Mark Scott Reports
from the United Kingdom
Crossing the pond – will you like what I like?
It is with some trepidation that I am writing this to be included on the NCBLA blog. MB2 made a personal request to me to give her – you – some sense of the world of children’s books this side of the pond. But when one looks at the list of distinguished NCBLA board members… the audacious nature of the act becomes apparent; to put one’s words in front of or alongside such an illustrious bunch can be nothing but daunting.
So, I began to think about a question that interests me: why it is that some British writers I rate highly never seem to be ‘big’ in the US? Of course this cannot be the case all the time; we all have our favourites and why should my favourite be yours? Despite this, I thought I would use this first shot at my ‘Blog from the Old Country’, to bring one such writer to your attention.
In summer 2006 I was hunting through the on-site bookstore between sessions at Children's Literature New England 20, that marvel of Children’s Literature scholarship, and was delighted to find there a couple of books by Kevin Brooks, a British writer who now has several novels for young adults under his belt. I remarked to the store-keeper that I was both delighted and surprised to find them: “We all like him in the store,” she remarked, and so began a fifteen minute conversation about the relative merits of his work. We parted, energised, but a little deflated by the admission from the store-keeper that he “…isn’t that well known in the States.”
And I am surprised. He writes, with terrific regularity, some terrific books. But I warn you, they don’t come for free. Brooks is a hard-hitting writer who deals with some hard-hitting themes. One has to dig in and invest time to acquire the taste, and then each book has the potential to deliver a feast. I am not alone in my admiration.
For his debut novel, Martyn Pig, Brooks was short-listed for the Carnegie Medal and won the Banford Boase Award--given for a first novel. It is a dark and quirky story that has its fair share of surprising twists and turns. Martyn Pig is a remarkable debut and whereas I liked it, I cannot confess to loving it.
But with Brooks’ second novel, Lucas, I fell head over heels. Here is the blurb from the jacket:
Caitlin’s life changes from the moment she sees Lucas walking across the causeway one hot summer’s day. He is the strangest, most beautiful boy she has ever seen – and when she meets him, her world comes alive. But to others, he quickly becomes an object of jealousy, prejudice and hatred. Caitlin tries to make sense of the injustice that lurks at every unexpected twist and turn, until she realises that she must do what she knows in her heart is right.
Intrigued? You will be. Lucas is at times both beautiful and disturbing, and it has an extraordinary climax. I remember vividly the place and time of its reading. Sat in the darkened cabin of a Jumbo-jet, returning from a business trip in Hong Kong, my reading light blazed, a beacon in the darkness alongside a few flickering entertainment screens, and I read Lucas from cover to cover in one sitting. We all recognise this breathless scene and wish it for our kids – a story so compelling that, once started, it is impossible to put down and, when it is over, a story that stays spinning inside one’s head for days afterwards. The Sunday Times wrote this of Lucas: “It gets to you. Then when this has passed, you want to tell everyone how good it is.” That’s it – exactly!
Since the publication of Lucas in 2004, Brooks has delivered his work at breathtaking speed and regularity. Of particular note is Candy, an unusual and brave story about Joe and his obsession with a young prostitute. This is a taut thriller with Brooks’ trademark shattering climax, the story that, the Guardian newspaper notes, “doesn't offer easy solutions, but its implicit, carefully understated morality will exert a powerful influence over the book's teenage readers.” And Kissing the Rain, the story of Moo Nelson, an overweight kid, bullied at school, who retreats to his bridge where he can watch the cars go past and think. Until, one day he sees a murder… The book is told in a quirky style, using Moo’s unique way of speaking and framing events.
What set me off to write this blog was buying The Road of the Dead today. Again, it is not an easy subject and the book blurb hints at its darkness: Late one night, two brothers learn that their sister has died in the worst way imaginable. She’s found, strangled, in a desolate place hundreds of miles from their East London home... I would hope to know a bit of what is to come from this synopsis until I read a bit further and find that one of the brothers is telepathic…
I did warn you didn’t I? Brooks’ stories do not come for free, investment is required, and with it the requirement to leave preconceptions at the door. Philip Ardagh, writing in The Guardian says this: “When I finished The Road of the Dead, I felt that I, too, had been on a journey. It was no walk in the park but I was very glad I’d been.” And that’s pretty much how I feel about Brooks’ stories. Kids and prostitutes? Kids and murders? Kids and sex? Surely we are in the land of taboo. But are we really? Go see for yourself. Don’t worry if you hate these books, at least you tried, but – and here is the wonder of literature - you and your kids, in whatever form they’re yours, may find yourself loving them too. Start with Lucas.
Martyn Pig (2003)
Kissing the Rain (2005)
The Road of the Dead (2007)
Author details here: http://www.doublecluck.com/authordetails.php?aname=Brooks,%20Kevin&btype=fiction11
Mark Scott resides in Sheffield, England. His day job is I.T. specialist, his soul work is writing. He regularly attended Children's Literature New England, and like many participants contributed a great deal to the symposium's success by his active involvement and participation. Thank you Mark!