Chris Stephenson‘s choice is Jean Little
Apart from admiration, my immediate reaction after reading Jean Little for the first time was to wonder why it took so long for her to be published over here: she has, after all, been writing successfully for more than twenty years. But things are looking up. Since 1985 three novels (Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird and Lost and Found in paperback; Different Dragons, just out, in hardback) have appeared here, so now children in the U.K. can enjoy the work of this excellent Canadian writer.
All her life Jean Little has suffered from partial sight and latterly her vision has become even worse. Her writing is now done with the aid of a specially designed talking computer called SAM. She types onto a keyboard and the computer talks back what she has written. Literally: ‘Open quotes Wake up comma Ben comma close quotes Dad said period’. Truly a perfect relationship between Human and machine!
During her recent whirlwind tour of parts of England, in the company of three of her fellow Canadian children’s writers, Jean Little spoke openly about her handicap, then deftly changed what could have been a solemn discussion about disability into a joke. ‘As a child,’ she said, ‘I always went around with a black smudge on my nose from the ink, from holding the book so close.’ That remark sums up her approach to writing: a no-nonsense ability to face stern facts, coupled with a strong, ‘feisty’ underlying sense of humour.
In Different Dragons the hero, Ben, goes to stay with his Aunt Rose, a children’s writer. Ben is not sure he wants to stay with her, even though it’s only for a weekend, for, to a young child, a weekend can seem like an eternity. Besides, he tells himself, `Her books are all about boys who run away from home to fight dragons and find treasure’. He is not that kind of boy – and Jean Little is not that kind of writer. Certainly there are dragons in her books, but not the traditional variety. Her dragons do not breathe fire and flex their claws. They evolve from recognisable domestic, everyday situations – fear of dogs and thunderstorms; or from a sense of displacement – new homes, new neighbours. But the dragons she writes about are just as terrifying as the mythical monsters, simply because they do arise from the known, domestic environment.
In conversation, Jean Little made the point that, given the circumstances, ‘a trip to the supermarket to buy milk can be very important’. For the children in her books – and this applies particularly to Lucy in Lost and Found and Ben in Different Dragons – ‘small’ events take on the complexity and magnitude of the epic. When Ben’s aunt asks him to whip the cream he is sure he knows how. At first he feels great, ‘standing there, in charge of the whirring electric mixer’. He knows he mustn’t over-whip but he does, and the cream becomes full of ‘queer little yellowish flecks’. Then comes the dilemma-‘Should he tell Aunt Rose?’ – and, in spite of his aunt’s kindness, the sense of shame.
Or take the case of Lucy, just moved to a new house in a new district, who finds a stray dog and wants to keep it, even though she knows she should be doing all in her power to find the owner. Not only does she have to contend with her parents who, with all the best intentions, want the dog restored to its rightful home, but with Nan, her new acquaintance, who is determined to play the detective and find that home. For Lucy life now becomes full of complexities: `She wanted to tell her father that right now Nan Greenwood was nothing but a pest. She wanted to say she would only like Nan if Nan would stop playing detective’ – yet she knows that both her father and Nan have right on their side.
Both books reach calm and satisfying resolutions – Ben conquers his fears; Lucy gains new friends (and a new dog) – which the young reader experiences with the characters. But in each, the resolution arises out of the situations and the events surrounding them; it is not imposed from above like some magical, healing matrix. It is Jean Little’s unerring ability to dramatize children’s fears and frustrations, allied to her sheer story-telling powers, that make these books so involving and – yes – exciting for the reader.
In Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, a book for the slightly older reader, the subject-matter is more profound. The central event – and literally so, for it occurs at exactly the halfway-stage – is the death of Jeremy and Sarah’s father. But, as Jean Little emphasises time and again, the book is not about Death, it is about Life.
The first half concentrates on the children’s reactions to a Dad who, because of his illness and medication, is the same Dad yet different; a Dad who can no longer play with them as he used to, but who can still share playful moments; a Dad who moves differently now, ‘Slowly, carefully, as if he were afraid he might break’. After Dad’s death the family -Jeremy in particular, for his sister, being younger, ‘doesn’t really understand’- struggles to come to terms with the loss and with the need to make a new life. At the same time the book traces the developing friendship between Jeremy and awkward, sensitive, illegitimate Tess – another of Jean Little’s `displaced persons’. The moment of resolution for Jeremy comes early on Christmas morning, when he realises he can actually feel joy again, ‘a more difficult joy than he had known other years’, and can now look ‘back to the man he no longer wanted to forget’ and look ‘ahead to this Christmas which was now, at last, fully his’.
Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird won the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award. It is written without a trace of mawkisness or sentimentality. It is very moving, often very funny, and very positive. As with all of Jean Little’s books, the problems presented and resolved are faultlessly woven into a strong narrative fabric and perfectly attuned to the understanding of the readers.
Long may Jean Little’s computer talk back to her!
Jean Little: the books
All titles in hardback by Kestrel, in paperback by Puffin
Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird
0 14 03.1737 6. £1.95 pbk
Lost & Found
0 670 80835 0, £5.95 hbk: 014 03.1997 2. £1.50 pbk
0 670 80836 9, £5.95 hbk
Chris Stephenson is a bookseller. With his wife Enid he runs the Hungate Bookshop in Norwich.