A lot has been said about men writing about female characters. Not all of it complimentary but some people can manage to put themselves into the persona of somebody who has a totally different experience from their own. But what about experiences that we have all had but can’t remember or one which is a flight of pure imagination? This week I’ve been reading books about childhood, written from the point of view of a child. One is four years old – and I have only one or two vague memories of being that age – and the other is, well, far more of a junior adventurer than I ever was. I ran away from home once, carrying a bag of clean socks and some sweeties, and stayed in the shed on the old football field for, oo, at least an hour but then I went home and nobody even noticed I’d gone – the heroine of my second book loses her parents, travels to Greenland and fights mythical creatures. She is, in fact, pretty kick-ass so let’s start with her…
Eye of the North – Sinead O’Hart
Emmeline Widget is an unusual girl. She is well-versed in all kinds of survival techniques, including avoiding being poisoned, attacked or otherwise bumped off and is quite convinced her scientist parents are trying to kill her. But when they vanish suddenly and she is packed off to safety in Paris she doesn’t lose heart. When she is kidnapped by their arch-enemy, the evil Doctor Siegfried Bauer, and discover that her parents are, in fact, still alive she sets about trying to rescue them. Not bad for a pre-teen. She is aided by her trusty satchel, a boy called Thing who is a stowaway on the ship she takes for Paris and a remarkable cast of allies (including creatures from legend, tough little old ladies, kindly Inuits and a butler).
This is a fast-paced and exciting story aimed at children between 9 and 12ish but could be read by anyone who enjoys a good adventure. It has a slightly steampunky feel – full of odd inventions – but also a healthy dose of mythology. Emmeline is a great character – a plucky heroine who, despite being just a child, tends to rescue herself from most situations. I loved Thing too – a streetwise little raggamuffin who has to fight against his weaknesses to help his friend – while the friendship between the two is lovely (and, age-appropriately, without any hint of youthful romance).
Home – Mandy Berriman
Home is narrated by another child – this time, Jesika, who is just four and a half – but is definitely not a book for youngsters. Jesika is a bright child and she is aware of a lot of things going on in her life. She and her Mum, Tina, and baby brother live in a damp and dangerous flat, drug deals go down in the stairwells and the pushchair has to be carried up and down the stairs every time they go out. Money is very short and Tina has no support network to rely on since her partner went back to Poland and his mother died. But the voice we hear telling the story in this book is Jesika’s so we draw pictures on the damp wallpaper behind the tv, get upset because we are wearing a red top when it is blue day at pre-school and forget that we are not supposed to mention if we think someone is smelly or boring. Jesika is sad that her Mum and brother have a nasty cough but has never heard of pneumonia and, aside from a shouty man in the block of flats and a grumpy worker at her pre-school, only really knows adults who she likes and trusts. For a four year old this is a pretty good life but we, as adults, can see all the bad things looming around her.
This is a book which grabs you by the throat because we are grown-ups and are conditioned to look out for the safety of the very young. I don’t have any kids of my own but I find myself keeping an eye on youngsters in the shop (because no parent has eyes in the back of their head and children that age move very fast…). It isn’t even a maternal thing I think, we have evolved to look after our young. But, of course, there are always those who don’t see children as something to be protected and it is Jesika’s potential to fall prey to them which made this book an uncomfortable read at times. I feel that I want to recommend Home to all parents but I suspect some would find it too distressing…