Thursday, 18 August 2011

Why I commissioned… MAPHEAD

Twitter-style summary: Young MapHead is a visitor to Earth who can flash images of the world across his skull. Special though he is – can he map the human heart?

The Catnip list features some of Lesley Howarth’s original fiction in the form of Bodyswap: The Boy who was 84 and Swarf as well as re-issued collections of short stories, Tales from the Sick Bed, but it is this former Guardian Prize winner for which she is perhaps best known.

This is quintessential Lesley. Her writing is unlike any I’ve ever encountered; it’s as if she’s sees the world in a different way from everyone else yet, somehow, sees the real truth of it. It is this gap between the easily accessible and the harder-to-reach reality on which Lesley thrives.

MapHead is a young boy like any other, searching for his place in a world that he hasn’t quite come to terms with. In this instance this could be because he is a visitor from another world – the Subtle World – and the fact that his father Powers Boothe has been solely responsible for his upbringing. Powers is a strong and intelligent father who tries to demonstrate the truth of everything, for example a Catshake is a perfectly balanced nutritional meal, (yes, you’ve got it: a milkshake made of cat) and one that MapHead should not be emotional about consuming. Yet as the story evolves, we come to see that Powers’ love of facts does not stop him from shying away from the truth of things when it comes to MapHead’s human mother.

MapHead is a wonderfully sweet and sympathetic main character and it won’t matter to you that his grasp of language is slightly shaky at times, nor that he has the power to flash images of maps across the skin of his head (I imagine it a lot like a projection on silk, but that could just be me…). You will be drawn in to empathising with him as he tries to fit in at school; when he finds his mother and yet can’t convince his father to visit her; and when he must make a heartbreaking choice.

This is not just a novel about a visitor from another world – it is so much more than that. It could be an allegory for any child’s entry into the real world, for anyone whose faith in their parents has been shaken when they discover they have been told half-truths to protect them from the full force of the whole truth.

And so we are led back to my belief in the power Lesley wields as an author – her ability to show us more than we see on the written page. Her command of language is subtle and clever, using it as she does to distance us and drawn us in; to make us cry and to smile; to keep us turning the page. Her work is not always easy to read, but like so many things that one has to work for – when you get there, the reward is that little bit sweeter.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Because books are the answer to everything

Everyone has an opinion on the riots and I’m no different. I’ve been listening to LBC (London’s talk radio in case you don’t know) and although these events seem to bring out the right-wing in even Lefty Lefterson of Liberal Town, there were also a few callers who expressed views closer to those of the rioters, trying to convey their feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. But it’s hard to sympathise with them. Very.

There’s a void between those affected by the riots (even just by association) and those instigating, which is so huge that it’s hard to see how it can be bridged. Not least because it’s hard to want to; on our side, we’re hurt, horrified and angry and on theirs, they appear to just be angry, I think (evidence of that void right there). Some of the more measured responses I’ve seen have demonstrated the distance between us and them – it would never occur to us to act like this no matter how angered we were by injustice. We just don’t get it.

There isn’t just one cause, obviously, but the one thing that keeps popping up in my mind is the amorality of the rioters, their lack of empathy. (And also their lack of comprehension of capitalism – if you want expensive stuff, you have to pay for it, if you don’t, the expensive stuff will cease to exist and we’ll all have to make do with cheap non-branded trainers from the supermarket.) Sorry, enough about capitalism, it’s the empathy I’m concerned with.

I reckon books are a very important way of getting children to think what it might be like to be someone else. You read a first person narrative and for a while you are that person. Many writers (especially in YA) are outstanding at getting you to feel things, or thinking about things, that you might otherwise have a callous disregard for. One such book for me is the amazing Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy. At the time of the Jamie Bulger incident I was an angry teen saying they should lock them in jail and throw away the key. I never thought about the kids that committed the crime as people until I read Looking for JJ. That book changed my view entirely.

But these kids probably don’t read so much (sweeping judgement there, yet again proving my void theory), so these amazing books that help promote empathy just aren’t going to reach them. Instead they have instant gratification in films, TV and music that doesn’t necessarily give them the time to feel what it’s like to be someone else.

I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking poor literacy is a contributing factor towards creating a group of people who felt no qualms about rioting and looting, but I do feel as someone working in publishing I should do something about it, somehow. I’ve contacted a few teen authors and I’m in touch with The National Literacy Trust and I’m just trying to get a few ideas going... I’d really appreciate yours too.

Basically, I want to help build a bridge over that void. I want them to understand how we feel, and maybe I want to understand how they feel. Key word “understand” – I can’t do that if you’re kicking in my high street and scaring my neighbours.

Because reading books doesn’t just make our speaking English good*. Maybe it can make us good too.

*That’s a misquote from Buffy, in case you don’t know.