Sometimes when I’m walking down a familiar street, or if I’m in work, I like to try and imagine what it was like the first time I was there, before it was familiar. I can manage it for a few seconds at most. It’s a strange experience. Try it sometime.
Like forgetting what you already know writing from the perspective of a child must be a hard thing for an adult to do. Who remembers what it was like to be 10? And I don’t just mean where you lived and where you went on holiday, but what was it actually like? It isn’t very often that I read a book told from a child’s point of view where I can really allow myself to be taken in by the story. To Kill A Mockingbird springs to mind as a good one.
More recently I’ve raved about Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands to every member of staff here since it came out last year. Being able to describe the inner mind of a child is pretty impressive, not many pull it off. On top of that how many women can write as if they were a boy? How many men can tell a girl’s story? If you want evidence of how hard it is, well…pick up Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho and have a quick browse.
My old partner in crime gobbles up children’s fiction like there’s no tomorrow. But now she’s gone so I need to step up. Two books I’ve read recently took me back to how different the world seemed as a child. My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece (13+) is the first novel by Annabel Pitcher. In the aftermath of his sister being killed in a terrorist attack 10 year old Jamie is brought to a new home in the Lake District with his dad, living sister Rose and half of his other sister in an urn. (his mother ran away with the therapist…and had the other half of the sister buried). Dad is alcoholic and Rose may be anorexic. Well that’s the setup. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of book I would read. I’m glad I did though. It might sound rather grim, but Pitcher manages to achieve a tone that is slightly comic at times, which stops this from becoming a morose read. Part of this achievement is down to Jamie and how he views the world. There is dry humour to be found in the stoic musings of an innocent 10 year old.
All of the back story is really a means to explore the relationship between Jamie and Sunya, a Muslim girl at his new school. The racial tension is only a small part of the host of problems that arise when a 10 year old tries to build relationships. Jamie’s mistakes were all too familiar to me! The relationship between Jamie and Sunya was totally believable. They acted like kids act. I cared about them and that is what sold this book to me. So don’t be put off by the subject matter (or the cover) this is a very fine book.
My second recommendation is another ‘family issues’ story (I don’t know how this happened!). In Alan Silberberg’s Milo And The Restart Button (8+) Milo is adjusting to a new home and life without his mother after her death. I don’t think I ever read a book when I was a kid about someone coming to terms with bereavement, but there is just something about this book which is so genuine and touching. The emotional issues that Milo is dealing with are kept quite far below the surface. The tone for the most part is quite slapstick. Milo expresses all the kind of gross bizzarre humour that you might expect from a young boy.
What really impressed me about this book is how Milo’s bottled up grief over the death of his mother is addressed slowly and subtly without the book becoming sentimental. On the surface this is a funny, frivolous kids story of trying to fit in. The deeper emotional content never detracts from the comic tone. I think that’s probably why it works so well for me. Milo is impossible not to like and is a constant source of odd little reflections, just like you would expect from a kid his age. This book deserves to be hugely successful. I cannot recommend it highly enough!
So don’t be fooled into thinking this stuff is easy. Writing quality children’s fiction is a great skill and not something to be considered inferior to ‘proper’ adult fiction writing. Shame on you Martin Amis!