It seems that the days of light, Harry Potter-style fantasy are receding, as children’s books concern themselves with darker matters. The recession, drugs and ecological, financial and global problems are the order of the day, with not a twinkly wizard in sight. It isn’t possible to simply wave a wand and solve everything. Such is the way of the world.
The first of these ‘recession kid-lit’ books is Melvin Burgess’s The Hit. An insane band of fanatics called the Zealots are prepared to immolate themselves to make a point, in a near-future Britain where the recession has lasted for twenty years and the gulf between rich and poor is vast. To complicate things, a drug called Death hits the streets: take it and you’ll experience a week of the most euphoric bliss. The downside is that you’ll then die. This is a brutal book, bloody (especially towards women) and unbelievable in its depiction of the extremity of belief; yet the questions it asks are bold. Burgess taps into the strange vanity of adolescence, which sees your life as both limitless and more important than anyone else’s. Teen readers will be left breathless.
More gentle, but still puzzling over troubling economic problems, is Gillian Cross’s After Tomorrow. Much less nihilistic than Burgess, Cross describes a Britain where food is scarce and families are targeted for hoarding; thousands flee to France, where they experience the constraints and travails of refugees. Cross, a clear, intelligent writer, demonstrates the quiet power of work and the pleasures of community; her hero mends bicycles and deals with the horrors thrown his way with touching stoicism. Those aged nine and up will find much to enjoy.
The apocalypse as seen in Piers Torday’s The Last Wild is scientific rather than financial, but privations still ensue, as the populace is trammelled into sterile glass camps where they are force-fed a disgusting ‘formula’. Outside is off-limits, since most of the animals have been killed by a mysterious disease. One of the imprisoned boys makes a break for it; he has the ability to communicate with beasts, and they ask him to save them. Torday’s background is in television, and it shows, with confrontations and incidents happening on cue; but his love of nature and the humorously detailed conversations of the animals will thoroughly engage.
Also mixing science with magic is Audrey Niffenegger’s picture book, Raven Girl, written in order to provide a scenario for a ballet. Niffenegger’s illustrations are weird and haunting, giving an unearthly sheen to her fable, which sees a postman fall in love with a raven. Their unlikely child is the Raven Girl, human in shape but bird in mind. Ultimately about adolescent identity, it lacks the charm of the fairy stories it wishes to emulate; however, its quirkiness and body horror lend it a fascination that both children and adults will appreciate.
Set in a quasi-Victorian world, Terence Blacker’s The Twyning explores the deprivations of another time. Its hero, born into gentility, is, alas, a bastard, and he is thrown out to live, literally, in a dump. He too can communicate with animals, in a more sophisticated manner than Piers Torday’s hero. Blacker’s innovation is to splice this story with the narrative of a rat, whose world is shown to be as cultivated as that of the humans who desire to eliminate this vermin. Clever and beautifully written, it avoids the obvious, delivering a subtle evocation of the need for harmony between all forms of life.
Mary Hooper’s superb The Disgrace of Kitty Grey is also set in the past. It is a graceful, moving study of a Regency country girl’s determination in the face of all vicissitudes. Hooper is a wise and charming writer: the effete playfulness of the aristocracy, who use a cow in their tableaux, is contrasted with the lot of those who have to work; when the heroine has to leave her sheltered life, London appears in all its smelly, villainous glory. And happiness is allowed a look-in, as love and decency prevail. Girls over 12 will love this (and boys – I admit to having a tear in my eye at the end, and I’m a lot older than 12).
Strictly political, and set in the present, is William Sutcliffe’s The Wall. Sutcliffe is adept at writing about young people: both New Boy and Are You Experienced? wittily and sharply explored sexuality and the growing self. This book concerns a boy who lives in an Israeli settlement; on the other side of the titular wall are the Palestinians. There is much scope here for sentimentality and the triumph of the human spirit, and so on, but Sutcliffe refreshingly steers away from that, presenting instead a nuanced yet readable account of the boy’s feelings for those ‘others’ whom he wishes to help in the face of the hideous machinery of adulthood. This is a heartfelt plea for understanding and dialogue – and, blissfully, it’s not too heavy-handed with its symbolism, using an olive grove deftly to show how man can create and destroy.
Another straightforward fantasy is still encroached upon by power and money: F E Higgins’s The Phenomenals: A Tangle of Traitors deserves the highest plaudits just for its range of vocabulary. Latin and Greek derivations abound: hence the ‘lucent moon’, the ‘flocculent blue and gold curtains’ and ‘supermundane entities’. The plot will hook those aged nine and up, with its charming thieves, living corpses, alliteratively named characters, severed hands and a beautiful, falsely accused heiress at the mercy of her power-crazed uncle. It’s as intricate and intriguing as a finely made piece of clockwork.