Hunting down the story, Norman Bilbrough

A Friend in Paradise
Des Hunt
HarperCollins, $14.95,
ISBN 1869504429

Henry and the Flea
Brian Falkner
Mallinson Rendel, $16.95,
ISBN 0908783779

The Dragon’s Apprentice
Linda McNabb
HarperCollins, $14.95,
ISBN 1869504127

Artists Are Crazy and Other Stories
Ken Catran
Lothian Books, $15.95,
ISBN 0734404751

One of the essentials for writing a kid’s book – and these four are aimed at an age-group of about eight to 12 years – is to lay out the spoors of the narrative early on, in the first chapter really, and then keep the identifying marks firmly in view so that by chapter two the reader is getting glimpses of the story animal in the brush ahead. I guess this is a matter of identifying it: not many readers do so consciously, and I’d say young readers, not at all. But if the narrative doesn’t display itself early on, if the beast ahead is not going to give a frank glimpse of itself, a younger reader is going to be dissatisfied and quite possibly cast the book aside.

Does the book have a distinctive marking or shape, something that is a clear answer to the question, what is this story about?  Or is it a formless and irritating invertebrate: a kind of language-ridden protozoa? The idea that fiction needs a story may be old-fashioned where adult novels are concerned – and now only applicable to thrillers and lower forms of genre – but I suggest younger readers will be insecure without it.

Having read only one Harry Potter novel, I can’t comment extensively on that oeuvre, except that I was unimpressed by its homogenising of its more imaginative ancestors such as Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin, Tolkein and C S Lewis. Nevertheless, the volume I read most obviously had a narrative: one that could stand up and be identified.

The three novels here work and charm – and fail – according to the quality and strength of their story, and how each author reveals and develops it.

A Friend in Paradise has the strongest story – one that is essentially an adventure – and it works well. It’s simple and linear, and I think writers should never underestimate the beauty of a story line that runs clean and uncluttered from the beginning, through crises, to the end.

Robbie is a problem kid; his Dad has recently died of cancer, and in desperation his Mum ships him off to Uncle Jim who farms near Opotiki. Robbie’s Dad grew up in the area, and Uncle Jim shows Robbie a hidden valley, a place his Dad once treasured – a place called Paradise.

Here Robbie finds a species of giant gecko that was thought to be extinct. He makes a friend of an elderly Greenie called Price, and together they stumble on an endangered species smuggling racket that involves a rich neighbour called Richardson. With some nifty hacking into email systems, the crooks are exposed to Robbie and Price – but then Robbie takes off on a trip to White Island with Richardson, and Robbie’s life comes under threat – the climax of the story.

Robbie knows Richardson is ruthless and dangerous, and that he’s after the giant gecko. But the author has to get Robbie over to White Island with him – for the climax and denouement – so he signals that Robbie has always had a fascination for the place, hence his readiness to put his life is at risk by taking up Richardson’s offer of a joy ride to the volcano. This seems patently silly to a reader, and it’s a faulty connection in the narrative. Characters in fiction need to have authentic and convincing motivations for doing things, most especially dangerous things. Silly reasons – like ignorance and shallow neglect – don’t convince. And protagonists, or heroes, are belittled by them.

So this glitch is a shame, because this is a well-paced story that’s exciting and deals with tangible emotional and material issues. It’s a valid fiction, until this flaw suddenly appears. As soon as Robbie makes the decision to go to White Island with the man he knows to be the villain, the story abruptly loses credibility, and in a sense, Robbie loses “narrative face”.

Des Hunt has put a lot of work into this novel, and it is by far the most intriguing of the three here. The hallmark of a good children’s writer is a prose style that is unpretentious, accessible and workable – that fits the job. I don’t think children’s writers need to show how gifted they are at prose: they don’t need to get baroque with the language. Hunt doesn’t. He’s planned this novel well, and apart from that one glitch, it’s successful. Young readers will enjoy it.

They’ll also enjoy Henry and the Flea, probably because it’s gimmicky. I’m not being derogatory when I say this: there’s a good gimmick/idea at the centre of this book, and it will intrigue boys. It’s this idea that gives the book a wonderful initial spurt; it really launches it. Sadly it has no strong narrative with which to continue. The tale lapses into invertebrate form halfway through.

Thirteen-year-old Danny wants to play rugby league for the Warriors (read New Zealand Warriors), and he can do this because he possesses a magic trick – usually accessed by blinking twice – that transforms him into a sporting whiz. It’s every boy’s dream come true, and I imagine that this fantasy allows Brian Falkner to get male readers’ attention snappily. His prose is snappy too: it’s energetic and workmanlike. The scene is set quickly, and events move along fast.

Except that one wonders what for? Because although Danny does get to play for the Warriors, and learn about friendship and fame, and have a bonding experience with ace player Henry Knight (just a big kid at heart), there isn’t a lot of story happening. I couldn’t say what this book was about at all and thought the author actually avoided story, simply charting Danny’s progress through a league season.

Early on, Falkner makes statements that ring alarm bells for me. Phil Domane, the possible villain of the story (but in fact a cipher), “just wasn’t very nice”. This signals an early evasion of characterisation; it’s putting a middle-class prudish mindset on a character who could contribute to the story in a dynamic and possibly evil way, for Phil Domane, alias “the boy without a brain”, ends up with Jenny, the girl whom Danny (even at the tender age of 13) vaguely
intends to marry.

Apart from a bit of strange hero-worshipping bonding with Henry, Danny isn’t allowed to get involved with his mates or his girlfriend. Indeed, early on, Danny says, “Jason and I were close friends. Not best friends, ‘cos boys don’t have ‘best’ friends.  That’s something that girls do.”

Really? I suspect Falkner of putting strict parameters around relationships so that he doesn’t have to explore them and face the hard creative work of developing characters. Indeed, Danny’s relationship with Jenny (his future spouse) is so “okay” and devoid of feeling that I started to suspect there was some curious misogynistic agenda running through the book.

Then there is The Dragon’s Apprentice. No matter that the publishers inform the reader that Linda McNabb is a natural storyteller, there’s not much of a story here either. It’s more like a pastiche of episodes and, despite what might be more worthy intentions on the part of the author, this is a blatantly commercial package. I don’t know how it got to be shortlisted for the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

I have no beef with books that are more obviously commercial. I’d like to be able to write one myself: something light, entertaining and formulaic, along the lines of Paul Jennings and Morris Gleitzman. But whatever its package, a work of fiction still needs a story. Linda McNabb has a dragon, a castle, villains, and a protagonist, but by the end of the book I still had no idea what it was about. (Well, dragons to be sure …) It had no strong storyline to give it an identity.

I also believe a commercial package should be decently written. In spite of the lack of properly developed characters and narrative, Henry and the Flea is fluently written: its prose has a comprehensible continuity. Often McNabb’s doesn’t. Her style is jerky, and situations and intimacies don’t flow: there is a lack of internal cohesion. The Dragon’s Apprentice seems a bit like fast food: all exterior and no depth. Sure it’s seductive, but overall it’s unsatisfying.

Stories with specific agendas or obvious moral lessons are often stories that don’t find a large readership. But successful narrative vehicles – like Ken Catran’s Artists Are Crazy and Other Stories – work to overcome that problem. Catran knows the value of a well-plotted story, and you can transmit virtually any moral, lesson or agenda if you have that in place, along with excellent writing skills and perceptions.

Without exception these are intriguing and complete stories: they are entertaining and they’ll make kids think. They should affect them in the way powerful fables and fairy stories affect readers.

Catran keeps the tales simple, and his prose simple and direct. How did the Egyptians come to honour the cat? By a priest changing a specific cultural mindset and deciding that the rats that destroyed the grain put aside each year were not protected by the gods. It’s an affecting and effective story, as is the tale of the Viking who saves a young girl’s family from a violent and lying usurper by using strength, craft and compassion. Then there is the story of potatoes, set against the dubious achievements of Napoleon. And the title story charts the unrecognised genius of Leonardo in the face of conservatism and bigotry.

Some of the lessons revealed: if intelligence prevails, one can triumph over adversity; glory in battle only leads to heartbreak; and religious bigotry and power exclude sense and wisdom.

In a way Catran creates his own fables, extending historical moments with his quirky imagination. He sets out the signals, allows one to sense the journey ahead and then expertly puts the reader down on a story path. I hope these short stories (always poor cousins of novels) reach a wide readership. Of course it’s easier to maintain narrative in a short story but there’s a master writing here. It’s a relief to read him.


Norman Bilbrough is a Wellington writer.


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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review
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