Tory voters thought that the plan was for asylum seekers to be sent to Rwanda for processing before successful applicants were returned to this country. That is not the plan. Successful applicants for asylum would be resettled in Rwanda and unsuccessful ones returned to their country of origin.

Back in 2000, in this book, the police were kind, the social workers seemed to have time to be gentle and patient with the traumatised children, and an item on Channel 4 News was enough to save the family from deportation. Things have definitely not improved since then.

There's no doubt that books like this do a great job. They are incredibly useful in schools to provide a focus for discussion of the many issues they raise and the Internet is full of essays written by young people about this book. Most of those address the central dilemma of the book—should I tell the truth? Or, should I always tell the truth? Or, is telling the truth always the right thing to do? I have to admit that by the end I was suffering from dilemma fatigue.

I admire this book and I think it's very well written, pitched just right for the ages it's aimed at. It has a straightforward style and the characters are vivid. You can hear the 'but' coming, can't you? There are two buts. The first is the one I've just mentioned—a little too much hammering away at the truth dilemma. The second is that I would really have liked to have seen some exploration of the attitudes of the other children in Sade's class at school, and especially of the two bullies, Marcia and Donna. They are a bit too much like cartoon baddies. These are minor things, yet for me they reduced my engagement with the text and I suppose that's why I've found it so hard to think about and write about. And it's why, although I think it's a worthy Carnegie winner, it won't end up in my top ten. Unlike the 2001 winner, which leaps straight into my top five.

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett is, quite simply, one of the best children's books I've ever read. I can't do better than to quote some of the reviews of the book :

Powerful, passionate, mordantly funny and, at one point, unbearably sad—Daily Telegraph

An astonishing novel . . . I marvelled at the ferociousness of the humour, and the willingness to go to dark places—Financial Times

Despite being mainly about talking cats and rats 'it engages with life and our moral human universe.' to use Beverley Naidoo's words. You might think it odd that I could be moved to tears by the plight of a talking, thinking cat and a bunch of talking, thinking rats when the plight of two vulnerable, grief-stricken children lost on the streets of London didn't affect me in the same way, but that's what truly great writing can do.

This book has everything—dark places indeed, and very smelly ones too; it has metafiction in Malicia, a girl who has read so many stories that she is sure that, for example, any locked room will have a secret passage to escape by; it has heroes and villains, all remarkably realised; and above all it has humour—humour with an edge to it. It also has one remarkable insight which should be noted by peace negotiators everywhere, even though it comes from a talking cat:

'That's it?' (says Maurice) 'That's your plan?'

'You don't think it'll work?' said Keith. 'Malicia says he'll be so embarrassed he'll leave.'

'You don't know anything about people, do you?' sighed Maurice.

'What? I'm a person!' said Malicia.

'So? Cats know about people. We have to. No one else can open cupboards. Look, even the rat king has a better plan than that. A good plan isn't one where someone wins, it's where nobody thinks they've lost. Understand?'

This, you will probably be surprised to learn, is the first Terry Pratchett book I have read. I did start another one once, a long time ago, and it didn't grab me. I regret that now, but on the other hand I now have more than forty of his books still to read. And I guess I'm predisposed to like stories about talking rats as Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brien has long been a favourite of mine.

Both Beverley Naidoo and Sir Terry Pratchett have excellent websites.

1 comment:

Adelaide Dupont said...

I discovered one of the sequels to RATS OF NIMH [written by the daughter of the original author] in the mid-1990s

which involved two ordinary human children

and one of the ordinary human children [RT or Arthur] made friends with Christopher the rat and they made many brave explorations.

Especially when the rat colony is under threat.

WIND IN THE WILLOWS is another talking rat story.

And then I think of all the talking animals in Brian Jacques.

I think C S Lewis had at least one talking MOUSE - Reepicheep!