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Thoughts and Actions

I’ve been reading another excellent title from Australia: One Would Think the Deep, by Claire Zorn (Raven Books). This is Zorn’s third YA novel, and she already has a shelf-full of awards to her name. The title comes from a biblical passage, from Job 3:8, 41:32, and I must admit that’s not everyday reading for most YA readers. The passage implies (I think) the inevitability of past experience affecting the present, and the futility of stirring that past up without expecting or facing the repercussions.

The story is set twenty years ago, in a surfing-mad New South Wales – home of the legendary Bondi Beach – and follows Sam, a seventeen-year old living in Sydney with his single Mum, and who is expecting to move into up Year 11. His life changes completely when his Mum dies and he moves to stay with her sister, Lorraine in her beach-side asbestos-built chalet. Lorraine’s husband is in prison for his violence, but cousin Minty is a surf star, and city-boy Sam gradually learns how to surf, drowning out the memories, the unknowns and the fear of the future. He has a rough time with Minty’s older brother Shane, and the local boys, some of whom bully him. He also meets his unconventional Nana, who walked out on the family years ago supposedly to travel, but now lives in a nearby caravan, and who raises and destroys some of the childhood memories he holds dear. Sam has more unknowns than knowns in his past: he has never known who his father was, or why Lorraine and his Mum were estranged. Excepting, for the most part, Minty, he trusts no-one - until he gradually becomes friends with Gretchen, the girl he meets on the beach. And even that goes wrong when he loses his cool.

Just recounting the bare facts of this book can never convey just how well it is written; how it captures the mood of the time (there’s Sam’s Mixtape appended), and how it lays bare the fears and uncertainties of any teenager, at any time. Given Sam’s additional trauma following his Mum’s sudden death, and the reluctant welcome of Lorraine (a tough cookie, if ever there was one) and the wider community, Sam has far more to face than the average seventeen-year old. There is resolution, but the psychological depths the reader surfs carry us deep into our own thoughts, our memories and our fears. But we, like Sam, emerge with a way forward.

Moving from psychology to philosophy, it’s good to see The New York Review’s Children’s Collection augmented by two excellent books again from beyond the UK. Writer and illustrator (Raul Nieto) Guridi’s The King of Nothing was published in 2013 in Spanish, and now appears in an English translation by Saul Endor. Like the very best picturebooks, it isn’t just for the youngest readers; it can be read – both text and illustration – on many levels, and seems particularly appropriate for our current time, and the political personalities who dominate it. The King of the title (King Mimo the First) is shown as a little tubby man, encased in protective armour (but with his crown atop his helmet), who spends his time travelling around his kingdom on one of his 150 horses, parading from one end to the other twice a week ‘so that his people could see how very great he was’. Every evening, we learn, he climbs to the top of the tallest tower and surveys the whole of ‘the marvellous country over which he, and only he, held absolute dominion’. When he discovers a small unknown object, which he locks up and then retires to a troubled sleep. He becomes obsessed with fear, and so he shouts (in the distinctive hyphenated speech which replicates his speech – stressed in delivery as well as content) ‘I-AM-THE-KING! KINGS-KNOW-NO-FEAR!’. When he discovers more of these tiny mystery objects he retreats strategically (panics) and locks himself in, until one day he discovers that what they do is something calm, fragrant and totally unthreatening, and his life is transformed.

An excellent and funny story, but oh so perfectly illustrated to underline Mimo’s fantasies and fears. The world he imagines he rules is indeed imaginary, and shown as dotted lines on the page – the buildings the trees and the soldiers – only the terrifying tiny object is real. Even Mimo himself is shown in one spread on a see-through overlay sheet, so that he’s riding an imaginary horse. Funny and fun – it’s tempting to buy two copies so that younger readers (there should be lots of old/er readers for this book too) can join the dots and colour in the imaginary kingdom of those with megalomaniac tendencies!

The third philosophical book, and the other addition to The New York Review’s Children’s Collection, is The Curious Lobster, a collection of the stories that Richard W. Hatch published in the US in two books in 1935 and 1939. Sometimes described as an American Wind in the Willows, these stories describe the adventures of Mr Lobster – a lobster filled with curiosity about the world beyond his ocean. As he says, “An uncommonly ripe age for a lobster…it is no wonder I know so much” for Mr Lobster is the oldest lobster ever, 69 when next he sheds his shell, but he has lived all his life in the deep, with only a few fishy friends (carefully chosen so that they don’t eat him). He feels that he must venture beyond his home now, despite the ever-present dangers of the fierce sun and the lack of salt water. Because he feels “You can never tell…when some pleasant thing will happen” he ventures ashore, where he meets first Mr Badger, who is a bit of a trickster, then the grumpy Mr Bear (once a circus performer), and the slightly superior Mr Owl. They have many adventures, they argue, they debate their different ideas, but ultimately a resolution is reached each time, more or less agreed by all (for, as the wise, if rather self-important Mr Lobster declares “…we have to listen to other people’s ideas to get knowledge”) and come safely home.

Like Kenneth Grahame’s much earlier (1908) set of tales, Hatch’s are anthropomorphic fables which, through adventures described with gentle humour, encourage their readers towards philosophical reflection on their own attitudes and behaviour. At the heart of it is the desire to explore the wider world, and Mr Lobster, like Grahame’s Mole, celebrate true friendship and the security of one’s own home. Like the much later editions of The Wind in the Willows (1931 onwards) transforming it into a work which now cannot be imagined without E.H. Shepard’s illustrations, the New York Review edition of The Curious Lobster is immeasurably enriched by its original illustrations. These, by Marion Freeman Wakeman, are distinctive pen and ink portraits of underwater and woodland life, and they create a pictorial world whose delicate accuracy greatly enhances Hatch’s prose. Whilst these stories lack some of the intense lyricism and spirituality of Grahame’s work, Hatch’s stories are a worthwhile and engaging addition to an older genre of writing for young people.

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