Children’s and YA stories that will get under your skin – and one that tickles

Reviews: Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan; Gary D Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter; Julian Gough & Jim Field’s Rabbit and Bear: Rabbit’s Bad Habits

As is now widely recognised, the past few years have seen the emergence of a number of Irish writers who have brought a new verve and variety to what we have come to call young-adult literature. We have moved, albeit slowly, a very considerable distance beyond the boundaries of Irish "teen fiction" as described by John Fahy in his contribution to The Big Guide to Irish Children's Books, published in 1996. It was then, for Fahy, a literature still in its "embryonic state".

While not all of the more recent developments have, in literary terms, been equally successful, they have certainly extended our awareness of an evolving indigenous literature which has increasingly gained confidence in its own voice and increasingly thrown off the limitations imposed by too much earlier adherence to British and American models.

With three full-length novels already behind her, Deirdre Sullivan is by now established as a writer whose fiction offers a quirky commentary on contemporary Irish adolescence. Her new novel, Needlework (Little Island, €9.99), does nothing to diminish her quirkiness, but here it takes its place within a narrative more sombre and ultimately more thought-provoking than its predecessors.

It is a novel which, for once, deserves the description “multilayered”. Its various threads are woven together with great skill and the picture we are given of the world of its 16-year-old heroine, Ces, is subtle, complex and, in places, disturbing.

Beauty and pain

Contrary to the expectations raised by its title, Sullivan’s novel is not concerned with the homely pursuits of sewing or knitting, though metaphorical links are there for those who wish to find them. Instead, the needles here belong to the tattooist Ces hopes one day to become, an ambition which, if achieved, will bring its own form of beauty to a life long denied this particular attribute.

She is the child of separated parents, each of whom now has a new partner, and has moved with her mother to a housing estate offering few attractions to a young woman such as Ces. There is a boyfriend, with whom she is having what would seem to be a rather perfunctory sexual relationship. “I’m using him while also being used,” she tells us early on.

As she herself summarises matters, “I have amassed a lot of unnecessary experiences for someone of my tender years”. Or, later, “My life’s a series of small and big shocks, most of them toxic”. As revelation follows revelation, self-assessments such as these begin to seem like understatements.

It is the most “toxic” of these “shocks” which has left the most permanent scar, one resulting from a particularly repellent form of abuse and one which, as the narrative proceeds, will for most readers carry its own visceral impact. Various recent young-adult novels have tackled similar themes, though seldom to such searing effect as achieved here by Sullivan.

Such is her control of her material that the narrative never slips into mere sensationalism. The balance between Ces’s real worlds of childhood and adolescence and her dream world of creating her own tattoos is beautifully maintained. It is material handled with all the delicacy of touch we would expect from the most talented of tattooists. And, along the way, it is material which provides some fascinating insights into the arcane lore and language of the tattoo world.

“The meaning of pain. And just a scar.” These, the concluding words of Sullivan’s novel, serve as an appropriate link to Gary D Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter (Andersen Press, £10.99), a novel in which pain and scars also significantly figure.

Transformed

Here we are in the depths of a rural New England winter on a dairy farm owned by the Hurd family: mother, father and 12-year-old son Jack. Their lives are, to varying degrees, to be transformed by their decision to foster 13-year-old Joseph Brook, a young man with a colourful and, if it is to be believed, slightly sinister past.

But it is the fact that he has fathered a daughter, the “Jupiter” of the title, which provides the extremely poignant narrative with its central thrust. Father and daughter, we learn through their back stories, have been separated and it is the boy’s mission to find his child that leads to the novel’s sequence of dramatic consequences. (“I’m going to find her,” he said. “I’m not going to stay alone.”)

Schmidt’s prose, simple and straightforward though it is, turns out to be a perfect medium for conveying the emotional complexities of his story. In particular, his depiction of the evolving relationship between Jack and Joseph and of the bond developing between them results in a novel of great tenderness. Only the most stony-hearted reader will be able to avoid the occasional tear.

The only tears shed during a reading of Julian Gough & Jim Field's Rabbit and Bear: Rabbit's Bad Habits (Hodder, £9.99) will be tears of laughter. This beautifully produced book for readers aged five and upwards is a delightful story of growing friendship and mutual acceptance between the two animals of the title.

Their little dramas and their wickedly humorous conversations are played out against a snow-covered background, allowing illustrator Field the opportunity to give full rein to his graphic versatility. Brilliant for reading aloud: try getting your tongue around “Aaarrk! Spifff! Waahhh!” and other such flights of verbal inventiveness.

Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books

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