welcome to my world!

This site is dedicated to exploring children's fiction.
I write it, read it, teach it and increasingly feel the need to talk about. Please feel free to join the conversation otherwise it will be a monologue and they can get quite dull.
My current project is concerned with transformations in children's writing.
If you have any suggestions or favourite books which deal with transformation please let me know.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Owl in Love: Patricia Kindl published by Graphia 1993

I'm not sure I can include this US published book in my study which is a great pity because it is great; funny, moving and cleverly written. Owl is a rather odd school girl with a crush on her science teacher, Mr Lindstrom. She has no friends, lives with her strange parents in an empty crumbling mansion and never eats at school. This is because she is a wereowl, who lives by hunting small animals and can't fly if she eats human food. Owls bond for life and the fact that Mr Lindstrom is forty, balding with an ex wife and possibly a crazy son, does nothing to put Owl off. She has told her unworldly parents of her intention to marry Mr Lindstrom and they are entirely behind her, even discovering some distant connection between their families, though even they are a little bored with her obsessive observations of him. Two things happen to change things: the first is she begins to make a friend, Dawn, when she needs to borrow someone else's blood for a science experiment, her own is black; the second is that Owl sees a strange owl at the edge of her territory who is quite unable to hunt and a skinny boy has stolen Mr Lindstrom's camping equipment and is camping in the woods by his house.
 Owl fights the strange owl and injures him and then when she sees a naked boy bleeding black blood onto the snow realises he is like herself, a were owl. She names him 'Houle' and enlists Dawn's help to keep him hidden and warm in Dawn's heated garage, begging various herbal cures for fever form her mother. The reader guesses some time before Owl herself that the strange boy Owl calls Houle, who looks so like herself that Dawn assumed it was her brother, is David, Mr Linstrom's son who has escaped from a mental facility. We guess too that the strange woman Owl calls 'the Wailing woman' is his wife. When Dawn tells Lindstrom that she has found his son, Owl initially believes that Dawn wants Lindstrom for herself. He wants to take the his son to his mother indoors and Owl, still in bird form attacks him and calls Houle to herself in the mating cry which forces his transformation into a bird. Dawn, finally understanding her secret, demands to talk to Owl at which point she changes back and is persuaded to allow Lindstrom to look after his son until such a time as they can be together in the human world as well as the bird one. owl realises that Dawn was never after Mr Lindstrom but another boy in their year to whom she was particularly rude to.
 Owl is intelligent but entertainingly slow to grasp the intricacies of the human world, she can quote literature with ease but has little grasp of the modern world and, until invited home by Dawn, never travelled in 'an automobile' and yet she is never other than sympathetic, when watching her Mr Lindstrom from a tree as he sleeps, when struggling not to eat Dawn's hamster and beginning to grasp that her parents are not best equipped to advise her on her increasingly complicated life. It is about friendship, accommodating strangeness and learning to understand the other. Perhaps it also reminds teen readers that there is someone out there for you, even if you are an owl.

This book won the Mythopaoic Children's Fantasy Award in 1995 and also a Golden Kite. I can see why it has a great voice and a clever plot.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lady: My life as a bitch: Melvin Burgess

I came to this book with mixed feelings. It came out at the same time as my own 'Hunted' my own story of a girl turning into a fox rather than a bitch. It did incredibly well and for some undoubtedly envy based reason I never read it. Now that I have, I am relieved that it fits my remit of a book about transformation which also won prizes and I'm also disappointed. It is a really interesting idea with some excellent passages but I also found it a bit of a mess. We are stuck in the head of the protagonist, who changes her mind about who she is and what she wants constantly. I think this is probably a reasonable evocation of the thoughts of many a teenage girl, even one not also coping with a dual nature, yet that doesn't stop it making irritating, not to say, dull reading.  From the very beginning we get ambiguity 'I'd been off my head lately. And it'd been great you know? Really, really great. The best time I'd ever had. Only I was getting fed up.' Sandra doesn't know why she does what she does, she seeks experience, 'fun'. Her father left when she was nine and for a while she was a hard working girl with a serious boyfriend and an astute best friend named Anne. Both girls are determined to lose their virginity before they were sixteen, because they didn't want to be told what to do with their bodies and we learn that Sandra's first time on the carpet in front of 'Stars in their eyes' left her feeling as if she'd lost something. Bored with Simon's fidelity, she finishes with him, falls out with Anne and takes up with new groups of people, stays out late, drinks takes drugs and has casual sex. 'I want everyone to fancy me. Not just the sports stars and the pop stars and all the boys. I'd like the old men and the young men and everyone to fancy me. I'd like the money in your pocket and dirt on your shoes to turn round and look at me when I go past' She has run away from her other friends to get with Wayne, and bumps into Terry a homeless alcoholic. She knocks over his can of Special Brew and in his fury he turns her into a dog because he is cursed with the power to turn people into dogs. The rest of the plot is essentially about Sandra aka Lady sometimes loving being a dog and sometimes wanting to be a person and quite often bouncing between the two. She takes up with two other victims of Terry, Fella and Mitch, who bring her a rabbit they've caught, tell her something of Terry's history and want her to join their pack. She stays with Terry for a while in the hope that he will turn her back. They are separated for a while when he is imprisoned and she runs away from him when she is on heat. When he shows her  her own picture on a lamp post she goes home to try to make her mother understand that she is still Sandra albeit in dog form. Her father has returned to try and find her and she manages to convince her mother that she is indeed her daughter.  'Oh Sandra! oh, my darling, darling... She bed and scooped up with her arms., and held me tightly to her, kissing me and loving me and weeping tears too, flooding down my face. I just wanted to cry and to show her how I could cry, as if tears alone would wash me back to what I was.' It might seem as if Sandra is looking for love, but it is clear that Sandra is much loved, something which she recognises about as often as she denies it. Later when Julie her elder sister comes home she makes everyone doubt it again.  Once challenged, Lady responds with fury, blaming everyone for their doubts and trashing her old bedroom. She has tried and when things go wrong, she shifts her opinion, once more her family are too quick to criticise her and in her mind have let her down. ' I was taken over by a terrible rage. I mean, who did they think they were? What right did they have to decide who I bloody was? It was the same story all over again- all people ever want to do is t judge you...... If you don't fit- out! You're a slut, you're worth nothing! Out! Out!' The family lock her in her old room and call the police and she decides to stay a dog, leaping from the window to join Mitch and Fella. 'And I thought, I don't want to be a human being. I never was a human being in the first place. I want to be quick and fast and happy and then dead. I don't want to grow old. I don't want to go to work. I don't want to be responsible. I want to be a dog!' Perhaps most readers will think she has made the wrong decision or maybe they won't. Her mother cries 'Don't go!' her younger brother 'Let her go!' and her escape into the dog world feels like a kind of abandonment.
 This is no morality tale, it is barely a tale at all in that it is episodic and Sandra/Lady doesn't grow or
learn anything. I am certain that is deliberate, a kind of anti fairy story in which the frog gives up wanting to turn back into a prince. Sandra begins the story as a thrill seeking girl and ends it as Lady, a thrill seeking dog, having discovered almost nothing about herself in the hundred or so pages of introspection in between. The openness about sex, even the odd conversation about periods at one point, seem to have guaranteed the book plenty of publicity but the book itself left me feeling slightly cheated. Mitch, the other ex human dog, misses his family and never fully embraces his new state, Fella appears to, but still returns to his ex girlfriend's house to chase her cut and frighten her. Lady chooses the whole hearted acceptance of her animal self rather than the messy compromise of trying to fit in. Is the story about accepting your own nature? Is it about experiencing the sensory pleasure of life because life's a bitch and then you die? Is the reader supposed to be irritated by Sandra/Lady her self involvement and inconsistency? Is she meant to be perceived as a bitch in both senses: if you live only for sensation you cannot be part of civilised society? If you cannot control your impulses you will always be an outsider. That is certainly the case for Terry, who can't control his temper and keeps turning people into dogs which doesn't in the end do him a lot of good. I suppose you could make an argument for any of the above, but I am not convinced. With a writer of Burgess' statue I feel I should have been.