The speaker: Jan Needle
Since his first children’s book came out in 1977, Jan Needle has acquired something of a reputation for uncompromising and unconventional writing.
Eric Hadley considers the six books so far published.
A Southerner by birth, Jan Needle moved to the North sixteen years ago, where he plans to stay forever. He now lives in the Pennines, near Oldham. Jan started writing novels five years ago, after writing plays for some years, and says he does not write exclusively for children: ‘In fact I’d be horrified if adults didn’t get as much or more from most of my books as younger readers, and find age categories, although perhaps necessary from a commercial point of view, very irksome.
‘Although I write light, comedy books as well as “social realistic” ones, I am sometimes asked whymy view seems quite so bleak. The answer, simply, is that I think all children’s books, on whatever subject, should be as truthful as the author can make them. If in some cases this means the picture must be harsh, then so it must be. Children, I have found, prefer toughness to cheating, although some adults don’t.’
What delights me most about Jan Needle’s work is the way that it resists being categorised. Recently I’ve chuckled my way through Rottenteeth, his first picture book, with my six-year-old son. Disagreed with a friend’s daughter and my nine-year-old son over The Size Spies – they think it’s funny, I don’t (probable verdict: I’ve no sense of humour). And ended up near to tears over his most ambitious novel to date, A Fine Boy for Killing.
Rottenteeth is a cracking pirate yarn in which the baddies are dastardly and the goodies are dimmers. Rottenteeth (the villain) makes Cut Throat Jake from Captain Pugwash seem very tame. The jokes throughout are guaranteed terrible – and there’s no happy ending for Everett Dymme, our pure but out-manoeuvred hero. Virtue is not rewarded, an aspect of reality many children know well. In Roy Bentley, Jan Needle has found a congenial collaborator who knows how to make the most of ships exploding and bodies flying everywhere.
The Bee Rustlers, his latest book, has the mark of the ‘series’ about it. Jan Needle is not responsible for the Young Fiction format, the undistinguished illustrations (beware illustrators who won’t risk giving the main characters distinguishable features), the inflated price (£3.50 for 79 pages); but his ability to give you the authentic child’s voice seems to have deserted him momentarily. I can’t get interested in Carol and Tony. One carries on reading ‘for the adventure’ of the children saving mum’s bees from the rustlers. In his other books – Albeson and the Germans in particular – you don’t have to make this separation.
That book is full of excitement and suspense but it is also full of moments like this where the headmaster has just finished browbeating the school at assembly over the break-in Albeson has been part of:
‘As the seconds crept by Albeson almost burst with the effort not to confess. He dug his fingernails deeper and deeper into his palms, his eyes were screwed up so tight it hurt badly. It would have been so lovely to just stand up and say the words. He knew that a great weight would have fallen from him, that he would have felt light, and clean and loved. Every part of him ached to admit it, his lungs ached to rid themselves of the breathless pain he was suffering.’
This is a moment of great tension but the tension is in Albeson. The book is his story, his adventure, and what excites us and children are his sense of confusion, his isolation – the way he only half understands the people who surround or use him.
The most telling moments in My Mate Shofiq are like this too. Take, for example, this almost casual moment of illumination. Scared, half-believing that if caught they will ‘end up in the deep freeze at the Calcutta Restaurant’, Bernard and his friends have tracked Shofiq and his father to their house in the depths of `Little India’. Suddenly doors open and men emerge.
`Maureen, Terry and Dougie were shaking with fear… Bernard, returning from a first glance at the tiny back gardens of the houses, saw their faces, saw the group of little brown men, and saw the mini-bus arrive. “Oh,” he said. “They’re off on the night shift.” But he was talking to himself. The others… had pelted off past him… The scene on the road was nothing to panic about, just the men getting in their mini-buses; he supposed it must be for cheapness or something, or maybe they went for a pint or a game of darts first. Anyway, it was obvious no-one was out to cut his throat – it would make them late for clocking in.’
The point isn’t that Bernard becomes less prejudiced at this point. Mixed with his realisation that Pakistani men work and organise transport for themselves is a much stronger feeling of triumph over his mates who run off at the sight of the ‘bogey men’. Unlike the confrontation scenes at the Social Security office and with the social worker this doesn’t feel like a ‘set piece’, nor is there that uneasy sense of life `realities’ being spelt out:
“`You’ll get well looked after… Grown-ups aren’t all stupid. They’re not always up the creek. They get some things right.”‘
I’ve left A Fine Boy for Killing till last because I think it’s Jan Needle’s most uncompromising book to date, and for all its Napoleonic war setting it confronts the human and social issues lurking in My Mate Shofiq much more thoroughly. It is a long book (refreshing to think that some writers believe teenagers like a `good read’) and his most exciting. We are not spared the horrors of life in the navy, but there’s no sense of inert reconstruction. In the best sense it is completely serious, unlike the fancifully over-written sea-stories of Leon Garfield. This time Jan Needle looks deep into the moral pressures on children living in a world of pernicious class divisions, bullying thoughtlessness and egomania, as well as unlooked for heroism.
At the end we share the feelings of the fifteen-year-old boy who has lived through this story! ‘William Bentley could look no more. His eyes had seen enough.’
Books by Jan Needle
pictures by Roy Bentley Deutsch, 0 233 97205 6, £4.25, 32 pages, 1980
Read aloud or alone. 7+, especially boys.
The Size Spies
illustrated by Roy Bentley Deutsch, 0 233 97003 7, £3.50, 156 pages, 1979
Lions, 0 00 671701 2, 80p, 1980
Cynthia and George manage to keep sane in a world of crazy grown-ups including the professor, inventor of the machine which has accidentally shrunk their parents, and the British government (which doesn’t believe in children). 8-12. Good read aloud.
The Bee Rustlers
illustrated by Paul Wright Collins, 0 00 184043 6, £3.50, 79 pages, 1980
Yorkshire moors setting. 8- 12.
My Mate Shofiq
Deutsch, 0 233 9987 X, £3.50, 175 pages, 1978
Lions, 0 00 671518 4, 70p, 1980
Almost in spite of himself Bernard finds himself included in Shofiq’s problems. Junior school background. 9+.
Albeson and the Germans
Deutsch, 0 233 96900 4, £2.75, 1977
Albeson (who knows about Germans from his comics) decides he has to stop two German children coming to his school. 9+.
A Fine Boy for Killing
Deutsch, 0 233 97106 8, £4.95, 256 pages, 1979
A Sense of Shame and other Stories
Deutsch, 0 233 97266 8, £4.50, due out November 1980.
The title story is about Lorraine ‘sixteen… white Oldham and a Catholic too’ and Mohammed, nineteen, a Pakistani, and the summer they fall in love.