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Review: Janice; Jean Goulbourne

Janice

Janice

Published July 2014,  Hope Road. RRP £3.43 (Kindle) £1.99 (ePub)

Publishers blurb:

Schoolgirl Janice, in the care of her single mother, with a father in prison, leaves the poverty and crime of the ghetto for a life with more prospects when her mother gets a job in the suburbs. But all is not what it seems, the affluent household she moves to has its own problems, and secrets, and soon Janice is caught up in a dark web of suspicion as the well-off girls at her new school look down on her and her ghetto past. Caught between two worlds, Janice begins to wonder if the grass is really greener on the other side of the tracks. Are these new upwardly mobile city dwellers any  better than the poor people at the standpipe in her old home, or the rural life of her grand-parents in the country? 

I am always faintly concerned when any work is described as a ‘moral tale’. Whose morals, exactly? Overt didacticism, however well-meaning, is prone to rejection from readers who feel like life is an eternal conveyor belt of thou shalt nots. The last thing they want in fiction is a sermon. Janice, from an author who has more than half-a-dozen other titles to her name, both poetry and prose, could sail too closely to a condescending pedagogy with her first venture into YA.

The primary plot concerns drug use among teenagers and, unlike Junk, for example or Crank, the good are unerringly good and the bad are unerringly bad. The titular protagonist is pious and wide-eyed, her antagonists mean and the grown ups, when they are around, perfectly loving and supportive. This, in addition to some clunky exposition and unsophisticated plotting (at one point the narrator muses “…if items began to disappear from the house, to be sold for Cornelia for more cocaine, they would be the ones suspected of stealing” Sure enough, five swipes of the thumb later items have gone missing.)  could render the text condescending.

But it is not. The prose itself is engaging. There are some fine descriptive passages, especially in the early chapters, and Jean Goulborne’s ear for voices means speech is rendered on the page beautifully. Ultimately,though,  Janice is primarily a book about class – how we define it and how it defines us – and this is how it avoids becoming cloying.

Transplanted to the affluent suburb of Saint Andrew, a large cosmopolitan parish in Jamaica, Janice is caught between her poverty-stricken family and friends and her new surroundings. Her mother, a practical nurse, has taken a place caring for an elderly patient and Janice, who dreams of academic success and a career that will let her escape the ghetto, must go with her. Both missing her old home and aspiring to have the things her new community has, Janice navigates her confusion with the help of the other staff.

The novel subverts the cultural meme that poverty is an eternal bedfellow of immorality. Middle class families lack the cohesion of the less fortunate families even though they don’t subscribe to traditional ideals concerning the domestic sphere and they operate under a different set of rules. As Miss Meline puts it, “Everything happen in this country, them blame it on us […] Nobody investigate them bank account.”

Them people who have too much always go on like them can’t get enough. Them never satisfy.

Entitlement, greed and recklessness are swiped at; the value of intangible assets is espoused and moral behaviour is foremost among these assets. It is those with money and influence who are most lacking.

There is a somewhat traditionalist approach hidden in Goulborne’s thesis on class. Obstacles are placed on every path – fair enough – but some don’t have the will navigate them. A collective push for betterment alone can lift communities out of want. This offers some balance to the picture of poverty revered as virtuous or holy, but it also hints at the idea of the deserving versus the undeserving poor. Janice, of course, does not deserve to be poor, and her goodness is rewarded by both hard work and luck.

To experience literature that takes place in a culture and context removed from our own can only be a worthwhile endeavour. Though Janice takes place half a world away its themes are universal. This is a Christian allegory wherein everyone gets their just desserts and characters make frequent reference to God. Such overt religiosity is not a common feature of YA but it does not feel out of place. Instead it contributes to a vivid rendering of  a cultural landscape that is largely unknown in the UK. The varied environments of Kingston are evoked through food, nature and speech and the difference between her home and St Andrew is clearly drawn. This is a captivaiting read.

Janice is an accessible novel that’s more suited to the younger end of the YA market. It deserves a hearty 7 out of 10.

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With thanks to Alex at HopeRoad for the review copy.

White Horse by Yan Ge is available from the same publisher in October.

 

 

 

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Exploring the classics: The Outsiders, SE Hinton

1967 cover art for The Outsiders

The Outsiders

Published in 1967 when its author was just 17 years old, The Outsiders tells the story of 14-year-old greaser Ponyboy as he navigates the class conflicts that arise from being orphaned and disenfranchised in post-war America. The book was adapted for the big screen in 1983 and as a stage play in 2006. SE Hinton wrote the novel to address the lack of novels that she wanted to read:

One of my reasons for writing it was that I wanted something realistic to be written about teenagers. At that time realistic teenage fiction didn’t exist. If you didn’t want to read Mary Jane Goes to The Prom and you were through with horse books, there was nothing to read. I just wanted to write something that dealt with what I saw kids really doing.

theoutsidersbookandmovie.com

Kimberly Reynolds, author of Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction, notes that until the nineteenth century, ‘fiction had identified the liminal space occupied by teenagers as belonging to girls and women’ (p. 74). In these books – think Little Women and What Katy Did – female characters in their teen years do not graduate directly into the adult world of work and/or matrimony but are allowed the opportunity to exist in a space in between adulthood and youth, learning and growing and being prepared to take on adult roles*. The post-war period saw the concept of the teenager entered the cultural consciousness. During this period YA as a genre rose to prominence and lent authenticity to adolescent experience in the face of a conservative ruling-class ideology.

SE Hinton’s four novels, The Outsiders (1967); This Is Now, That Was Then (1971), Rumble Fish (1974) and Tex (1979), and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) among others, form part of this generic shift. These books, which recognise the volitily of teen-hood for boys, foreground the adolescent crisis of identity by offering romantically isolated protagonists navigating social and political power dynamics, usually from position of alienation and oppression. These entwicklungs- and bildungsroman are probably best exemplified by JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders is a first person, highly subjective narrative delivered by its protagonist. The prose is unpolished and occasionally immature, lending authenticity to the more unbelievable or at least extremely convenient elements of the plot, the dei ex machinis that might otherwise engender a tired eye roll instead fly by almost unnoticed and without the least  blip in the readers suspension of disbelief.

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The Phenomenon of Crossover Fiction

Cover art for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, aimed at adult readers.

Cover art for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, aimed at adult readers.

In the beginning they were furtive readers, hiding their primary coloured novels in their laps or slipping the dust jacket of the latest Andy McNab over their commuters paperback. Then, in 1998, Bloomsbury produced an adult edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  Those grown ups who had not yet succumbed to the thrall of the boy wizard now had permission to do so. It was a proper book now. A book for grown ups.

The only difference between the original, published a year before, and the new edition was the cover, a sophisticated monochrome photograph replacing the original colourful, bright and busy illustration. The move by Bloomsbury marked an important and interesting change in how we view children’s literature. Bluntly, if adults were not already reading Harry Potter, Bloomsbury wouldn’t be marketing the books to them.

Kids’ books were now officially part of pop culture – something that we ought to know about should we wish to converse with colleagues and friends. The move was repeated with subsequent novels in the series, and then, in 2005, both adult and child versions of  … Half-Blood Prince were released simultaneously.

2008 Original Hunger Games cover art

When … Deathly Hallows, the final novel in the Harry Potter series was released  in 2007,   a third of editions sold carried the adult cover*. In raw numbers that’s 1,268,738 copies; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was  number one on both the adult fiction and children’s fiction bestsellers list. More recently, Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy has been aggressively marketed to the crossover audience, with a staggered release of differently targeted cover art (right).

It is not, however,  just big franchise fiction that is treated this way. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, published 2003, enjoyed the same fate, with simultaneous release of editions with covers for children and adults and became the best-selling British novel of the last decade, selling excess of two million copies. Read the rest of this entry

[Review, DVD] Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood (2011)

Fairy tales suffer a lot. They undergo constant revision, both by design and by accident; by people purposely seeking to subvert the traditional tales (a la James Thurber), and by misrememberings and chinese whispers of oral storytelling.

Little Red Riding Hood may well be the most reinterpreted of the classic Tales of Mother Goose: Roald Dahl’s comic verse; Angela Carter’s twisted tales in The Bloody Chamber; Toby Forward’s POV swappage. There’s a plethora of retellings available on Amazon, from  board books for toddlers to long YA tomes that Freud would be proud of. In its lifetime, the story of the hooded one has been a morality tale, a metaphor for sexual awakening, a love story. It has been a thriller and a creature feature, a revenger’s tragedy and a modern satire.

Hollywood has taken the story to heart, with the character having been portrayed on-screen in at least 117 features. The The Weinstein Company‘s Hoodwinked! was released in 2005 to a lukewarm reception, and the latest take on the tale comes from Twlight director Catherine Hardwicke.

Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge is the simplest and most well-known version of the story. In it Red is beat to Grandmother’s house by the wolf because she stops to pick wildflowers, and after running through the ‘what big arms/legs/ears/eyes/teeth you have’ schtick, is eaten up by the wolf. There’s no rescue, no redemption, and the tale ends with a moral:

Little girls, this seems to say,
Never stop upon your way.
Never trust a stranger-friend;
No one knows how it will end.
As you’re pretty, so be wise;
Wolves may lurk in every guise.
Handsome they may be, and kind,
Gay, or charming never mind!
Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth—
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!

Rotkäppchen (or Little Red Cap) by the Grimms differs slightly from Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. Split into two parts, the first half mirrors the Perrault text but has Red rescued by the Huntsman after she’s been eaten. Once bitten, twice shy, the Grimm’s add a second part to the story that sees Red and Grandmother foil further similar attempts to gobble them up by a second wolf. Read the rest of this entry

But it gets kids reading! Some thoughts on critical literacy

Goosebumps: Scary House; RL Stine

BUT IT GETS THEM READING!

I’ve used this phrase myself, but what does it actually mean? Or, more importantly, what do we mean when we say it?

It’s a phrase used to excuse what we perceive to be poor quality literature; to imply value in books that would otherwise be dismissed as pulpy, badly written or simply non-canon. It indicates snobbery; it is an apology to the self – a platitude to excuse fiction that doesn’t fit the value system we want to impart. It may not be morally improving, but at least it constitutes practice. But practice at what? Functional literacy – the level of reading comprehension and writing ability necessary to get by day-to-day – might be the go-to excuse. But is that really what we mean?

We want our children to be functionally literate because we want our adults to be functionally literate; because functional literacy is, well, useful. It’s difficult to operate in the world without being able to decipher the intricate squiggles on road signs, on food packaging, in instruction manuals. It’s useful to be able to write a shopping list, to sign our names. Functional literacy helps us apply for jobs and mortgages. It helps us navigate from A to B. The intricate cognitive processes by which we decipher the random marks on a page and assign them meaning are second nature to most of us; we read all the time, and we read without thinking about it. Read the rest of this entry

The KidLit I can’t bear to part with

Van Gogh, The Novel Reader, 1888. Oil on canvas

Unsurprisingly, I have quite a large number of kids’ books. Most of them have found their way to me in the last few years, when my academic interest in the genre was piqued. Some of them, though, have been with me since I was a wee young thing myself.

The first of them, Peepo!, is thirty years old this year. I know this because my local WHSmith, inexplicably, is holding a buy-one-get-one-half-price event to honour the fact. This is not, as one might expect, an offer on all picture books, or even just picture books from the (considerable) Ahlberg catalogue, but on one book. Unless you have two children who are particularly reluctant to share, or are chronically unable to resist a bargain, seems to me entirely inexplicable. I adore Peepo!, but I cannot imagine a situation in which I would be compelled to buy two identical copies. Read the rest of this entry

Vampire fiction in the Twilight generation

You’d have to be a hermit not to have noticed the recent shift to the mainstream of supernatural fiction. Once the reserve of old-school Goths and LARPers, the supernatural is now dripping in cool.

You can barely fire up Google these days without falling over someone complaining about Twilight, but I would suggest The Escapist’s tounge-in-cheek (and spoilerific) take-down for an overview of just what’s wrong with the series. But it’s not just the über-conservative values Meyer espouses in her that make the series objectionable. There’s the terrible writing too. Meyer’s dearth of adverbs and adjectives  – dazzling, perfect, pale, glorious, er… marble – is as grating as it is lazy. It’s purple prose at its worst.

Twilight is popular, though, and not just with its target audience. Why? To YouTube!

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