Did I say I couldn't read anything else fictional until I had finished 1Q84?
Well I didn't mean it because a book arrived and I changed my mind, and can I just quickly apologise for more death... what with Jamie's sister Rose and Prince Albert I know I've put you through rather a lot lately, if only writers wouldn't keep writing about it.
It was serendipity to receive an e mail late last Sunday evening from Red House Children's Books with news about the short list for the their Children's Book Award, and this just the night before I was due to post here about My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher, and then my delight when I saw that Annabel's book had been shortlisted in the Older Readers category.
I think we may have been amongst the earliest subscribers to Red House here chezdovegrey when they set up some thirty years ago, and I clearly remember the doors that they opened for us, and for starting off our reading as a family, and after all what a great way to spend the Child Benefit. Three small children and we still have the stack of books we bought, many becoming the stuff of family legend...
I Want to See the Moon, On Friday Something Funny Happened... and all the wonderful Lucy and Tom series by Shirley Hughes. Those small children might now be thirty, twenty-eight and twenty-six but we still get Lucy and Tom's Christmas out every December, it's part of the tradition ... and another Shirley Hughes favourite of ours Dogger, and then there were the Ahlbergs giving us Each Peach Pear Plum, Peepo and The Jolly Postman. And what about The Tiger Who Came for Tea and The Hungry Caterpillar and Peace at Last, all new then but timeless classics now. The stack of books now suitably dog-eared but precious and much-loved for the memories they hold, even perhaps the sort of thing I would walk past in a charity shop or a jumble sale without a cursory glance, condemning as far too scruffy... I shall think on that next time.
So the e mail came as a lovely reminder that Red House is still there and has gone from strength to strength, now running its own awards for books shortlisted and voted for by children, and the winners will be announced in February. I was very grateful to Red House who then kindly offered to send me any other books from the shortlist. I've started with the Older Children's category, but I've enjoyed this reading so much I think I might make my way through them all...it's all a bit refreshing after the Booker.
The one thing that strikes me is how little the realities of death seemed to crop up in the books I read as a child. Perhaps the 1950s was still too near to the war for comfort and children were being shielded from any more grief after so many years of it... perhaps I just missed the books, and you are probably all going to come up with plenty of titles now. But interesting that the two I have read off the Red House shortlist so far deal with death head on.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd and published by Walker Books, with fabulously atmospheric illustrations by Jim Kay, is another brilliant read so deserving of a place on any shortlist.
Philip Pullman calls it..
'Compelling...powerful and impressive.'
Meg Rossoff thinks it is...
'Exceptional...This is storytelling as it should be - harrowing, lyrical and transcendent.'
I'd add in astonishing, amazing and what a wonderful collaboration Patrick Ness has created with the late Siobhan Dowd; a writer who had left the baton charged with characters, a premise and a beginning for this book before her untimely death from breast cancer in 2007, and which Patrick Ness has picked up and run over the finishing line in superb style... in Patrick's own words 'Go. Run with it. Make trouble.'
Talking of running, congratulations to Patrick Ness who ran the Dublin marathon last week to raise money for Breast Cancer Campaign in memory of Siobhan Dowd, and has way exceeded his fund-raising target.
I have only read one of Siobhan Dowd's books, Bog Child and always meant to read the others, now I certainly will, but I will also seek out Patrick Ness too. By his own admission he had never met Siobhan and nor could he contemplate mimicking her voice, but he did let the idea grow and develop..
'Siobhan's ideas were suggesting new ones to me, and I began to feel that itch that every writer longs for: the itch to start getting words down, the itch to tell a story.'
That story is the life of thirteen-year old Conor, mostly lived within a nightmare because his mum is dying of cancer. We know that, she knows that, all Conor's friends and teachers know that, and deep down Conor knows that, but it will take some extraordinary encounters with a monster who appears in the shape of a gnarled old yew tree to help Conor come to a trusting acceptance of what is happening and to understand why he has to let his mum go.
The illustrations are monochrome throughout, moody and giving real credence to Conor's inner sense of chaos at being out of control of events and his life, and the significance of the yew won't be lost on those with some knowledge of chemotherapy. Several of the drugs used in the treatment of breast cancer have been developed from yew clippings, but the whole sheebang has put Conor into territory he never asked to be in and, like little Jamie in My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece, he is a complete mess inside. Set apart from his friends and knowing something they may not... that really bad things can happen, Conor has to cope with the cruelty of children too. It's hard to imagine really isn't it... children being bullied when they are in such fraught emotional turmoil, but it is not uncommon, and often a reflection of all children having to learn coping skills in new situations like this. There is no pre-learned behaviour, it all has to be learnt anew and the road is rarely straightforward.
Likewise the all-consuming grief of an adult, in this case Conor's grandmother, which may eclipse that of a child, is incredibly well portrayed.
Conor is at an interesting age too. Whilst Annabel Pitcher's Jamie, at ten, might not quite have known the questions to ask, Conor at thirteen knows exactly what to ask but just can't bring himself to put it into words... how will he manage without his mum... where will he live... how will life carry on....what will happen...
It's at least a ten hankie read and by the final page I had tears in my eyes that just wouldn't stay there, but the most invigorating part of all this is that it is children, not adults, who have chosen this book for the Red House shortlist. A book that is unafraid to embrace, confront and challenge head on the fact that loss happens, and the more any child can learn how to cope with it in childhood... to learn that to love is to grieve when that loss happens, perhaps the better and more useful the coping strategies they take into adult life with them. And you would hope most children learn this through hamster and goldfish funerals rather than as Conor had to, but it would seem 21st century children are unafraid to read books like this, and clearly value them when they have.
The book is slowly gathering in the plaudits it deserves too..
And last week won the Galaxy Awards ~ Children's Book of the Year, which means it is now in with a shot at Galaxy Book of the Year, it's already had my vote even though Claire Tomalin is racing up on the rails. I'd love A Monster Calls to get the recognition it deserves, both for Patrick Ness but also, I feel sure he would agree, for Siobhan Dowd....and more generally for the fantastic quality of children's literature out there.
But I have a feeling that it is the voice of the children that matters here, and the Red House shortlisting that may be the most significant.