A Week in Books: This autumn's fiction for young readers does look outstandingly rich
Friday 02 September 2005
A (very) few merit all their fame and praise. Mark Haddon's Christopher Boone will surely endure long after the Swindon suburbs he flees have crumbled into brownfield dust. Others will fade fast, their burst of literary glory a curious incident that looks stranger with every passing year. Yes, Vernon God Little, we do mean you.
Meanwhile, actual young readers now make do with much more grown-up fare. This is more than a matter of theme. Certainly, the boldest authors of teenage fiction trash every taboo and imagine every nightmare. To take a few - recommended - examples from this season's shelves: Melvin Burgess paints a ruined London torn by post-apocalyptic terrorism in Bloodsong (Andersen); Malorie Blackman dissects the motives of a suicide bomber amid a racial war in Checkmate (Doubleday); and Geraldine McCaughrean sends her grieving heroine into a deadly reverie of polar sacrifice in The White Darkness (Oxford).
Yet tone, and voice, matter just as much. The finest teenage fiction profits from a many-sided narration that sounds immeasurably more - well, "adult" - than the whiny monologues we now hear in oversold novels about children and their lives. So a story such as Aidan Chambers's remarkable This is All: the Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn (Bodley Head) might never make much of a splash in today's grown-up marketplace. It simply shows us too many facets and angles, too many glimpses of other minds and other worlds, to please the sort of sentimentalist who thrills to the bad-seed posturing of Master Little and pals.
Perhaps this paradox has always been in force. Intelligent younger readers will want to grow up; exhausted older ones to grow down - at least for a few consoling hours. What's new is that so many adults now rush to escape not into happy but unhappy childhoods. Young life now looks not merely like a foreign land, but dangerous terrain as well. Violence, separation, abuse or addiction may lurk behind its every tree. And so grown-ups will need a guide who speaks its baffling patois. Hence, perhaps, the assumption that troubled young narrators in books designed for adult readers - or even as "crossover" titles - have to speak in a mannered or eccentric register. They are our native informants in a place of perils.
Good novels for children seldom bother with such show-off feats of ventriloquism. They adopt a normal, not an exaggerated idiom, and appeal instead to character, plot, action, emotion - all those far from childish things. This autumn's delivery of fiction for young readers does look outstandingly rich, so I make no apology for signalling two more of its brightest highlights.
Writing (mainly) for pre-teen readers, both Helen Dunmore in the compellingly lyrical Ingo (HarperCollins) and Frank Cottrell Boyce in the ingeniously comic Framed (Macmillan) show how to create young narrators who speak in a unique tone without resort to linguistic trickery. Even extremely mature readers could do worse than relish these books, and leave silly voices to the kind of gimmick-hungry author who thinks that you can conjure up the feelings of youth just by swallowing a dictionary of slang. Minging, innit.
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