Drawing pictures in the mind, Barbara Else

Coming Home to Roost
Mary-Anne Scott
Longacre Press, $20.00,
ISBN 9781775538592 

The Road to Ratenburg
Joy Cowley
Gecko Press, $20.00,
ISBN 9781776570751

Twice now I’ve been a marker at a regional Lit Quiz where teams of top intermediate age readers of fiction compete for the national prize of a trip to the international competition. The buzz in the venue, the intensity on those faces, the palpable excitement of children who have lived maybe a thousand lives already in the varied world of Fictionland prove how important the joy of reading is to young humans.

But the two books reviewed here illustrate concerns I have for the future of this readership. Increasing numbers of gatekeepers of children’s fiction push novels that read like self-help manuals for “issues” or are potted history lessons (cf the recent glut of war novels). This tends to set aside the key purpose of fiction: developing the imagination.

Good fiction provides something central to our way of being. Especially in childhood, stories develop empathy and offer myriad experiences while the reader remains in a safe place. Reading fiction requires a deeply personal interaction with text in a way that nobody else can necessarily influence; this is why governments ban books, isn’t it? Your mind creates pictures of the action, not your teacher or some other authority figure. Your own moral compass settles with one or another character, with the good or bad of any dilemma illustrated by the narrative.

My fear about the future of fiction clarified recently after I gave a talk to over 30 first-year education students. The few mature students present engaged with energy and intelligence. The rest listened with polite and rather distant interest. Over a Beatrix-Potter-ish cup of tea later, the lecturers explained why this was, and it felt like a body-blow: well over 50 per cent of modern students don’t read. They’ve grown up with parents who were the first digital generation. I later talked to 70 third-year education students. When I asked how many had reading as a favourite activity, about five hands waved vaguely. Even making allowance for a general disinclination on their part to interact with any speaker, this is disturbing. But another lecturer told me that the number of readers in this tertiary field has worsened steadily over the last 10 years.

So, too few of New Zealand’s future teachers have found their way into reading for pleasure, losing themselves in the world of a story, in the words of Maria Tartar, “Absorbed, entranced and spellbound … Encountering, witnessing, exploring.” How are they going to instil a love of reading in any of their future charges? I suppose teachers who don’t read are perfectly fine, if fiction is merely a vehicle for a message. But message should always be subservient to story and character. Fiction that becomes preachy and worthy makes reading a chore. In the end, publishers (or, rather, their marketing departments?) who push message at the expense of quality in the writing compromise the message, too. The self-defeating result is a diminution of the reading experience.

Coming Home to Roost is a Young Adult novel by an author with real potential. After some trouble in his home-town, 17-year-old Elliott is packed off to become apprentice to old Arnie, an electrician. Elliott and his mates are a mix of boasters, losers and flakes. The dialogue, well-observed oblique banter, is underpinned with unmistakable male loyalty. Arnie is a star character: his loyalties parallel those of the boys. Wisdom, kindness and vulnerability glimmer under his crusty exterior. Female characters include Elliott’s mother and two teenagers: angry disadvantaged Lena and hard-working principled Zeya.

The blurb states that the novel tackles teen pregnancy from the boy’s point of view. I feel this sets up misleading expectations. The narrative actually dodges the issue. Elliott is let off the hook. Most readers will see this coming and will turn pages to see when and how it happens. Lena, the pregnant girl, is very troubled. Readers will sympathise with her situation, but not with her efforts to manipulate it. She remains largely unlikable and unknowable. I don’t fancy Elliott’s long-term chances with his real love interest, intelligent Zeya, but the narrative does end on an upward beat.

Scott knows boys better than any of them might wish. The book will raise questions and demand opinion as the topic should. Airing these matters can help the intended readership achieve a rounded sense of the pressures in their peer group and wider community. But Elliott’s story is pulled in many directions and the effect is that he comes over as rather passive. Maybe that’s what Scott is saying about male teens. But a passive protagonist doesn’t give a novel much drive and focus.

The novel raises general questions about local publishing for young people. Teenagers need stories about their own lives and situations. But when overseas authors began scoring huge sales for YA novels about issues like depression, suicide and cancer, our YA publishers copied. Were they pushed by the marketing departments because these novels can be used in classrooms and school libraries? However, and I repeat, fiction for pedagogical purposes tends to settle for less in the quality of the writing. In Scott’s case, I feel that the marketing department has been in too much of a rush and let her down, not giving her time to develop how to show something important about teenage males in the clearest, most illuminating way, which she could certainly do.

If authors are being disadvantaged by this approach, then – worse – so are readers. Why not hold out for novels in which the message is not the driver of their publication? Why not pay editors enough so that they have time to wrangle every sentence, if need be, and, in creative teamwork, get the best out of authors? Can we not have more writing that delights in the use of words, has memorable characters and lets any message seep subtly through?

We have such writers locally. Fleur Beale. Anna McKenzie and her brilliant Evie’s War. In junior fiction, Leonie Agnew. Many more. Not enough more.

Joy Cowley’s junior novel The Road to Ratenberg is the memoir of Spinnaker Rat. Loving husband of Retsina, proud papa of Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, Spinnaker has a vision based on the legend of the Pied Piper. Far away lies Ratenberg, paradise for rats. Granaries are always full, dairies crammed with butter and cheese. There is no dog, cat or even human enemy. When the Rat family’s apartment building is demolished, Spinnaker leads his family towards this fabled city. He is dismayed when Jolly Roger, braggart and liar, tags along. At every stage of the dangerous journey, Spinnaker is sure that Roger will disappear, die or simply be too afraid to continue.

The ratlets each have their own adventure. Young readers will relish the practicality and humour the rat family shows while they use a cooking pot boat with spoons for oars, discover the dangers of taking shelter in a letter-box, negotiate a terrifying swing bridge, and deal with a dog.

This hairy memoirist doesn’t use a rose-coloured pencil to whitewash himself. No: that Spinnaker admits his flaws is crucial to the story. Braggart Jolly Roger makes discoveries, too. This company of rats learns how to stick together, how prejudice can damage you, and how your own prejudice about others damages you in return. I was initially put off by having to regard a rat with any empathy, and confess I, too, had to confront my own prejudice with regard to this raterfamilias.

The Road to Ratenberg holds a lot that a parent, teacher, or the astute child reading solo, can relate to the modern world with its real life refugees and migrants. The message is not hidden entirely, but Cowley’s skill and experience prevent it from being inappropriately preachy. Paradise as a fabled city does not exist; rather, it is a state of companionship and mutual support.

I don’t feel the novel reaches the heights of Cowley’s best, but the narrative is well-focused with plenty of variety that should ignite young imaginations.

Let me end with an anecdote that I think speaks for itself in the context of this review. I was told about a 12-year-old foster-child who had difficulty reading. A new foster-mother encouraged her. At last, one day the girl looked up from a book, awed, even shocked, and said, “When I read, I get pictures in my mind. Does that happen to you?” This, surely, is what it should all be about.

Barbara Else was awarded the 2016 Margaret Mahy Medal for lifetime achievement and services to children’s literature. A review of her latest novel for children, The Knot Impossible, is available in our online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/archive/.

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