Book power of Scotland

Don’t tell me, don’t tell me you’re over Scotland. Six weeks back, it was all rather exciting and briefly scary (I couldn’t vote, but you can doubtless imagine how I would’ve); and then the collective sigh of relief and brief wonderment that, actually, you can have massive political engagement and nearly 90% poll turnout if there’s an issue perceived to be worth voting for; not to mention that 16-17 year olds are quite capable of being at least as engaged and thoughtful, and a good deal less predictable, than their elders (why did we ever doubt it?).

Suddenly, both sides of the debate were hugely aware of Scots’ achievement and contribution in a way that had been confined, for years, to souvenir tea-towels: the originators of paper money, steam power, telephone and television and many more besides were either well capable of forging a proud new nation or perfect examples of a very comfortable trans-national symbiosis. (What it took to be considered a true Scot was another matter: J K Rowling was cheerfully adopted, with numberless Edinburgh walking tours diverting to point out the Elephant House café in which Harry Potter was committed to the page and the pantheon, only for Rowling’s pro-union stance and significant financial contribution to meet with outrage and ordure.) Pro-nationalists invoked Burns, while unionists recalled Scott; I suspect more of the nationalists had at least read the key texts of their literary figurehead.

The whole mad, brave, feckless, fearful, spiteful, bitter, hopeful endeavour had me thinking: Burns and Scott are all very fine, but what about Scottish authors for children, who and where are they? At first glance, it’s a pat-on-the-back, plucky-Scots-punching-above-their-weight story all over again: in the dozen or so enduring children’s classics of all time and around the world, among the predominant British English titles, you’ll surely find Treasure Island and Peter Pan. “Written in Scotland” conveniently brings Harry Potter into the fold… oh, aren’t we clever, people? (Actually if I were, personally, a small nation and had given the world Treasure Island alone, I’d feel pretty cocky, having not only produced a superb piece of storytelling, but also gone some way to founding the whole genre of children’s adventure stories, not to mention discovering the unlikely mother lode of piracy as an ever-rich story source. Think of it: without Stevenson, pirates might yet be grim, grimy, desperate, unromantic, un-picturesque ship-jackers and you might never have to see another four-year-old in an eyepatch and a silly hat; your life would be the poorer for it, believe me.)

Arguably, the native Scot who contributed most to children’s literature in the last hundred years is not even remembered as an author: Andrew Carnegie, once a poor emigrant from Fife and at the height of his career the second-richest man in the USA if not the world, used his vast fortune to fund over 2,500 public libraries in the US, Britain and worldwide. Ten years after his death, fully half of the public libraries in America had been established with Carnegie funding. Our own Hammersmith library is a Carnegie library, and the Carnegie medal for children’s literature, generally reckoned the highest accolade in Britain for children’s books, was established in his name. A full list of winners ( over the last eighty years is consistently starry but by no means populist: you’ll find Arthur Ransome, C S Lewis and Philip Pullman amongst past winners, and recently and more grittily Sally Gardner and Patrick Ness, but no Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl or even Michael Morpurgo (although four times shortlisted). The winner is chosen by librarians, with a lively “Carnegie shadowing” process operating in a growing number of secondary schools.

As both a Scot and a librarian, Theresa Breslin must have seemed a particularly fitting Carnegie winner in 1994 for Whispers in the Graveyard, a taut supernatural thriller given extra edge by its unlikely hero, Solomon, picked on at school and torn apart at home by his alcoholic father and absent mother. His place of refuge is the old graveyard – until council works uproot the rowan tree that wards off evil, and Solomon begins to understand the kirkyard’s far from peaceful history, and hear its sinister voices, and understand its still-potent dangers. In order to loose the intricate narrative knot, Solomon needs to understand his father’s secret, and be understood in turn by an unconventional teacher, and think and act quickly to stem the malice from the graveyard before it claims further lives… Breslin brings the immemorial unquiet-ghost story together with an acute eye and ear for contemporary breakdown, and the result is compelling and unexpectedly uplifting.

Whispers in the Graveyard
was Breslin’s fourth published book, and no-one can accuse her of resting on her laurels since: almost thirty have followed, many of which bring to bear a rare breadth of historical understanding and vivid empathy, whether in opulent sixteenth-century Florence or hardscrabble 1930s Canada. In this centenary year, two in particular stand out: the haunting Remembrance and haunted Ghost Soldier. Remembrance, one of her most admired books, was written over a decade ago and well ahead of the First World War centenary rush, and its approach seems more that of an adult novel, following not a single protagonist but five very different characters from two families in the Scottish borders. Charlotte and Francis Armstrong-Barnes represent the gilded youth, with pretty Charlotte quietly rebelling against the preordained round of charity functions to train as a nurse, and bookish Francis deeply uneasy with the patriotic fervour and propaganda that surrounds them. Normally the shopkeeper’s children John Malcolm, Maggie and Alex would barely inhabit the same universe, but the war draws first Charlotte and idealistic John Malcolm together, and then, in the wake of tragedy, a conflicted Francis and an ever more understanding Maggie; and younger brother Alex has his own secret, desperate war plan… It seems at first that there are almost too many enormous themes for one book to contain, as the Armstrong-Barneses adapt (some better than others) to the new social realities, and Maggie chafes against the middle-class patriarchy, and the girls progressively learn the far-from-niceties of wartime nursing, and both families become aware of the terrible mismatch between propaganda and the real toll of war; but from the mayfly lightness of Charlotte and John Malcolm’s relationship, there follows the more complex, more sombre, more damaged and more lasting bond between Maggie and Francis, the moral and emotional heart of the book, awkward and honest and funny and touching, close to heartbreaking and finally exhilarating.

Ghost Soldier
returns to the First World War, in the midst of the centenary rush but with such originality that it commands attention: this is the First World War as experienced by two country children, very far from the front line, yet deeply involved as the story opens with their father missing in action and their mother drowning in depression. Let no-one underestimate the ingenuity of a determined twelve-year-old boy: with the help of a classmate, Kenneth the signalman’s son, Rob discovers the timings of the hospital trains to Edinburgh and takes advantage of an unscheduled halt to board the train and try to find news of his father. Needless to say, the plan unravels and Rob and Millie soon learn far more about the horrors of the front line than any child should; yet, in fear and under pressure, they make friends with a sympathetic nurse and officer, and with two shell-shocked privates. Then  Rob and Millie are drawn into a new mystery as the village’s big house, abandoned and rumoured to be haunted, is opened up as a military hospital; yet why is the attic floor out of bounds, why do lorries make deliveries in the middle of the night and who is the shadowy figure that appears at the last window? The stories are deftly combined, with the intellectual pull of a period thriller, but with real depth and heart and understanding too.

Carmen Reid is, principally, an author for adults and young adults, marketed in the main with a pastel and girly sheen, you know the thing… except for the remarkable Cross My Heart, set in occupied Brussels during the Second World War. The grit, drab and gnawing hunger of life under occupation are entirely convincing – as is the full range of human response, from willing collaboration through fearful compliance, sullen defiance and outright resistance at terrible cost. After her father is seized by the Gestapo, fifteen-year-old Nicole knows that any gesture against the Nazis risks not only her own safety but also heartbreak for her beloved mother and grandmother; and yet with her friend Anton she is drawn into a Resistance cell, becoming more and more drawn to Anton as she is more involved in operations, and confronted with ever more shocking choices: not only the danger to her immediate family, but the taking part in acts of sabotage that will, inevitably, harm civilians as well as their Third Reich targets. And then one humane gesture goes horribly wrong…  For Reid, this is a deeply personal story as her grandparents were both English and German, on opposing sides in the war; a moving afterword recalls the sense of displacement and betrayal on learning about the Second World War and the Holocaust in a British school context, and the impossibility of recognising black-and-white good and evil in the German family and friends she knew. She has created a burning bright heroine in Nicole, passionate and committed yet all too aware of her lapses and moral compromises; but the range of lesser characters also gives Cross My Heart real depth, from the forlorn German farm boy Stapie on sentry duty in the street, to the gentle, unquestioning Pastor Becker who cares for a starving, filthy fugitive without question: “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.” [Rather excitingly, I believe I was at school with Carmen Reid – the same school Anne Fine told me it was all right to loathe, although I can assure you Carmen was one of the nicer elements. Carmen, if you’re reading this, I hope I’ve done you credit and I am really quite jealous…]

Julia Donaldson, now there’s someone you wouldn’t normally go to for grit: the beloved author of The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Stick Man – and longtime adoptive Scot – writing about runaway schoolgirls on the streets of Glasgow? When Leo’s musician parents are killed in a plane crash, she is taken in by her aunt in Bristol; but her cousins are less than welcoming, and there is something decidedly creepy about her uncle John. In desperation, Leo heads for Glasgow in the hope of finding her estranged Chinese grandparents; but all she has to go on is a surname, and she soon finds that there are plenty of unrelated Chans in the city. As her running-away money starts to run short, Leo swipes a bag of doughnuts from the market stall that hapless paperboy Finlay is minding, and is taken in by generous, eccentric Mary and her rackety friends, bringing together the misfits and merely misunderstood, and making the first all-important steps to contact with her Glasgow Chinese family. It’s a fragile enough refuge, but it will do until Uncle John follows her trail to Glasgow, and Mary stops taking her medication… There’s not much that’s cute and fluffy in Running on the Cracks, and it’s certainly not Mary’s overindulged cats or her friend Ronnie’s liability of a dog, Zigger, but there is a cracking, atmospheric thriller written with great heart and understanding. All credit to Donaldson for her wonderful picture books, and also for the excellent Songbirds series, proof positive that phonics-based learning need not be drab and unimaginative; but I do hope that she will be inspired again to write for older readers.

As a storyteller, Julia Donaldson is both an original and a magpie (or should that be a bowerbird?), appropriating stories from Europe and the world and making them magnificently her own: who knew that the Gruffalo first drew on a Chinese fable? With apologies for straining the metaphor, Lari Don is another story-magpie-bowerbird: all credit to the resident nine-year-old for picking up the Bloomsbury collection Girls, Goddesses and Giants, clamouring for its successor Winter’s Tales and so putting us on to Breaking the Spell and the delicious First Aid for Fairies series. Breaking the Spell brings together Scottish folktales both classic (Tam Lin) and less well-known (the endearing Monster of Raasay), retold with zest and wit. First Aid for Fairies more than lives up to the quirky promise of its title: Heaven knows there are plenty of by-numbers stories and series about ordinary children’s encounters with the mythical world, straining hopelessly for the magic of E Nesbit and C S Lewis, but Don snaps them into quite a new shape by having a wounded centaur call in desperation on a vet’s daughter for help. Helen is as reluctant a healer as pride-wounded Yann is a patient, but her care of Yann leads her into more fantastical encounters with Rona the seal girl, Sapphire the dragon and Lavender the engagingly awkward fairy, and into a quest which is somehow the more likeable for not just being about good or evil controlling the world as we know it, but also occasioned by a bunch of kids – however otherworldy – mucking about and getting out of their depth. Don ingeniously balances the real (true-life vet procedure, worried parents, being gated) with the fantastical and especially the rich grain of Scottish legend and heritage, fiddle music, selkies and standing stones. There’s even a sly dig at certain colourful fairies-of-the-moment on page 73, which had this reader snorting with sorry-I-can’t-explain laughter in a public place, as I recall Victoria Station in the rush hour…

Robe of Skulls_83618
A final piece of delicious fantasy from another adoptive Scot – Vivian French, longstanding tutor at Edinburgh College of Art and author of many and many picture books and early chapter books, generally characterised by warmth, vivid imagination, a little bit of anarchy and some irrepressible illustration. (Be aware that to achieve this within the constraints of an early reader format takes immense craft and skill: the fewer the words, the greater the challenge.) Perhaps I am over-interpreting, but The Robe of Skulls and sequels have the feel of a writer, free of approved wordlists and word counts, having immense fun – as endorsed by fellow authors Philip Ardagh and Annie Dalton, by children’s literature consultant Wendy Cooling and plenty of enthralled, actual children. The result is hilarious and addictive, full of wish-I’d-thought-of-that characters: the imperious but cash-strapped sorceress; the wisecracking talking bat; the scruffy but good-hearted younger prince; the glacially ghastly stepsister; the actually rather cosy Ancient Crones, and in the midst of them the sweet-natured orphan Gracie Gillypot, finally free of her tyrannous stepfamily and surely due more than a little good luck. There’s a plot like a loveable, high-spirited, badly-trained pony, seeming to trot off all meekly in one direction only to gallop away in another entirely; though of course we all get home safely in the end. Personally, I also cheered at the idea of Very Bad People not just being vaporised or conveniently crisped, but earning redemption through a fair few years of creative (if rather ill-tempered) weaving.

Back to politics, and in contemporary Scottish children’s authors how did we end up with, so to speak, an all-female shortlist? I promise it’s not just personal bias – in the Scottish Children’s Writers list you’ll find a mix of around 3:1 women to men amongst contemporary authors. I know I’ve wilfully neglected Alexander McCall Smith in this round-up, having included his engaging books for younger readers in an earlier post, and passed over Scoular Anderson who is much loved in this household as author and illustrator of irreverent Scottish history; but if you’re still reading by now, you’ll agree that I’ve blethered on enough as it is. Unjustly neglected male Scottish children’s authors, or representatives or apologists for same, please do get in touch and I promise to make amends. All other readers, please do make the effort to discover authors who are on various levels Scottish but, more importantly, in imaginative reach, storytelling craft and sheer heart are at the top of their game.

Oh and as a postscript, I can tell you that Maggie Midge is by far my favourite literary contribution to the independence debate, and well worth looking out. Never thought that I would love a midge!


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