Fewer Fireworks and Quieter Voices
Chris Kloet recommends three British authors
Honestly, I’m not normally a chauvinist and don’t get me wrong, I enjoy reading the latest titles by Blume, Cormier, S.E. Hinton, Zindel et al. as much as anyone. But these successful, much-written-about American authors for teenagers certainly hold no monopoly in writing approachable, realistic fiction for and about today’s kids. Isn’t it perhaps time we looked again at some of our own excellent British writers in this field who, with fewer fireworks and quieter voices, have just as much to offer as their more abrasive and brasher American cousins? My nominations for the writers who deserve more `exposure’ here are John Branfield, Peggy Woodford and John Gordon. I know I could be wrong about this. If these are the `in’ writers whose names are on every pupil’s lips and whose books are being devoured avidly at your school, then so much the better, and good for you; but I get the impression that many book-informed teachers and kids still haven’t come across these authors, and I think that’s a pity.
I’ve been a fan since 1972 when I read his first book for teenagers, Nancekuke, (now, alas, OP. but library copies are probably still around), and I’m delighted that he has finally made it into paperback – not before time – with his latest novel, The Fox in Winter, which is. I feel, his best book to date. But that’s skipping ten years and three other books, so back to the start. Nancekuke, which was written, like several of this author’s works, while he was on a sabbatical from teaching. showed Branfield to be a shrewd but sympathetic portrayer of adolescent girls; equally important, it established him as one of our few writers who can tackle what he calls (in his prefatory note), `real issues’ in teenage fiction, without sinking to worthy didactics or propaganda. The issue in Nancekuke is the debate about the ethics of chemical warfare and the individual’s right to protest. Too heavy? No, because throughout this story of a girl’s attempts to penetrate the mystery surrounding her scientist father’s sudden death, she is shown to be an ordinary sixteen-year-old, facing the usual adolescent preoccupations – family quarrels, the need for autonomy and the first steps towards love – in short, a character with whom the thoughtful reader can easily identify.
Adolescent girls at odds with themselves and their families are well-described also in Sugar Mouse and The Scillies Trip. The former shows a young diabetic learning to cope with her disability. Although the author is heavy-handed at the end, where he describes society’s attitude to diabetics, the book stands out, both for the prickly spiritedness of its heroine and the unmawkish treatment of its subject. Incidentally, the plot uses a ‘horse and dog’ theme, which could provide an entree for the book-shy. The Scillies Trip, (now OP), sees Branfield tackling the drug scene, but obliquely, through the eyes of a girl who watches the destructive effect of her feckless elder sister’s experiments with drug-taking, on herself and on her parents. It’s as much a story about sibling rivalry as about drugs. Typically, the author ensures that the parents get as much sympathy as the young protagonists; also typically, he provides no easy solutions at the end. Depressing, but guaranteed to make you think, which is what Branfield’s books are intended to do.
I’ll skip his next book, Castle Minalto, a sort of Gothic historical adventure, because to my mind it doesn’t quite come off, and repeat that for me, this author’s best work, and undoubtedly the one which will win him the most young readers, is The Fox in Winter. It’s the moving story of an at first unwilling friendship between young Fran, daughter of the District Nurse, and a ninety-year-old patient of her mother’s. The book speaks volumes about the indignities of old age, people’s differing attitudes to death and, best of all, the mutual support which the very old and the young can give each other. Fans of The Pigman, take note.
I suppose it was inevitable that Peggy Woodford would be labelled as a writer of romantic fiction for teenage girls with the publication of her first novel, Please Don’t Go in 1972. That this labelling has dogged her since and has, in some ways limited her potential audience is unfortunate. Please Don’t Go set the high standard of writing we have come to expect of her – closely observed characters and setting, and crisp, telling dialogue. This is a compelling story about adolescent love found and lost – Britanny, and a teenage girl’s holiday, when she falls first for the older, sophisticated married man and then for a lad her own age. There’s much sound sense here, too, for the reader who likes a good weepie. Expectations for ‘more of the same’ perhaps coloured her readers and her publisher’s approach to Woodford’s next novel. Backwater War (now OP) and this was probably unhelpful, because it’s not a love story (although there is an element of romance in it), but an adventure story. Set in Guernsey under German Occupation during the Second World War (a background which the author herself experienced), it is just as exciting a read for boys as for girls. Alas, the books cover and blurb both emphasize the story’s main character (female) in a romantic way.
The Real Thing: seven stories of love, edited by Woodford comes next. An accomplished writer of short stories for adults, she commissioned this collection and contributed to it. As good a collection as you’ll find anywhere, of stories about the different facets of love: perhaps a good way into it would be to point out to readers who have read and enjoyed Please Don’t Go, that this author’s contribution is a short story sequel. A more recent collection of short stories, You Can’t Keep Out the Darkness, all tales about the loss of innocence which Woodford again edited and contributed to, proved beyond any doubt that she is well able to write from the adolescent male viewpoint.
Probably the most accessible of this author’s books is See You Tomorrow, although the brief outline of the plot I can give here does the book an injustice by implying that its theme is too sombre to assure a wide appeal. Briefly, it’s about a girl in her mid-teens who, finding her own family infinitely boring, spends more and more time with her quixotic neighbours. Her Dad, who is a depressive, attempts suicide. The substance of the book is the differing ways in which the girl’s family adjusts to this situation, and the girl’s gradual recognition that her glamorous neighbours are not the staunch allies that she supposed. Woodford is very good indeed at showing the stifling undercurrents of family life, in a way which will be immediately recognised as truthful by teenagers. That she can do it with such a light touch is greatly to her credit. Following on from this story, and loosely connected to it, in that it is about a different member of the same family, is this author’s most recent novel, The Girl with a Voice. Told mostly from the viewpoint of a young man, it is the story of his gradual falling in love with a tempestuous, musically gifted girl who works with him at a holiday youth camp. The reasons why she is unable to return his feelings are but one aspect of this novel, which touches on many other adult, as well as adolescent, insecurities. Given that the story could appeal to boys as well as girls (there are few enough stories about first love seen through the boy’s eyes), why on earth the publishers should choose a jacket illustration which gives most prominence to the girl character is beyond me. And, incidentally, beyond the author too. She wonders if they wouldn’t do better issued with plain, or abstract wrappers, so that boys aren’t put off them! Still, it’s good to see Bodley Head backing teenage fiction, by bringing out new titles in this large trade paperback edition. It may be beyond most kids purses. but it’s well worth several copies for the library.
One of the best pieces of news I have heard about teenage fiction recently is that this marvellous author’s two superb spine-chillers, The Ghost on the Hill and The House on the Brink will be re-issued in the Puffin Plus range this Spring. I can’t think of anyone quite like Gordon. There is no-one else, I am sure, who can suggest, as he does, the inner motives of his characters. It isn’t what he, or his characters, say in the books, but what they don’t say which is so important. To call his works spine-chillers is also, in some way, to diminish them. True, these two particular books already mentioned, and his more recent books The Waterfall Box and The Spitfire Grave do chill, with their emphasis on the thin boundaries which separate us from the supernatural. But as well as being horror/fantasy stories. they are also much more. The full-length novels (The Spitfire Grave is a collection of short stories by Gordon). are piercingly accurate portraits of developing boy/girl relationships. and their attendant sexual tensions below the surface: they are a persuasive comment on the way the rural landscape (usually the Fens), shapes the character of people: and finally, they are finely observed studies about social class barriers which affect us all. I asked John Gordon about this aspect of his work recently. He admitted that he used to rub up against the class system when he was younger, that he detests it. and that it still operates, and hurts his own kids just as it used to hurt him, so that’s why he writes about it. I also asked him about the almost suffocating power of the suppressed sexuality in his writings. He said that the sexual elements in his stories, just as the magical elements in them, are contained and controlled: he thought he had greater power in his stories by ‘holding things down’, but admitted that his writings are ‘aimed at a level of disturbance’! What more could we ask’ Other than a new John Gordon title as soon as possible. that is. But even if a new one isn’t forthcoming for a while, let’s make sure that every kid who expresses an interest in ghost stories or the supernatural, has a chance to read something by this author. The experience could be memorable, and that, surely. should he one of the things we are aiming for.
The books in print
Sugar Mouse, Gollancz, 1973, 0 575 01508 X, £4.95
Castle Minalto, Gollancz, 1979, 0 575 02730 4. £4.50
The Fox in Winter, Gollancz, 1980, 0 575 02860 2, £4.95, and Fontana Lions, 0 00 671932 5, £ 1.00
Please Don’t Go, Bodley Head New Adults, 1972, 0 370 01243 7, £3.50
See You Tomorrow, BHNA, 1979, 0 370 30204 4, £4.50
The Girl with a Voice, BHNA, 1981, 0 370 30423 3, £3.50 pb
The Real Thing: seven stories of love (ed.), BHNA, 1977, 0 370 30018 1, £2.95, and Peacock, 0 14 047.149 9, 80p
You Can’t Keep Out the Darkness, BHNA, 1980. 0 370 30293 1, £4.50
The Giant Under the Snow, Puffin, 1971, 0 14 03.0507 6. 95p
The Ghost on the Hill, Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.1372 9. £1.00
The Waterfall Box, Kestrel, 1978, 0 7226 5490 1, £3.95
The Spitfire Grave and other stories, Kestrel, 1979. 0 7226 5618 1, £4.50
The House on the Brink, Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.1370 4, £1.10
Chris Kloet, A.L.A., is Young People’s Librarian for Tameside near Manchester.