Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Great children's literature, for adults (summer reading, anyone?)

Kid's cover, UK
I have always read children's books, from picture books to chapter books and juvenile fiction and, occasionally, juvie non-fiction. From when I was a kid, through my teens, to my 20's, you get the idea! When the first Harry Potter book came out I bought a copy from the U.K. where I first came across it. It had a different cover on it from the kid's version. The children's book of The Philosopher's Stone, had a children's cover (see left) but so many adults were reading it in Britain that the publishers put out a copy of the book, sans illustrations and with an adult looking cover on it (see below). I loved the story (and the black & white photo of the steam train which makes me think of the original Ladykillers movie). Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was new and exciting, and well told and well written. Better written, I thought, than some adult books I had recently read.

Adult's cover, UK
A number of years ago, I discovered a writer called Leon Garfield. It was ironic that I discovered this English writer only after I had moved to the United States and already had my own children! How did I miss this? Apparently his first book, Jack Holburn (1964), was written for adults but the publishers asked him to re-write it for a younger audience, which he did. His second novel for young readers, released in 1966, won the Guardian Prize.  I first read his fifth book, Black Jack (1968). After reading this story of a hung murderer who forces a young boy to help him (his life was saved by a pipe the villain had inserted down his own throat prior to his hanging), I read his third novel, Smith (1967) and got hold of other books of Garfield's to read.

Although it's a while since I read the aforementioned books, I have recently re-read Smith (Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, winner of the Phoenix Award, and a Carnegie Honor Book), finishing the book last night after two sittings, and read John Diamond (1980) for the first time last week. If you or your teens are looking for a bloody good read this summer, then I ask that you give Leon Garfield a try. Some libraries still have his books, they were re-issued, very wisely, by Sunburst Books, Farrar, Straus, Giroux in 2000, and on looking around the web, it appears they were re-re-released in 2013 by New York Review Children's Collection.

Cover by Brett Helquist, 2000
Garfield's writing is wonderful. The language he uses in Black Jack is deliciously rich. I don't often, or like to call writers storytellers, but really Garfield is. The choice of his words creates an atmosphere for the story to hang in, much the same way a set designer will create a scene for a play or movie; Garfield's words allow your mind to see what he saw when writing. His descriptions taste like honey as they move over your tongue. His dialogue is biting, witty, pithy, caring, loving - depending on who is speaking. The pacing of his books is incredible. Relentless, action-packed, but never rushed. You are given rests, breathers where you can relax and take in what happened before Garfield leads you willingly on to the next part of the adventure. You begin to love even the darkest of characters as he shows their depth and detail. His characters are not two dimensional  so often found in modern fiction, but characters, who, within the first few pages, grab. You want to understand and see these people, who you want to meet to get to know better long after the book is over. Some of the characters you least expect, or maybe you do really, show an unexpected side which shocks you!

Smith is a 12 year old pick pocket, who sees his last victim murdered immediately after he has lifted, not money, but a document. Smith cannot read, and being part of the lower life of London, finds it hard to trust anyone to read it for him so as to know it's value. Soon he finds that he is being hunted down for the document, and his life is in danger. The sisters who he lives with are seamstresses trying to survive on what they make. Smith's best friend is a highwayman who knew and learned from the infamous Dick Turpin. But everyone he has contact with is put in danger.

If you are looking for a book to read over the summer for yourself or your teenager, or something to read together, do yourself a favour and grab one of Garfield's books. Try Smith, or Black Jack to start with, and see if, like me, you cannot put his books down, and find yourself reaching for another! Tonight I will begin Jack Holburn. It looks like there might be pirates in this one!
Can't wait!

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