This week’s post raised a terrible question. Which is more suitable for a 7-11 readership: a terrific story in which 21st-century human trafficking plays a small but crucial part, another terrific story in which 18th-century child-killing does likewise, or a heartbreaking quartet in which the Holocaust is the central theme? I’d say put off, but don’t be put off, reading Jamila Gavin’s brilliant, sympathetic Robber Baron’s Daughter or spellbinding Coram Boy, or the wonderfully-evoked seventeenth-century quest of The Blood Stone – read and enjoy later, 12+ at least.
So this week’s author of the week isn’t Jamila Gavin after all but Morris Gleitzman, who is billed as Australia’s funniest and best-loved children’s author (read story collections like Pizza Cake and Give Peas a Chance and you’ll see why). He has, to my mind, gifts in common with Frank Cottrell Boyce: the ability to take on a child’s voice and world-view absolutely convincingly, and make sense of the madness (and sometimes madness of the sense) of how grown-ups manage and mismanage things. And it’s not just children: few authors would attempt to get inside the poisonous skin of Australia’s most reviled reptile, the cane toad in search of a sympathetic character as Gleitzman so successfully does in the Toad Rage series.
The Guardian has it about right: “Morris Gleitzman has a rare gift for writing very funny stories, and an even rarer gift of wrapping very serious stories inside them.” Perhaps this first came to light in Two Weeks with the Queen, in which twelve-year-old Colin seeks better treatment for his younger brother, desperately ill with leukaemia, by appealing to the most important person he can think of. My usual library sources let me down and I couldn’t read this in time to post; but from everything else I have read, I think it’s quite safe to pass on the recommendation.
I doubt many other authors could have conjured such a deft, engaging, warm and profound (and scary and funny) account of the financial crisis as Too Small to Fail. At the outset, Oliver’s biggest problems are his miserable maths results, his too-busy banker parents and the fact that those parents won’t let him buy the puppy of his dreams. Then an apparently-friendly lady buys the puppy, and suddenly Oliver finds he has a week to raise eleven thousand dollars – and his parents don’t even seem to be listening to him any more. Soon it’s not only Oliver, his parents and Barclay the puppy who are in trouble but also sixteen camels and an angry little girl; and it’s Oliver who has to learn some hard lessons, before his parents, of the consequences of misinvesting someone’s life savings, and who will make the decision to right a few wrongs.
Grace is a story that doesn’t seem to have many nuggets of humour: a family torn apart by an unforgiving sect – but humour there is, in Grace’s sharp observations of the supposed pieties around her (as with “Mr Gosper, who reckoned speed limits were only for sinners”) and the ghastly assurance of her friend Delilah (“You are so going to be smitten by wrath”). Grace believes that she is being expelled from her strict school on the basis of a misjudged school project, only to realise the more serious truth: her father is being expelled from their church, sacked from his job and denied access to his wife and children for daring to believe in a God who values love and honest questioning over arrogant certainties and presumptuous judgement. If that sounds to be in any way a cheap crack at religion in general, it’s not so – but as a plea for openness, understanding, tolerance and courage in the face of hypocrisy, manipulation and self-serving lies, it has a magnificent heroine in Grace and corresponding hero in her father.
If it’s hard to find the humour in Grace’s situation, where to begin with Felix, hero of Once, Then, Now and After? Perhaps humour is the wrong word: this is a story that would make unbearable reading if it weren’t for Felix’ spirit and determination that he will see his parents again… Felix being the son of two Jewish booksellers. In Nazi-occupied Poland. In 1943. Felix’ one unlikely survival skill is telling stories – the sort of stories that will prevent the bullies at his orphanage from terrorising a new boy; the sort that will persuade an orphaned six-year-old to walk across the countryside to safety in bedroom slippers; the sort that will comfort a cellar full of hidden children; the sort that will distract a ghetto dentist’s patients when there is no anaesthetic to be had, and above all the sort that will sustain impossible hope in Felix himself.
As well as stories, there is always luck and unlikely kindness. In Then, it is the farmer’s wife Genia who takes Felix and Zelda in at unimaginable risk; in After, Genia’s husband Gabriek and the partisan fighter Yuli. Luck, kindness and stories to offset the persistent horror, neither indulged-in nor trivialised.
Now brings the story brilliantly to the present-day, with Felix long retired and adored by his granddaughter Zelda in Australia. The idyllic picture is all surface: Zelda is being bullied, and struggling with feelings of inadequacy and guilt, while Felix can’t ever be entirely free of his wartime demons. It takes a catastrophic bushfire to bring about an unlikely resolution… As with all of the Felix stories, Now combines gripping storytelling, an utterly convincing voice and huge heart. They are books that you’ll easily read in a sitting, then carry with you long after you’ve set them down.
You’ll find sample chapters of all Morris Gleitzman’s books, to read online and with audio too, at www.morrisgleitzman.com/books/fst_books.html