Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Out of the shadows of 'children's books'

'You must write for children in the same way as you write for adults, only better.'

I couldn't help thinking of this famous quote by Maxim Gorky while reading Jason Wallace's Out of Shadows, winner of the 2010 Costa Children's Book Award and shortlisted for the prestigous Carnegie Medal 2011. Especially in the light of Martin Amis's arrogant remark in a recent interview that if he had 'a serious brain injury' he might well consider writing a children's book (

Of course Amis was duly taken on by some well-known authors of children's fiction. But unfortunately his words confirmed the lingering suspicion among many readers that you have to write 'down' when you write for children. That it's somehow 'easier' to write for children or teenagers - and that these authors therefore deserve less respect than their colleagues who write for grown-ups.

From my personal experience of writing for adults and for children, I know just how wrong these assumptions can be. Yes, there is a difference between writing for children and for adults, just as there is a difference between writing poems and novels, or plays and short stories. But this does not mean that writing poems is easier than writing novels, does it?

As far as I know the Nobel Prize has never been awarded to someone who writes exclusively for children or teenagers - and we'll probably have to wait for that happy day before children's fiction finally gets the respect it deserves - but many a worthy Nobel Prize winner has also written for children. The French laureate JMG le Clezio  is a good example - and I wouldn't dare call him brain damaged.    

The test of a good children's book has always been that it could be read and enjoyed by all ages. In fact, a really good children's book should be read by all ages. Think Alice in Wonderland, The Little Prince, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird and many, many more.

Jason Wallace's intriguing debut novel definitely passes this test - which is why I'm almost sorry that the cover mentions the Costa Children's Book Award so boldly. Some potential adult readers might be put off by the knowledge that it was actually written for teenagers. And that would be a real pity. Out of Shadows is an initiation novel about a British boy's adolescent years in an expensive private boarding school in 1980's Zimbabwe - but it is much more than just another boarding school story.  The events begin shortly after Robert Mugabe has become the first black leader of the former Rhodesia, a Prime Minister deeply detested by most of the mainly white boys at Haven School. Their privileged families - and quite a few of their teachers, almost all of them still white - share their mistrust. The 15-year-long 'bush war' has left deep scars on both sides, black and white.

But Robert Jacklin's father is an optimistic believer in liberty and equality, a dreamer who has brought his unwilling wife and son from England to start a new life in a new non-racist country. Very soon Robert, desperate to be accepted by the other boys, learns to hide and betray his father's beliefs. He is especially keen to befriend  the leader of the group, Ivan Hascott, a cunning boy willing to go to any extreme to 'save' his country from the blacks.

The book reads like a thriller, short chapters full of action and horror, as you watch Robert fall under Ivan's spell, being drawn deeper and deeper into an abyss of bigotry and senseless cruelty. The malicious pecking order of 'good' traditional boys' boarding schools is brilliantly depicted, the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest. By the time Robert reaches his last school year, he has become 'one of the boys', consciously losing his British accent, using the same slang and racist terms as his chums, even joining in the sadistic 'games' they play with children from the black village.

But then Robert Mugabe visits Haven School for the official opening of a new building named after him, and Robert Jacklin realises that Ivan has been hatching a deadly serious plan all along, a fanatic final attempt to change the course of history...

Of course the reader knows that Mugabe wasn't assassinated in 1987 - that he is still in power more than thirty years later, a stubborn dictator seemingly hellbent on destroying his country - but this is not where the real tension of the story lies. Wallace concentrates on the internal tension of a teenager being torn apart by conflicting feelings of loyalty and morality and the need to belong. Out of Shadows is a story about black people and white people, but it is never told in a simplified black and white way.

On the contrary, it leaves readers - of all ages - with the distinct feeling that life remains full of grey areas. Sorry, Martin Amis, but this is certainly not the kind of story a brain injured person would write.

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