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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 11, 2008 @ 11:09 am

    Ways to Live Forever

    Fiona McCann

    Twenty-five-year-old Sally Nichols has won the Glen Dimplex New Writers award for her book Ways to Live Forever. It’s the story of Sam McQueen, an 11-year-old fan of airships and Warhammer who is dying of leukaemia. An intelligently written, affecting book Ways to Live Forever is sincere in asking the questions that we need to keep asking as adults about death and divine justice. This is the first time a children’s book has won the overall award, with judges on the night referring to a “golden age of children’s books.” Given such wonderful work from the likes of Philip Pullman and John Boyne, it’s easy to see why. Anyone any others to add to the list? Is this really a golden age for children’s books, or do y’all hearken back to the days of Ballet Shoes, Narnia books and Susan Cooper?

    For the full list of Glen Dimplex New Writers Awards winners, click here.

    • clom says:

      Nicholls’ book is sickeningly brilliant, the kind of thing that would make an aspiring childrens writer curl up into a little ball and cry all the water out of his or her body.

      there have been some great kids fiction out this year though, i especially enjoyed “Ostrich Boys” by Keith Gray and the superb “The Traitor Game” by BR Collins.

    • Not sure if we’re living in a golden age, but I do sometimes get a bit annoyed when some literary critics (I don’t mean you, Fiona!) start raving on about how good children’s literature suddenly is these days as if there’s never been any decent stuff until now. There are loads of amazing children’s writers at the moment, but there always have been.

      My favourite current writer is Philip Reeve, whom I was going to describe as underrated until I remembered he’d won loads of awards and has got rave reviews. But he’s not a megaseller or a household name, although his Mortal Engines quartet is a million times better than the turgid, pompous likes of Pullman, who seems incapable of writing a sentence that isn’t pure exposition (ever noticed how none of his characters only have conversations that further the plot?). Reeve’s books are not only set in what is, without a doubt, the best-realised fictional universe I’ve ever encountered, but they’re funny, enormously exciting, morally complex, disturbing, beautifully written and so moving that days after I finished the last one, I’d still find myself feeling all tearful when I thought of one scene at the end. In other words, they’re really good. As is Hilary McKay and, for lighter fare, Louise Rennison and Meg Cabot.

      Post-Rowling and Pullman, more kidlit (usually better than either of those writers) is getting taken more seriously in the broadsheets, which is great. But there have always have been fantastic writers for children producing funny and intelligent and sophisticated work (E. Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers, for example, is not only very funny but has a complex narrative voice – a first person narrator who refuses to say which character he is despite the fact that his indentity is hilariously obvious to readers – – that most “adult” writers would struggle to pull off with such wit and aplomb). Diana Wynne Jones, Antonia Forest (the subject of a paper a few years ago arguing that she should have the same status in the history of children’s writing as Jane Austen does in that of writing for adults), the hilarious Helen Cresswell, the groundbreaking Noel Streatfeild… It’s just that they haven’t been taken seriously. Every decade throws up fantastic writers for children. I wouldn’t include John Boyne in that number, though – I think ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ is absolutely atrocious. Don’t get me started…

    • Fiona says:

      Clom – thanks for the recommendations. I’ve a lot of catching up to do.

      Penny – ah, do get started! I’m to hear your opinions on Boyne’s book. At least we agree on Streatfeild, though it’s been a long time since I’ve read it.

    • clom says:

      That’s really good analysis PennyCentury. I’d add Grace Dent to the “lighter fare”, her Diary of a Chav series is superb and a lot more nuanced and humane than the title suggests.

      Anthony McGowan has had a lot of praise for his recent work and deservedly so, particularly for his recent “the knife that killed me” which is a really timely and sensitive book that put me in mind of the Outsiders, a book I loved as a teenager.

      Really enjoyed Kate Thompson’s “Creature of the Night” from this year too along with Catherine Forde’s “Sugarcoated”.

      I think there tends to be a double standard applied to a lot of kids/young adult fiction which would never be applied to the broader adult market. I also think that there’s a significant divide between what kids actually read and what (broadsheet review journalist) adults think they read/should read. A lot of Carnegie/award shortlisted fiction can be 400+ pages. A lot of teenage readers I know are put off by this preferring something they can dip in and out of. Perhaps there’s not enough consideration/respect afforded to shorter forms.

      There was a fascinating series on childrens writing a few months ago over on another blog with some really stimulating debate on this issue, here are a couple of links to a review that sparked off a discussion.



    • Apologies for the ten zillion typos in my last comment – when I said of Pullman “ever noticed how none of his characters only have conversations that further the plot?” that “none of” should have been taken out! And there was some sort of cut-and-paste mix up when I tried to link to that essay on Antonia Forest…

      Re: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas…okay. I just thought it was totally unconvincing, both historically and as a book about children. The main kid, Bruno would only have been even vaguely convincing as a character if he was meant to be much, much younger (or, as a friend of mine’s mother actually thought he was when she read it, developmentally delayed). It read as though John Boyne thought children were merely naive, slightly stupid adults. German fiction from the ’30s like Erich Kästner’s wonderful Emil and the Detectives (the current English translation isn’t great, but the original German version, which was of course burned by the Nazis, is absolutely brilliant) and Irmgard Keun’s recently translated Child of All Nations (the story of a young girl whose family go into exile because her father is an anti-Nazi writer) shows just how sophisticated fictional German kids – Bruno’s supposed contemporaries, give or take a few years – could be.

      And TBitSP just didn’t ring true as a novel about that time, to the point where it becomes almost offensive. What really irritated me to a ridiculous extent was the fact that Bruno refers to the camp as “Out-with”, like the poor innocent he is. Of course, the actual name Auschwitz is a Germanicisation of a Polish name, so “Out-with” makes no sense historically (a German child simply wouldn’t have said that – “out with” in German is “aus mit”, which doesn’t sound anything like Auschwitz. And anyway, Auschwitz would have been completely easy for a German child to say). The term is used purely so the readers can shake their heads and go “ah! I know where he really is” and feel wise and sad. It’s an offensively cheap and lazy way of touching the reader’s heartstrings. And I’m not even going to start on the way that communication through (let alone sneaking under it) is shown as being relatively easy. It kind of appalls me that kids could read this novel and believe that getting into (or by implication out of) a concentration camp was so easy. Such a terrible, important subject deserves far better than this trite, inane, sentimental rubbish.

      Phew! Glad I’ve got that off my chest. Seriously, it is not hard for a film or book to make me cry, and I find anything to do with the Holocaust very upsetting, but that book didn’t make me cry or even feel anything but irritation, which is saying something.

      Also, I absolutely adore Noel Streatfeild. A few years ago I was actually going to go back to my alma mater and do an M. Litt on her work, specifically her depiction of girls with career ambitions. She was one of the first children’s writers to feature girls who really wanted to follow specific careers (usually exciting ones like acting or dancing, although Petrova followed her dream and became a mechanic). Ballet Shoes wasn’t my favourite Streatfeild, though – that was The Painted Garden.

      Thanks for your kind words, clom. I liked Grace Dent’s first kids book (and I love her soap opera column in the Guardian) so I’ll have to check out that series. And I think you could be right about some of those three-inch-thick award winners turning off potential readers, although if the Harry Potter books have done anything, they’ve proved that more kids than we ever suspected will read very, very long books if they really want to.

    • Fiona says:

      Great review of the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Penny! I’m glad I got you started, although your issues with Out-with and its clear lack of sense in Gemran didn’t present a difficulty for me in the same way that, though I did not see the film, the fact that the children starring in it had English accents would have posed no problem. I think there’s a license there that’s allowable considering he’s writing in English about a German story. All excellent points though. As for Noel Streatfeild, our library growing up only had Ballet Shoes, which I read as a result several times. As the middle of three girls myself, I was particularly drawn to Petrova and still feel a strong kinship with her, although we clearly took very different paths in the end. Er, I should also point out several typos in my own last comment – probably not considered proper to refer to Noel Streatfeild as ‘it’.

    • think there’s a license there that’s allowable considering he’s writing in English about a German story.

      I think my main objection wasn’t the English-language play on words, but more the way it was used – it was purely a cheap of way of pushing the reader’s buttons (“he’s saying Out-with but we know it’s Auschwitz! Oh, the humanity!”), so the fact that it didn’t even make sense for the time and place was just the annoying icing on the cake! Glad you enjoyed my rant, though.

      If you haven’t read more Streatfeild, I strongly recommend The Painted Garden, which is the story of a very cross young girl whose family move to California and who ends up playing Mary in a (oh-so-’40s) production of The Secret Garden. One of the best things about it is that she doesn’t turn out to be an acting genius (she’s a success in the part because she just has to basically play herself) and she remains contentedly surly to the end. Streatfeild’s adult novel Saplings was reissued a few years ago by the wonderful Persephone Books and is fantastic. It’s an incredibly grim novel about the effects of the war on a family and the fact that it’s written in Streatfeild’s distinctive style makes it very unsettling to anyone familiar with her kids’ books!

    • Matt says:

      thats the real good book which I ever read … em… I like a story about DEAD… n this book tells about SAM… I have sane idea with SAm in this book… hahaha… I LOVE this Book very much…

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