I am currently reading three books (well, I’ve actually got five or six on the go, but only three are relevant here): Betty Smith’s 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in connection with our next city-pick title, NEW YORK, and, as a result of working on the previous anthology, VENICE, a children’s book with the intriguing title of The Mourning Emporium, by Michelle Lovric. And I’ve just started re-reading The Odyssey for something I’m writing.
One of the great things about editing the city-pick anthologies is that you discover new writers nearly every day and also get around to reading some of those books you’ve always meant to (like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). As a result, ‘work’ feels guiltily like a lot of fun most of the time. Anyway, it was while putting together the Venice collection that I discovered the novels and non-fiction writing of Michelle Lovric. So much was I taken with her work that, even though city-pick VENICE has been out since November and gathering some lovely reviews and I could legitimately put the mountains of Venice reading behind me, I couldn’t resist looking into her novels for children, The Undrowned Child and its sequel, which came out round about the same time as our Venice book, The Mourning Emporium. And the latter has forged an unlikely link with both Betsy Smith and Homer. But before I explain what might seem an outlandish connection, let me tell you a little about those two children’s books by Michelle Lovric.
The Undrowned Child is set in 1899, in a very real Venice with very real problems but where the events are a helter-skelter of fantasy, humour, terror, and myth, a distinctly Gothic chill whistling through any gaps between. The protagonist is eleven-year-old Teodora (it was wise to give her a male co-protagonist, Renzo, to increase cross-gender appeal) who is drawn into a world of invisible children burdened with the hard task of saving Venice before it is destroyed by water. A very real environmental possibility is, in terms of the story, the responsibility of the villainous Bajamonte Tiepolo. Apart from having the favourite themes of good versus evil and brave, resourceful children accomplishing great things, the story is full of characters and rich detail to satisfy the most imaginative child (or adult!). It’s a complex story, scary with risk, with death, ghosts, and revenge, but in which the dangers are off-set by such delightful inventions as mermaids who have a taste for curry and run a secret printing press. In such a context, it doesn’t seem so surprising that a librarian may turn into a cat …
I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it leaves room for its sequel, The Mourning Emporium, which, although beginning in Venice, moves on to London in the year of Queen Victoria’s funeral. And the period depiction of London is just as thrilling as that of Venice: the contrasts are obvious, but both places are sites of that age-old confrontation between good and evil. Tiepolo is back, and once again the children and other powers for good must do battle against all that is unkind, destructive and cruel. And again it is the sheer inventiveness of image and language that make the book as satisfying to devour as a large piece of rich fruit cake ― delicious as well as nutritious.
Here are a couple of examples of what I mean. The novel starts on a bitterly cold Christmas Day, 1900. Teodora is standing at the ice-crusted edge of the lagoon when her eye catches something glinting just below the surface of the frozen water. She bends down for a better look, then screams. What she has seen is “a white eel, thick and long as a young tree trunk, with red gills sprouting like coral from its muscular neck.” At the sound of her screams, the eel “slowly lowered one translucent eyelid and winked at her.” Already we are in the province of nightmare, a place where the extreme physical reality of that horridly white and muscular eel shows itself to be endowed with enough evil-seeming consciousness to wink at her. I shall never, ever forget that wink!
And now a sentence from some way into the book. “The cat had followed them into the mess, and sat cleaning rat blood off her whiskers in a pensive sort of way.” A lesser writer would simply have told us the cat was cleaning the blood from its whiskers. But what a difference the specificity of ‘rat blood’ makes! It sends a shiver down one’s narrative spine.
Then there are the wonderfully Dickensian names to wallow in (Tobias Putrid, Rosibund Greyhoare, Ann Picklefinch, Peaglum) and lyrical ones to enjoy (Sofonisba, Fabrizio, Rosato …), and the humour of a large, talking, child-protecting bull-dog bearing the unlikely name of Turtledove. And we meet a whole range of ways of using language as we hear the idiosyncratic accents and vocabulary of the different characters. But none of this holds up the fast pace of the stor
So, how does all this link with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Odyssey. First, Homer. The very beginnings of Western Literature offer us that spellbinding combination of fantasy and reality, myth and human agency that the imagination loves to feast on. One-eyed giants, a woman with snakes for hair, magical singing that can draw one to one’s death … but all tied up with recognisable human emotions and character traits and psychology, and a lot of very real blood! Straightforwardly historical or sociological novels for children have a lot to recommend them, delivering knowledge and insights and inspiration in palatable ways. But for sheer joy, and above all for the development of a child’s imagination, we need books like the ones Michelle Lovric is offering us. ‘Imagination’ is the greatest gift we can give our children: without its ability to help us be other than we are, to imagine ourselves into other people’s shoes and to create worlds ― better worlds ― that do not yet exist, civilization falls into barbarity. I believe it was the Turklish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk who pointed out that societies that do not have ‘the novel’ remain less free and less developed than those where it has been part of the intellectual landscape for a long time. Recent events in the Middle East seem to bear this out. With the emergence of the novel in countries where it was previously not on the landscape, people are now demanding a better society. We know there are many other factors, too, but I firmly believe ‘the novel’ has played its part.
And what about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? It’s the story of Francie Nolan, a little girl from a poor, immigrant background who loves to read … and has access to books thanks to her little local library. It isn’t a wonderful library and the librarian hates children. But the books are there and Francie can have them. It is the library that enables her to transform her life and pull herself out of the poverty her parents endured through their lack of education. When Francie’s mother asks her own mother what she must do to ensure her own child will have a better life, she is told ‘The secret lies in the reading and writing,’ and advises her daughter to read a page of Shakespeare and a page of the Bible to her little daughter every day until she can read, when she must continue to do it for herself and enjoy the beautiful language and stories. But she is also instructed to tell her child the traditional legends and fairy tales ― including that of Santa Claus. When her daughter objects that this would be telling the child foolish lies, the mother asserts the importance of developing the child’s imagination and what a great and useful gift this is.
And here one can’t avoid mentioning the proposed horrifying cuts to our Library Services. I was doing a little research into the history of libraries in connection with my own writing and discovered that the original mid-nineteenth-century bill proposing the establishment of public libraries, spear-headed by some Liberal MPs, was widely opposed by the Conservatives, alarmed by its cost implications and the social transformation it might effect. Exactly. I rest my case …
And, Librarians, if there are any of you left, put The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium into the hands of children who are good readers thirsting for something different and interesting … before you turn out the lights.
And do go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4_nYiYVMa8 for more insights into Michelle Lovric’s books for children.