Tag Archives: YA Literature

Philip Pullman's Secret Commonwealth

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth (David Fickling Books 2019)

This is the fifth book featuring Philip Pullman’s wonderful Lyra Silvertongue (or Belacqua, take your pick). There was the His Dark Materials trilogy, which I loved to pieces, and which gave rise to a play, a movie and now, I’ve just discovered, a television series (click here for the IMDB entry). Then there was a small book, Lyra’s Oxford, which I missed. And now a second trilogy, The Book of Dust, of which the first book, La Belle Sauvage, was a prequel to the first trilogy and featured Lyla as a baby. The Secret Commonwealth leaps forward a couple of decades, and features events that take place some years after the end of the first trilogy, when Lyra is a twenty-year-old university student.

I wasn’t swept away by La Belle Sauvage (my blog post here). At least in the second part, it felt like a lot of colour and movement and not much interesting by way of plot or character development. The Secret Commonwealth is back on track. At the beginning, Lyla, now a student at Oxford, is at odds with her daemon Pantaleimon. For those who came in late (which I really don’t recommend: start with Northern Lights aka The Golden Compass), in this world a daemon is an animal who is somehow part of a human being. Daemons have names, they change shape frequently when their human is young but settle into a permanent creature around puberty. A daemon generally represents some essential element of its human’s character. To be separated from your daemon is extremely distressing, and most people don’t believe it is possible. To be quarrelling with him or her, as Lyla is when this book begins, is deeply disturbing.

So we’re off to a complex start. Lyla’s difficulty with Panteleimon is central to her personal life, but there are huge issues to deal with in the rest of the world. A version of the Catholic Church wields tremendous power, and though we are more or less in the present day it’s as if the Inquisition is alive and well. Organised religion, militant atheism, postmodern truthysim, religiously inspired terrorism all feature, in a plot of almost Le-Carré-esque complexity as we follow the separate adventures of Lyla, Pantaleimon and Malcolm Polstead, who is in undeclared love with Lyla, all of them being pursued by a fantasy version of the surveillance state.

Where His Dark Materials was intended primarily for a pre-teen or young teenage readership, this is definitely for older readers. I didn’t feel like an intruder as a 73 year old, but that’s not exactly what I mean. There’s some fruity swearing, and there’s one powerful scene of sexually-motivated violence that take it right out of the children’s section into the YA.

I remember how agonising it was to wait for the third book in the His Dark Materials trilogy – would Will really kill the Authority, and since the Authority seemed to be a name for the Judaeo-Christian God, what would that mean? The Secret Commonwealth, like all good second books in trilogies, also ends with a cliffhanger. Will the characters find each other, will they discover the secret behind the Men from the Mountains, fundamentalist terrorists, will Lyra escape the men who have tracked her down to the deserted village in southern Turkey, will the world be saved? But this time, without in any way implying that the book didn’t have me in its thrall the whole time, I can wait.

Sue Lawson’s Freedom Ride

Sue Lawson, Freedom Ride (Walker Books Australia 2016)


This is a YA novel, that is to say, a novel intended for young teenagers. Fifteen-year-old Robbie Bowers lives with his bank-employee father and his grandmother in the tiny fictional New South Wales town of Walgaree. (One can’t help but notice that this sounds like a portmanteau of Walgett and Moree.) Robbie’s a frequent target for the school bully and his cronies, and home is no refuge. His grandmother is prim, humourless and authoritarian, a terrible cook with nasty gossiping friends. His father is hardly any better, having come back to live with his mother after losing his wife when Robbie was a baby. The stage is set for a coming of age story, in which Robbie must find a way to independence of spirit, connection with some decent people, and perhaps even a little happiness.

Things play out as expected. Robbie is befriended by the young man who has come home from London to take over the caravan park after his father died. Robbie accidentally unearths some family secrets and lies, exposes his father and grandmother and their friends as terrible people, and ends up with the possibility of a new life opening up for him.

At the same time, the novel is about the 1965 Freedom Ride, in which a group of university students led by Charles Perkins hired a bus and travelled through rural New South Wales for two weeks, documenting the living conditions of Aboriginal people and staging protests at, among other things, RSL clubs that excluded Aboriginal veterans and swimming pools that banned Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children from sharing the pool. The students arrive in Walgaree about four-fifth of the way through the book. In terms of the plot, they don’t do much more than provide a dramatic backdrop for Robbie’s climactic outburst. In fact, in terms of the plot, the terrible racism that is endemic in Walgaree serves mainly as a broader social justification for Robbie’s rebellion against his father and grandmother: they’re not only mean, deceitful, and bad cooks, but they’re unmitigated genocidal racists.

A historical note at the back lists the 37 participant in the Freedom Ride, and links it to the 1967 Referendum, the Land rights Campaign, the setting up of the Tent Embassy and the apology to the Stolen Generations. The book clearly aims to  informs a new generation of readers of a significant moment in Australian history. I think it will do that. However, I have two caveats.

First: even though there’s a language warning in the opening pages, the bruisingly racist dialogue, taken together with the focus on a white boy’s coming of age story while all but one of the Aboriginal  characters are pretty one-dimensional, makes me think it’s a book that should be read alongside something by an Indigenous writer: Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, which I hope to read soon, comes to mind. And there’s a big list of Indigenous Australian YA book here. [Added later: In the comments below, Greenspace01 mentions A Bastard Like Me by Charles Perkins, who led the Freedom Ride and appears as a character in this book.]

And second: there’s not a lot of complexity in the non-Indigenous characters. The racists are all mean-spirited bullies, gossips, who are willing, down to the last one of them, to cover up the most heinous crimes against Aboriginal people, and also they have horrible voices and can’t cook. The ones who take a stand against racism are good looking, warm, generous, and witty. Denouncing your racist family and getting the hell out of there is clearly the only thing to do. Sadly, it’s not always like that in the real world. It’s not that I wanted the book to soften its depiction of racism, but when the lines are drawn as simply as this, the story is unlikely to prompt its non-Indigenous readers to look at their own collusion in, or at best benefiting from, the oppression of Indigenous people.

Freedom Ride is the fourteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014)

browngirl.jpgThis is a memoir in verse written for a mainly YA readership. ‘YA’ stands for ‘Young Adult’, publishing jargon for teenagers, but don’t let that put you off: teenagers get some of the best stuff.

It’s a portrait of the writer as a young woman who is Africa-American. She was born in Ohio in the early 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement features in this narrative as significant backdrop.

___________ we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

After her parents split up she and her two siblings move to Greenville, South Carolina, to live with their grandmother who imposes strict Jehovah’s Witness discipline, then at about the age of seven they rejoin their mother in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where the Witness discipline is relaxed somewhat, and among other things young Jacqueline discovers her vocation as a writer.

There’s something almost miraculous in the way the narrative swings along, one short, self-contained poem at a time. The little girl’s relationships with her mother and grandparents, and even with the father they leave very early in the piece, are finely drawn. Likewise her position in the family: in the shadow of her smarter older sister, concerned for their vulnerable youngest brother, born in Brooklyn, and proud of their quietly achieving middle brother. There’s a lot about the Witnesses and the Civil Rights Movement, and the joys and pressures on children’s inter-racial friendships. When a beloved uncle comes home from gaol as a convert to Islam, the telling provides a tender contradiction to the way such a story would be treated in the mainstream press.

This is from near the end of the book, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler:

the promise land

When my uncle gets out of jail
he isn’t just my uncle anymore, he is
Robert the Muslim and wears
a small black kufi on his head.

And even though we know
we Witnesses are the chosen ones, we listen
to the stories he tells about
a man named Muhammad
and a holy place called Mecca
and the strength of all Black people.

We sit in a circle around him, his hands
moving slow through the air, his voice
calmer and quieter than it was before
he went away.

When he pulls out a small rug to pray on
I kneel beside him, wanting to see
his Mecca
wanting to know the place
he calls the Promise Land.

Look with your heart and your head, he tells me
his own head bowed.
It’s out there in front of you.
You’ll know when you get there.

It’s a terrific book, and the reader falls in love with young Jackie and her family, so it’s a real pleasure to discover the pages of photos of them all up the back.

I feel obliged to mention, though, a shock I had when I read the poem ‘bushwick history lesson’. The first four stanzas begin: ‘Before German mothers wrapped scarves around their heads’, ‘Before the Italian fathers sailed across the ocean’, ‘Before Dominican daughters donned quinceañera/ dresses’, and ‘Before young brown boys in cutoff shorts spun their / first tops’. We are reaching back into the beginnings of this part of the world. But where we get to is: ‘Before any of that, this place was called Boswijk.‘ In the beginning were the Dutch and ‘Franciscus the Negro, a former slave / who bought his freedom.’ For young Jacqueline, this meant that African heritage people had been in Bushwick from the beginning. But for the reader it’s a painful shock all the same to have the pre-colonial past, and the dispossession of Native Americans so thoroughly erased.

To quote Joe E Brown’s character says at the end of Some Like it Hot, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect!’

Jasper Jones at the Book Group

Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones (Allen & Unwin 2009)

The fourth paragraph of Jasper Jones begins:

This is the hottest summer I can remember and the thick heat seems to seep in and keep in my sleepout.

‘Keep in’? That’s awkward, I thought, and it chimes oddly with ‘seep in’ and ‘sleepout’. The paragraph continues:

It’s like the earth’s core in here. The only relief comes from the cooler air that creeps in between the slim slats of my single window. It’s near impossible to sleep …

Seep in, keep in, sleepout, creeps in and sleep, all in five lines: this is definitely odd, but – along with the heat, the relief and those slats, which are slim for no reason other than alliteration – it’s clearly deliberate.

Over the next pages, while the story had my attention from the word go – thirteen year old Charlie Bucktin, the narrator, is woken in the night by the town’s bad boy Jasper Jones and led to a secret place in the bush where he’s faced with a terrible spectacle and an equally terrible dilemma – I had a weather eye out to see if anything would come of this stylistic oddity. Nothing did, in the sense that if you didn’t notice it you weren’t missing a vital clue to the book’s meaning. But Charlie is in love with language, and bursts of assonance and alliteration for their own sake amount to something of a stylistic signature. I did a quick scan before returning the book to the library, and noted, from many examples, ‘a bundle of lonely bones tied to a stone’ (page 123), ‘Pored over it, taking little portions’ (page 128), and this, in one of Charlie’s reflective moments:

Sorry means you feel the pulse of other people’s pain, as well as your own, and saying it means you take a share of it. And so it binds us together, makes us as trodden and sodden as one another. Sorry is a lot of things. It’s a hole refilled. A debt repaid. Sorry is the wake of misdeed. It’s the crippling ripple of consequence. Sorry is sadness, just as knowing is sadness. Sorry is sometimes self-pity. But sorry, really, is not about you. It’s theirs to take or leave.

Like the frequent references to Charlie’s reading – To Kill a Mockingbird, Batman, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which he hasn’t read, but Eiza, the love interest, has, and seen the film), Huckleberry Finn, The Wizard of Oz – this fascination with words is important in establishing Charlie’s character and the tone of the book. It’s been described as an Australian To Kill a Mocking Bird, but I doubt if Harper Lee’s book was anything like as intertextual as this. The description is OK as a sales pitch but I’m surprised that reviewers have echoed it.

Anyhow, it’s a terrific, fast moving, undemanding read: a coming-of-age romance cum mystery cum homage to Mark Twain cum historical drama (the Vietnam War is on, and the Beaumont children are mentioned towards the end) cum tale of pre-adolescent friendship (with a substantial nod towards the movie Stand By Me). There’s a beautiful description of a cricket match in which Charlie’s best friend, a very short Vietnamese boy (‘Jeffrey Lu on debut’) makes a splash, in a way that reminded me of Ruth Starke’s brilliant book for younger readers, Nips XI.

One thing I don’t understand is what makes the book ‘mainstream’ rather than ‘young adult’. There’s some pretty intense swearing, I guess, but sex is treated with great tact; even when sexual abuse is described explicitly in a letter that’s crucial to the plot, we don’t get to read the letter. The story is told from a thirteen-year-old’s point of view, and there’s no hint that he’s in any way an unreliable narrator: we don’t know any more than he does and we’re not invited to make judgments that differ from his – we learn about the world with him. In fact, Charlie’s angry mother is treated with less adult-sympathy than similar mothers in many a YA title. I’ve heard that the classification was a policy decision on the part of the publishers – that they were invited to submit the book for the Children’s Book Council Awards, but declined. The mainstream classification seems to have paid off in adult readership and award nominations – always assuming that a Miles Franklin shortlisting is more prestigious than one from the Children’s Book Council, and that being on the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist alongside David Malouf’s Ransom and Coetzee’s Summertime is more dignified than being named in the same breath as Justine Larbalestier’s Liar (not a view I share: I’m looking forward to Justine’s book as keenly as I am to David’s, and who in their right mind would want to compete for a prize against Malouf and Coetzee?). I hope this taxonomical decision hasn’t discouraged the young people who are the book’s natural readership. [Since writing that I’ve seen an online  trailer that is clearly aimed at teenagers, so it looks as if the pubisher is having two bob each way, and a good thing too.]

I wrote that much a number of weeks ago. The Book Group met last night.

With one exception, we were lukewarm. No one actively hated the book, but different people saw different things as gaping flaws. One man said he found Charlie’s decision at the very start to help conceal a crime highly implausible, and intolerably hackneyed – from then on he read with very little pleasure. Another was irritated by the banter between Charlie and Geoffrey (though one man said he thought that was the best thing in the book). Others found the narrative voice, and the characters’, wildly inconsistent – perhaps especially in beautifully written passages such as the aria on ‘sorry’ I quoted from above. I think we were unanimous in finding the characters’ emotional responses to crises (a grisly death, the acrimonious departure of a parent, the discovery of a grandparent) lamentably one-dimensional. I’m sorry to say that as we talked the book’s charms diminished. I proposed a reading that transcended these concerns for consistency, verisimilitude and psychological realism. Perhaps we ought to see the book as akin to the startlingly discontinuous novelitas of César Aira that I’ve just been reading about in the current Heat. But that didn’t wash. Its one defender said it reminded him vividly of things he had felt when he was an adolescent, and he wasn’t howled down.

Sorry, Craig.

Web of Lies

Beverley Naidoo, Web of Lies (Puffin 2004)

Someone recommended this book last year during the kerfuffle over Bloomsbury’s US cover of Justine Larbalestier‘s Liar. That book’s narrator and main character is African American, but the girl on the kerfufflised cover was unmistakeably white, giving rise to animated  discussion of the many fronts on which racism us still being combatted in children’s and young adult literature (not just someone is wrong on the internet), including debate about the doctrine long propounded in Australia as well as the USA that books with non-white characters on the cover won’t sell. A number of well informed participants in the conversation gave us lists of books that are on the side of the angels – Web of Lies was one of them. That kerfuffle, by the way, had an excellent outcome: Bloomsbury replaced the offending cover with one that didn’t tell young readers of African heritage that they were profoundly anti-photogenic. A lesson had been learned.

Or had it? It turned out that when I finally got around to reading this book another kerfuffle had arisen over another whitewashed cover from, yes, the same publisher. This time the book is actually published. It might seem like a storm in a teapot, some blogospheric ephemera, but there’s an important issue here. A young woman named Ari published an open letter to Bloomsbury on the blog Reading in Color, which said in part:

Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don’t see them in your favorite books either. You get discouraged and you want to be beautiful and be like the characters in the books you read and you start to believe that you can’t be that certain character because you don’t look like them. I love the books I grew up with, but none of them featured people of color. I found those later, when I was older and I started looking for them. Do you know how sad I feel when my middle school age sister tells me she would rather read a book about a white teen than a person of color because “we aren’t as pretty or interesting.” She doesn’t know the few books that do exist out there about people of color because publishing houses like yourself, don’t put people of color on the covers. And my little brother doesn’t even like to read, he wants to read about cool people who look like him, but he doesn’t see those books in bookstores and now he rarely reads.

The whole letter is worth reading. So is Justine Larbalestier’s post.

With all that in mind, Web of Lies is impressive. Not only does it have a Black youth on its cover, but it’s a gripping yarn whose main characters are African asylum seekers in England. I don’t know what Ari’s little brother thinks is cool, but there’s a fair chance that – when he’s less little – he’d be interested in Femi, the boy who gets mixed up with what used to be called bad company, and finds himself on a slippery slope involving petty theft, then drugs and violence. The author is white, originally South African, and has clearly done more than academic research into the experiences of African teens living in London. The story rings true and powerful, and if anyone was thinking of putting it in a niche category because its characters aren’t white, they’d be doing the world a disservice.

I know, it’s a bit odd to spend most of a post that’s nominally about a book talking about other things entirely, but I suppose what I’m trying to do here is to admit that I wouldn’t have read this book if not for the kerfuffle, and while part of the reason is that I don’t read much YA literature, another part is that I’ve unwittingly bought the propaganda that books about Black people are only for Black people to read. Wittingly, of course, I don’t believe that for a moment and have read many books that should have made me wiser.

Update: Within hours of my blogging about Bloomsbury’s bloomer, they have withdrawn the controversial cover. To quote their web site:

Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.

Thanks to Alien Onions for the news. (Though you know the problem isn’t that the jacket ’caused offence’. You can’t do much at all without offending someone. I would have preferred them to say something like ‘the jacket design was unintentionally hurtful’ or even go so far as to use the word ‘racist’.)