Wednesday 24 January 2018

Turning the page on a new world for children

This year's Children's Book Award shortlist shows quality and diversity is alive in this genre, says Amanda Piesse

Amanda Piesse

In an essay in Inis magazine in 2002, children's author Gerard Whelan wrote that Irish children's literature "has spent the better part of two decades expanding its range of possibility at a sometimes explosive rate, and has reached a point where it is, collectively, presenting to Irish children a complex, humane and broadminded version of their own world".

While at the end of the 20th Century, Emer O'Sullivan had suggested that Irish books for children were beginning to reflect "a time of great change in traditional notions of Irish identity, with Ireland undergoing a radical process of liberalisation and modernisation", Aine Nic Gabhainn argued, in a 2004 essay, that such a movement was coming good -- that "a broader perspective has entered children's literature, intimating changes in attitude towards children" and that "identity is being portrayed in more global terms".

This point has been developed by Nancy Watson, whose 2009 book, The Politics and Poetics of Irish Children's Literature avows that Irish writing for children has had an essential, often leading, part to play both in the nation's reconsideration of its own history and society and the ways in which it tells the stories, offering "a perspective that allows us to see our unquestioned cultural assumptions through new eyes".

It's not difficult to test these ideas about the general direction of Irish children's writing against the most familiar names in the area over the past 25 years or so. Marita Conlon-McKenna's famine trilogy, Siobhan Parkinson's provocative experiments with the form of the novel across a range of subjects, Mark O'Sullivan's interrogations of historical and social self-understanding, Kate Thompson's imaginative accounts of futuristic and mythically reflective ways of being, and Conor Kostick's engagement with role playing and virtual worlds as a means to social understanding -- all are main players in this first wave of expansion which bear out the comments made above.

Alongside the novel form, Niamh Sharkey, PJ Lynch and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick continue to break new ground in the production of picturebooks and illustration, enriching and producing new perspectives on retellings of old stories and stretching the limits of what the picture book can do to diversify ways of seeing.

If this year's Irish Book Awards shortlist is anything to go by, predictions of change in attitude towards childhood and a diversity of writing and illustration continue to come good. Tacitly acknowledging the diversity that the first 16 or so years of life encompasses, there are two separate sections for children's writing, eight and below and nine and above, and one of the books from the older group also features in a non-junior category.

That three of the four books in the younger group are picture books speaks more to the diversity of that genre than it does to the homogeneity of the readership, I think, while the fourth, Kate Thompson's Highway Robbery, is so richly illustrated and carefully produced that the reader can't help but consider the book in its entirety -- we're clearly being presented with book-as-artefact, part and parcel of our consideration of this book as pseudo-historical.

The shortlist for this younger group clearly acknowledges that the picture book and the carefully produced illustrated text can speak to a broad range of interests.

Benji Bennett's Before you Sleep, illustrated by Roxanne Burchartz, is clearly a read-aloud book. It uses rhyming couplets reminiscent of birthday-card messages and busy, bright Disney-like cartoons to recount vivid, happy moments, both real and imagined, shared between the man and the child in the text before both parents tuck the child up for a good night's sleep. In among the busy images and the narrative rhyme, a single line of text articulates the parent's love for the child.

The book suggests that the very small child's experiences are intense; the nature of the rhymes and the images also reflects the very small child's participation in a rather commercialised, branded sort of a world. Roddy Doyle's Her Mother's Face, illustrated by Freya Blackwood, acknowledges the older child's perspective by having its main character, Siobhan, grow into an understanding of her dead mother's character through a piece-by-piece assimilation of clues, a series of vivid images built cumulatively through the symbiotic relationship between the prose writing and the illustration, culminating in the recognition of the mother's image within the self.

Oliver Jeffers' Great Paper Caper contains a problem to be solved, with the reader offered more clues than the characters in the book, illustrations speaking silently on the occasional text-free page, with ingenious suggestions for uses to which the paper dustjacket can be put, inviting literal reader participation in the ecological message at the heart of the text.

Kate Thompson's Highway Robbery evokes a time and a place not only by the story within the text but in terms of cover and typeface too, and the twist at the end of the tale leads the alert reader to consider how stories can at once engage and betray, and indeed to reconsider the nuances of the title within the framework of the narrative once the book is finished. It's clear from this group that books for younger readers can entertain, be beautiful, engage active thinking about difficult questions and make suggestions about the nature of reading and understanding all at the same time. Whatever level the reader is at -- and I include the person who's reading aloud to a non-reader -- this category of books declares itself robust enough to provoke and provide both interrogation and reflection on what it is to be in the world and to communicate oneself.

The range in the books for the older group is wider still, and if one considers the extreme changes that take place in a young person's life from eight to 16, that's hardly surprising. Interestingly, each of the four shortlisted texts is part of a series, reflecting the increasing trend towards serial publication.

Judi Curtin's Alice and Megan Forever is the sixth in a series documenting Alice and Megan's friendship. Here, the fundamental, practical, familiar issues of starting secondary school, being separated from friends, needing to make autonomous decisions about new friendships and the continuous negotiation of self in reference to family sit alongside the more serious contemporary issues of domestic violence, bullying and the role of text messaging in the making, breaking and manipulation of relationships. The accessible tone and cheerfully simple illustrations provide the younger section of this older age group a carefully protected introit to the beginning of the end of childhood.

Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing With Fire, second in its series (the third was released on April 6), has a protagonist much the same age as Curtin's Alice and Megan, but the supernatural/fantastical nature of the text and the fact that young Valkyrie Cain is the sidekick of the older Skulduggery allows for a more sophisticated dialogue. An at times alarmingly explicit violence is undercut by the fantastical nature of the characters, the cathartic ironic wit of the dialogue and the idea that the violent confrontations are all in the service of the greater good.

Putting verbal wit and principle-driven violence side by side in this way allows these darker explorations of what's justifiable in pursuit of the good to be explored more explicitly. Michael Scott's The Magician: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel continues where his The Alchemyst left off, and while it deals again with the fundamental manifestations of the struggle between the Light and the Dark, at the same time it engages a huge range of figures from historical renaissance politicians and magicians to a representative from every world myth there is for a mise-en-scene that also leaves the reader with a pretty good working knowledge of the geography of Paris, both above and below ground.

The culmination of years of thinking and writing about the relative relationships of history myth to modern society, Celine Kiernan's The Poison Throne promises to be the first in a series of three books, and engages her readers in a carefully-realised semi-fantastical adventure fraught with familial and political tensions and a graphic violence that is never gratuitous but more a release of the emotional tensions generated by the novel's main themes.

Every book on this list (bar one, in my humble opinion) measures up to publisher Michael O'Brien's 2003 statement that "the quality of the writing is the single most important thing". What the list shows, however, is a broadening of perspective, and a change in attitude concerning what, and why, children read. There's a real acknowledgement here of an ability on the part of the reader to think, to contextualise, to align a text within or against a social context. Whether or not Ireland has achieved its "radical process of liberalisation and modernisation", the choices that the Irish Book Awards identify for its young readers, in terms of both quality and diversity, is helping that along.

Amanda Piesse lectures in children's literature at Trinity College, Dublin

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