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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Melusine Lynne Reid Banks 1988

 This is quite an odd, slightly rambling book  that is very strong on atmosphere and in which, unusually,  the parents of the protagonist, Roger, are allowed to play a role. It was first published in 1988 and feels like the product of a more generous age in which stories were allowed to unfold and retain some mysteries unexplained. It is rich in sensory detail, conveying the exoticism that was rural France to the middle class English and also something of the fear of the unknowable and foreign. The family's French is credibly poor and ambiguity and uncertainty about what has been seen and heard add to the tension of the story.
Roger, his parents, and his twin sisters, Polly and Emma holiday in a crumbling french chateau, inhabited by the owner Monsieur Serpe and his goat milking daughter Melusine.  Serpe also claims a second daughter who has gone away. The underlying sense of menace is present from the beginning when Roger sees houses painted with question marks on their way to the chateau and from the beginning there are hints that all is not well.
 Roger and Melusine become friends though she seems strange in many ways. The family explore the region, which is atmospherically described, and discover local depictions of Melusine, a mythical creature, woman by day and snake by night, who is associated with the region.
 From his arrival,Roger has been disturbed by rustlings in his room at night. There have been indications of Melusine's strangeness, Roger saw her dancing the music of a 'snake charmer' in La Rochelle and when his sister almost drowns ,she saves her without apparently getting wet.
 Roger observes her sitting on her father's knee and gradually understands that she is being abused by him. He confides his worries to his parents. Roger's suspicions regarding Melusine's strange nature are confirmed when at night Melusine in snake form shares his bed.
  Roger and his father discover a secret underground passage which take them into the tower, a part of the crumbling chateau Melusine refused to show him. There they find a coffin in a kind of shrine. Monsieur Serpe finds them there and attempts to shoot them with his shot gun but something prevents him from hitting them. Roger sees Melusine, in snake form, over power her father, described as an 'ogre' throughout and push him from the window. He dies shouting about his daughters. Roger's father thought he was asking them to bring him 'donnez' his daughters when in fact he was asking for pardon form them ( pardonnez)
 When the police arrive Melusine has disappeared, the coffin is discovered to contain the body of M's older sister who committed suicide. It is later suggested that this occurs as she too has suffered abuse at the hands of her father.  After her father's death Roger finds Melusine'ss hed snake's skin and buries it. When he finds Melusine, hiding with the goat feed, ' Melusine emerged from her snake self, she was all human now, and that shedding had taken the snake look she had had, leaving her almost supernaturally new and beautiful' 198 also the distinctive characteristics of her skin had changed. When he finds the snake under his bed he knows it is Melusine when he moves her hand along her arm 'that special , warm-cool, hard-soft skin he had touched before that could only be hers' After er father's death and the burial of the skin 'It was a girls' hand that he held.'
 As Melusine is orphaned and her only relative lives in Canada, Roger's family agree to let her live with them for a short time. En route to England, there is a car accident in which Roger and his mother are slightly hurt when they crash into one of the painted question marks on a wall. There is no sign of Melusine and they return home without her. Roger cannot settle and even confides his belief that she could change into a snake to a psychologist. His mother seems to understand his passion for her, and the bond between them. They find her reclaiming the chateau and trying to make it beautiful, and Roger helps her open the door of the chateau to the fresh air and golden evening sun for the first time in perhaps a hundred years.

 The book is particularly interesting for its handling of Roger's growing sexual awareness; his voice breaks at a key moment in the story,  when he volunteers to sleep in his own room, even after he knows about the snake; there is much emphasis on the touch of their hands, when she helps him with the milking, when he touches the snake's skin for the first time, when he finds her crying in her bed and once he accepts Melusine in snake form  'Besides, he wanted to touch her. Even like this.
The small flat head lay under his hand.
Warm cool. Rough -smooth. Pulsing softly with life.
He stroked her very gently. She lay still' p151
His growing awareness of his own feelings takes a long time to make sense and perhaps is only fully clear when his mother speaks of her own 'love' for a much older boy when he was young, but it is very clear to the reader that Melusine has a sexual hold on him. Is he tempted by snake as seductress? There are many references to the garden of Eden most obviously in the pattern of the table in their apartment in which the figure of the snake is hidden. Exiled to the guest apartments Melusine takes possession of it once she returns home as chatelaine. The folk figure of Melusine referred to in the guidebook is good woman by day and evil snake at night and yet she does no evil, though evil is done to her and her snake form appears to be a way to escape from her father.
The sexual abuse is dealt with almost entirely from Roger's perspective, he is at first only half aware of what he's seen.  'He lay awake a long time, wondering not so much what exactly he'd seen, but why it had made him feel so upset and angry...'  Later, after he has slept entwined with the snake, when playing a game of 'Scruples' his family his sister makes a connection between 'abuse' and sex'. 'Roger... stared at his cards unseeingly. Sex. It was out. The word had been said and he'd heard it and couldn't pretend he hadn't. He felt suddenly so agitated that he couldn't sit still. He jumped up from the table, knocking it with his need and scattering some of the heaps of cards.' pp161 Roger begins the story as a kind of innocent in this. He is still a child, happy to talk baby talk or Woddy as they call it with his sisters at moments of stress and to be glad to take refuge in his parent's bed, but he is also on the cusp of adolescence. Once he comes to understand her strangeness he thinks that what he feels for her is pity for her difference and situation but then: 'Their hands met and held in the darkness.
Roger closed his eyes and realised for the first time that what he felt for Melusine he had never felt before. he'd thought he just wanted to help her but now he acknowledged that that was only part of it. pp167

This is a intriguing book, full of symbolism and unresolved mystery. The family arrive to a place with a strong animal smell in the air, a decaying place full of flies and filth. The chateau itself is crumbling and in decline, the gateposts all that remains of the grand entrance to its ground acting as sentries. One falls, knocked down by Roger herself, allowing them to find the hidden passage which leads to the tower. With the knocking down of the sentinel,  the secrets of the house are revealed and Mesuline acts to protect Roger and his father, kill her own father and slough off her snake nature. The connection between her snake nature and her abuse is unclear. There is a suggestion that a Melusine has always lived there; there is a stone carving of her likeness in a old ruin known as Melusine's tower. Is she a girl escaping from trauma, or someone possessed by something older?