Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Oy Yew, and what makes good children's fiction brilliant

I've been wanting to write about Ana Salote's Oy Yew for a long time, since I first saw it, and wanting to say something more interesting than "it's wonderful", particularly because so many of my book posts at the moment seem to be raving about the great books, and it could sound as though I read uncritically. (I don't. I just have something of a squeeze on my time at the moment, and while I do seem to find a good amount of time to read, only books that have made a great impression have even a fighting chance of getting blogged about at the moment. Actually I have a post brewing about the male gaze, and the insidious way it penetrates so much fiction, but that's not for here and now).

So. I'm not one of those adults who enjoys being infantile, saying that Horrid Histories are just their level and they would happily always choose children's books over adults'. A properly written, challenging, adult read is supreme: I'd choose Hilary Mantel, or Marilynne Robinson, or Dickens, or several others over almost anyone else. But there's a corner of my heart fenced off for a certain type of children's fiction.

Children's fiction that works doesn't fob us off with overly simple language or improbable happenings. It doesn't show us characters who are reductively single-faceted and expect us to identify goodies and baddies on page one. What it does is set up a world that has fewer boundaries, where imagination is allowed to go wilder than most adult-oriented authors permit themselves, and where the characters have weaknesses and nuances and are often battling a strange and confusing universe. Of course this is one of the features that lets children identify with good books written for them: so much of our world is geared at adults, and uses strange language and difficult ideas and refuses to explain things properly to them.

The characteristic that really leaped out for me, though, when I was trying to analyse this, was that (good) authors writing for children aren't afraid to tell us what their characters are thinking and feeling. We don't have to be stuck in the first person for this, but we're not given the cold detached third person that adult fiction often uses, where the main characters' motivations are opaque, and we're meant to be able to deduce them with some kind of behaviourist approach.

In His Dark Materials, perhaps the best trilogy I've ever read, we know what Lyra thinks because Pullman lets us into her head - we can also see from other factors what the limits of her understanding are, and we see more than her, so we understand more, but it's not patronising to her or to the reader, it's just acknowledging the childish viewpoint at the same time as the spectator's position. With Pantalaimon we know less, he's an animal and we read him by what he does, though of course in "that scene" on the banks of the river, anyone who's not sobbing and scrabbling with him must be made of iron. And then Will, oh, Will, and his desperate protection of his mother, and his internal battles, and his need to continue holding it together, to banish hard thoughts from his mind, well, I can't think of a better description of someone learning to master themselves. I won't even write about Hester and Lee Scoresby, because I'm tired and fragile and it might break me.

Diana Wynne Jones is the other children's author who springs to mind - her universes are wildly inventive, but mainly her people are real, real, real. The sibling rivalry in Charmed Life is very believable, and again she has no fear of letting us see inside characters' heads, even when they're not being entirely sympathetic.

This might not seem relevant to Oy Yew, but it is. It's nominally a children's book, but I've rarely seen such a complex and endearing character as Oy. He jumps out straight away and although we learn more about him through the book, it all chimes perfectly - I felt the way you do when you meet someone you can tell you'll be friends with, and whenever you find out something more about them you think well, yes, of course, in some sense I knew that already. He's got special senses and unusual skills, but mainly it's his sensibility, his sensitivity, his fragility that's a strength. It's not surprising that he grows in confidence and bravery as the book goes on, because it's how he obviously would develop, and all of his encounters make sense. The other waifs all play second fiddle to him, but that's as it should be; that's not to say they're not well-drawn, because they are, but they're in the background in this telling, even though he's the insubstantial one, or as the first line says, "slight, weakly, overlooked".
There's a whole world here, not with magic but just with different senses, and different laws, and different social expectations, and natural forces that may have a will - like our world but with a strange, fairy-like take on it. This is the sort of inventiveness I admire so very very much - keeping to the basic physical laws of the world as we know it but bending and distorting everything, inventing new hobbies (competitive bone-collecting!) and a new set of race relations. It's carried lightly - there's no sense of "look at all this cool stuff I've made up" - with just the right amount of scene-setting. This may partly be a consequence of the pitch to children - an author writing for adults might feel the need to add more ballast, more Serious Explanation and Detailed Exposition, but honestly, the courage to let the characters and the world speak for themselves, and the plot to move on at its own speed, not held back by good manners or literary pretension - well, I could think of many who could take a lesson from this.
It's funny, too - I love the rhyming cook, and the strange afflictions, and the grotesque character of Jeopardine.
And thrilling! The end took my breath away when I first read it, and I had that proper sensation of mourning, and of desperation to know what happened next (it's the start of a trilogy).

Truly, I'd recommend this just as a novel to read, with absolutely no sense of shame in buying it as an adult. The things that make it a children's book are all the things that are most admirable about the best children's books, and all that means is that if you have the right kind of age children they'll love it too. But I'll be rushing out to buy parts two and three in just the same way as I'd hurtle to the shops if Pullman added number 4 onto his trilogy - it's in that kind of league for me.

(you can buy it from Mother's Milk Books - and also can read the first chapter online - and yes, I am associated with them, but not financially, and I bought my own copy, and am also entirely incapable of raving about books I don't love - you can check that by seeing what I said about Breast Intentions even though I'd had a review copy...)