Removing the adult voice, Kathryn Walls

Baker’s Dozen
Tom Bradley,
HarperCollins, $12.95

Saved by Ryan Kane
Pauline Cartwright,
Ashton Scholastic, $7.95

The Secret of Boomer Lake
Ken Catran,
HarperCollins, $10.95

The Breakdown Day
Dorothy Butler,
Ashton Scholastic, $12.95

Tom Bradley’s Baker’s Dozen is a collection of 13 short tales which purport to have been written by pupils of Baker High School as part of a school fund-raising exercise. The central linking mechanism, according to which each member of a group brought together by some particular circumstance tells a story, goes back at least as far as the Decameron, but it is unusual (in my experience, unique) in contemporary writing for adolescents.

Through it, Bradley manages to remove the adult speaker whose avuncular voice ‑ in its distinctness from that of the projected audience ‑ is often the mark of the “children’s book”. The various tellers are not particularly distinguished from each other, but they are convincingly youthful, while the only adults in the stories ‑ absurd teachers with nicknames like “Thumper” ‑ are caricatures.

The stories, too, have something of the character of those genuinely constructed by children ‑ in their ready and uncomplicated dependence on magic, for example, and in their macabre (even tasteless) humour. In a typical story, essentially an adaptation of the folktale motif of the helpful animal, a talking fly with a photographic memory helps a boy with his examinations only to be swatted by the headmaster at the prize-giving ceremony.

Some of Bradley’s devices are extremely satisfying. There is, for example, the magic eraser (has the word “rubber” disappeared from New Zealand English, by the way?) which allows its owner, in erasing elements of his artwork, to eliminate those same elements from reality. This is a refreshingly negative variant on a familiar motif (portraits which come to life, painted gardens you can enter).

Some of the stories are witty elaborations of familiar moral wisdom, in “The Addict” a boy literally grows old as he does nothing but eat junk food and watch TV, while in “Thumbs up! “, a boy who prefers chocolate to vegetables is forced to endure a diet in which (and this is a bit predictable) absolutely everything tastes of chocolate. The adult voice may have been excluded (and the moralising tone is somewhat parodic), but recognisably parental motives are still served by these pieces.

I was disappointed by some of Bradley’s endings. In “No Surrender! ” an exciting war story dissolves as the reader discovers that the “soldiers” are really boys on the school bus. Similarly, in “Off with his trousers! ” sinister persecutors and torturers turn out to be merely school pupils forcing one of their number to swim in the school swimming sports.

While these stories pull the carpet from under our feet, others make the opposite mistake of leaving us up in the air. In “Sandwiched in”, for example, a boy who has always jettisoned his home-made lunches is cursed by a packet of particularly awful sandwiches which (after he has thrown it away) multiplies and persecutes him. The idea is arresting and the execution of it amusing, but Bradley’s conclusion neither resolves the situation, nor carries much of a point. The boy returns home to find the original sandwiches still in the fridge.

The implication (not explored) is that he had not after all taken his lunch to school in the first place. What, then, was the magic lunch ‑ which is, as far as we are allowed to know, still at large? Bradley has striven for a snappy ending ‑ but really good endings must be scrupulously prepared for. This collection is, as its title seems to claim, good value ‑ but I feel that there is, as the boring teachers at Baker High School undoubtedly write on school reports, “room for improvement”.

Saved by Ryan Kane is centred around the archetypal boaster/ liar figure. Here, in the realistic context of a convincingly represented primary school, the newcomer Ryan Kane is at first (when his self-glamorising tales are believed) a mysterious figure. But he is of course found out; his lies are discovered to have been the product of terrible personal insecurity, and he becomes an object of contempt. The story then enters its third and final phase, in which Ryan becomes a genuine hero. This latter development is unlikely in real life, but it is not impossible, and Pauline Cartwright’s yoking together of false imaginings and true heroic fulfilment in a single character makes an interesting point about human nature ‑ and also about creativity. The tripartite structure of the novel is satisfying, as is the counterpointing of the characters of the colourful Ryan and his “ordinary” (but extraordinarily compassionate) friend Gordie, through whose mind the story is filtered.

Ken Catran’s The Secret of Boomer Lake has something of the cheerful disregard for the possible of Baker’s Dozen, and ostensibly also something of the serious intent of Saved by Ryan Kane. It is the story of how its 12-year-old heroine (who seems younger) comes to establish a mystical relationship with a beast which is a kind of cross between a dinosaur and a dolphin. In a reversal of the more usual sequence, the beast saves the human (the girl Jay) and in the end (of course) the human helps the beast. But the all-important “plesiosaur” is unconvincing, Catran takes none of the care that is required to make the unreal become a believable part of reality, with the result that Jay’s loving concern for the strange creature and its young is in danger of seeming ludicrous.

The Secret has an ecological moral and there are psychological themes (we see something of Jay’s parents, and Jay herself is apparently learning that she can care, as well as be cared for), but these serious elements (diverse anyway) are not well integrated into this incident-packed story. There are many highly emotional moments (“her own tears were coming freely now, but she didn’t care. Plessy was united with her babies. “), but the depiction of emotion and the communication of real feeling can be two quite different things. Joyce Lancaster Brisley was able to make a child’s fleeting glimpse of a rabbit on a Saturday afternoon something both moving and amazing, while this story ‑ clearly meant to be exciting ‑ leaves one cold. John Tarlton’s line drawings are appealing in themselves, but being in the direction of caricature they work to reinforce one’s sense of the ultimate shallowness of the text.

Dorothy Butler’s The Breakdown Day is an elegantly structured chapter of accidents. The action takes its central character (the child Harriet) full circle from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night. The events thus framed may be seen from two points of view; what is frustrating for the father is exciting for Harriet. (This point is not heavily laboured, however, and well before the end of the day Harriet and her father are reacting in tandem.)

Dorothy Butler writes almost lyrically (and her evident love of language is shared by Harriet, who goes to sleep recalling her parents’ choicest alliterative phrases). The illustrations by Gabriela Klepatski are in a style one associates with Shirley Hughes. They are perfectly attuned to the text, although the racial mix of the children gathered at the party attended by Harriet suggests a North American rather than a New Zealand context. I suppose the publisher must be to blame for Dad’s “Drat it”, and “Good grief! ” ‑ curses which I am proud to say I have never uttered in front of my children.


Kathryn Walls teaches English at Victoria University of Wellington.


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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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