Review policy

I am very happy to review any novel that fits in with the theme of this blog: novels aimed at 9-14 year olds, preferably with a fantasy/ speculative world setting. However, I will make clear in the review that I was sent the book by the publisher and I will write my honest opinion. Please feel free to contact me via Twitter or Facebook, or fantasticreads at gmail dot com.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The boy done good

Image: http://harrypotter.warnerbros.com/harrypotterandthedeathlyhallows/mainsite/index.html#/downloads
It's the end of an era, which started in 1997 with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and ended in July this year with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2. Of course, no Evanesco spell will make the books and films vanish (at least I hope not; that would make a big hole in my book and DVD shelves!) There have been numerous articles and blog posts about Harry Potter and Hogwarts, including one outlining why Harry Potter will still be read in ten years from the always-excellent For Books' Sake, so I don't intend to make this post about the merits or demerits of Harry. However, I am firmly in the camp that says he is A Good Thing.

Firstly, because in my years of teaching experience, nothing excited reluctant readers as much as Harry. Children who would ordinarily have baulked at reading read him. Then they went on to read other fantasy; Narnia, Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson, Jenny Nimmo's Snow Spider trilogy, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series and Philip Pullman.

Secondly, because Harry's success renewed interest in these writers, some of whom were out of print, and publishers invested more in promotion. Jones' Chestomanci series was reissued with new covers, and her out of print novels were re-issued. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is of course wonderful without the comparison to Harry, but I wonder whether it would have got the critical attention without the comparisons, despite Northern Lights being published before The Philospher's Stone.

And thirdly, because while some of the media attention geared towards Harry Potter has been about the media attention the books and films have been getting, I am grateful for the critical attention children's literature now gains. All the broadsheet papers now review children's literature and British university English departments frequently have undergraduate modules in children's literature, even those without an Education department; this I think is crucial as children's literature is being viewed from an aesthetic perspective rather than a utilitarian one; that is the pleasure of children's literature is being examined rather than its use in teaching reading.

So where now for Potter fans? In my opinion, the books' fans are better catered for than the films'; witness the dreadful film version of The Dark is Rising; the ongoing "development" of the Artemis Fowl film (rarely a good sign), and there seems to be no second Alex Ryder or His Dark Materials film. Of course, we have The Hobbit to look forward to.

There have been lists of books for fans to go to; this one from Time (scroll down to the end of the page) and from The Guardian. However these do focus on what is often more of the same, and I responded to this discussion on diversity in children's literature. So much European and North American fantasy is of course based upon Norse, Celtic, Greek or Roman myths alongside Judeo-Christian imagery of death and redemption. Two authors I've read recently who do not come from these traditions are Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Nnedi Okorafor. Both these authors are now based in the USA, but Divakaruni was born in India and Okorafor in Nigeria. Once again, the joy of Twitter! I encountered Divakaruni in an article on Indian Young Adult fiction tweeted by one of the Indian tweeters I follow (sadly the link is now broken), and Okorafor via the Books and Adventures blog.

Image: Tower.com


Divakaruni is the author of the Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy (The Conch Bearer, The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming and Shadowland). I have read the first two, and have the final book on order. They are the story of Anand, a boy who encounters an elderly man in the streets of Kolkata in The Conch Bearer . The old man is a healer, on a mission with the magical conch; he is being followed by an evil magician intent on co-opting the power of the conch for his own ends, and Anand and a street sweeper called Nisa must help defend the conch. The journey from Kolkata to the Himalayas and the adventures the trio encounter are a fairly traditional quest story, but the Indian setting is beautifully evoked, and Anand in this novel has few powers of his own. However the Hindu aspect of the story makes it stand out; the Himalayas of course are the home of the gods, and a mongoose helps Anand and Nisha at one point of the book. A Hindu god is represented as a mongoose in art.

The second book is The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming, a far more interesting book in many ways. Nisa and Anand are now settled as apprentices with the Healers in their home in the Himalayas. Nisa is taking to her studies with enoyment and ease, but Anand is struggling to find his place. Then news of danger comes from Bengal, and Abhaydatta the healer travels there with an apprentice. However Anand has a vision telling him that something has gone terribly wrong, so he steals the conch and he and Nisa travel through a portal. They are separated on the way, and Anand loses the conch. He discovers a magic mirror, and stepping through it, he arrives at the court of a 16th century Moghul emperor. The period details of the Muslim court are beautifully evoked, especially the food- expect to feel hungry much of the time while reading this book!- and the time travel aspect of the book works really well. The separation of men and women in the Moghul court mean that the devices used so that Anand and Nisa can communicate must necessarily be magical, and I was reminded of Aladdin in the parts where Nisa and Anand meet in the gardens.

Image: amazon.co.uk

The first book I read by Okorafor was Zahrah the Windseeker, a science fiction fantasy based on the planet of Ginen. When she is thirteen, Zahrah gets her first period and discovers that she can fly. She is a windseeker, but she is afraid of using her powers. Only when her fried Dari gets dangerously injured on a visit to the Forbidden Greeny Jungle does she discover the courage to overcome her conventional upbringing and the rigid propriety of Ooni Kingdom life and travel into the jungle to find a cure. I enjoyed this book; the lushness of the world Okorafor creates where computers and other objects can be grown from plants, the West African hilife music played in the market and clothing the characters wear. The book won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in 2008.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Okorafor's most recent book for children is Akata Witch, the story of four young people in the Igbo region of Nigeria, who discover that they are "leopard people", that is that they have special powers. The protagonist is Sunny, who at the beginning of the book is bullied at school, partly because she is albino and partly because she is Akata, that is, of African heritage but born abroad (her family has only recently returned from the USA). The use of the term Witch of course has a different power in a West African context; I myself have taught a Rwandan child accused of witchcraft and beaten by her aunt; and Okorafor has objected to the term "fantasy" when applied to her writing, since spirits of ancestors and magic are very much part of Igbo culture and beliefs. The four young people (Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Black American Sasha) discover that they must work together to defeat a Leopard Person who is using his power for evil and is killing children. The satisfying, world building elements of Harry Potter are here, with an alternative system of education and commerce is here. I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to The Shadow Speaker which I'm taking on holiday.

Sadly none of these books (as far as I know) have UK publishers. I ordered them from my local bookshop for little more than the online price for Akata Witch and Zahrah. I feel that this is a pity; partly because there are so any children from the Indian subcontinent and African heritage in the UK and black and Asian children that I taught would grab with both hands books that represented their culture, but also because they are great books that any person enjoying a fast paced, inventive novel would read.

I'd recommend all these books to confident readers 10+, or a particularly mature 9 year old.

(A note on the title: it comes from a footballing cliche, team managers would often use it in interviews when being asked about the performance of new, often young, players. A significant part of Akata Witch is when Sunny's confidence is boosted by her playing in a football match; before this point she has been unable to play outside as she burns in the sun. It is also the title of one of my favourite Billy Bragg songs, co written with Johnny Marr).

2 comments:

  1. Sigh....whenever I read your blog my wishlist grows even longer. Nah that's always a good thing;)

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  2. Haha! Akata Witch is totally worth ordering from the US. I read it in a day and a half in Eastbourne; I had to keep sitting down and reading more!

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