Friday, 5 September 2014

Look ahead to Guardian Children's Fiction prize

With the Guardian children’s fiction prize shortlist due to be announced any day soon, I am jumping in with a review of one of the longlisted titles. Otherwise I might lose an excuse to tell you about it (as I am frankly terrible at predicting what’s going to win prizes) and it was too good an opportunity to miss telling you just how good this book is

Firstly, the longlist. (The winner will be announced on November 13.)

The longlist was selected from 169 books submitted for the award, and is the only award judged by fellow children’s authors, which is probably what makes it my personal favourite award - I think authors perhaps have a different appreciation of craftsmanship and general quality and inventiveness in storytelling and look for something different in the way they judge books.

The judges themselves have been specific about what they were looking for - the books have been selected as ones that have made ‘make believe seem real’.

Judge Frank Cottrell Boyce, a former winner of the prize, said that while many of the books on this year's longlist "tackle dark themes, they do so in bold,  unexpected ways that take us way beyond the confines of the current fad for teenage misery lit".

This year he is joined on the panel by the Waterstones award-winning author Katherine Rundell, who said: "The longlist has wit and heart and bite; taken together, the books show how intimidatingly good are the children's writers working today," said Rundell.

Here it is: the Guardian children's fiction prize longlist:

The Diaries of Bluebell Gadsby: Flora in Love by Natasha Farrant (Faber)
Phoenix by SF Said (David Fickling)
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo (Walker)
The Dark Wild by Piers Torday (Quercus)
Shine by Candy Gourlay (David Fickling)
We Were Liars by E Lockhart (Hot Key Books)
She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick (Orion)
The Lost Gods by Francesca Simon (Faber)

We’re going to be doing our annual round-up of books shortlisted for the prize soon, but I wanted to get with a review of ‘She Is not Invisible’ - so here it is.

She is Not Invisible is a thriller – thus a bit of a departure for author Marcus Sedgwick in that most of his books are historical, and often historical with a fantasy twist.

But this is a straightforward contemporary thriller (in as much as anything that Marcus Sedgwick writes could ever be described as ‘straightforward’).

The story starts when Laureth suspects her dad is in trouble, but she can't get anyone to believe her. When Laureth gets an unexpected clue that Dad is in New York and in trouble, Laureth and her younger brother, Benjamin, put into action a plan to sneak onto a plane to go and find him.

As they struggle to follow Dad's weird clues about where he might be, they must stay one step ahead of the law and the baddies who have possibly kidnapped Dad.  But this is more than just a straightforward missing-parent or road-trip thriller.

It’s probably a bit of a plot spoiler (although not much of one as you do find out fairly early on), but the main character is blind. Marcus Sedgwick is brilliant at weaving this disability subtly into the story – and people’s reactions to it.

All the description is done through Laureth’s eyes, so although you can easily conjure up mental pictures of where they are – none if it is done through visual clues. Noise, touch feel are the senses that Laureth gets a sense of her surroundings.

And she has also learned that people will make big deal of her being blind, so she has learned to conceal it. Taking note of little details such as always looking towards a person when they are speaking to you. And note the reaction of the boy Laureth is getting on so well with when she confesses she can’t see. It’s this sort of detail that lifts this story into something else.

As an adult, I read plenty of children’s books as we do a lot of recommending in my shop (and I have to keep up otherwise all my customers would be way ahead of me). But there are a few authors whose books are just so enjoyable even for an adult to read in their own right. And I think it probably comes down to layers – I really enjoy those books which are about more than just the plot that you can read on a surface level.

This is a book I’ve recommended plenty of times and have found it a very successful choice for ‘disaffected’ readers – people in their early teens who used to be big readers, but haven’t found much to inspire them of late. I put this down to the fact that Laureth is no trained ninja warrior, she has no hidden magical past and powers that will come to her rescue – in fact she has a great big disability. But she also has her own guts and her own brains and her bravery to keep her from harm and I think she’s a brilliant character people can relate to.

I won’t even get started on the whole coincidence theme and the numbers that are all part of the clues Laureth has to solve. Novelist Dad is obsessed with coincidence and unravelling the clues takes the reader into unexpected territory as you follow Laureth into the scientific thinking of Jung and some number puzzles. It all make this a highly original and thought-provoking read.

If you care to look, Marcus Sedgwick has used the number that Laureth’s dad is obsessed with repeatedly throughout the novel. For anyone with geek tendencies – try to spot things like the chapter numbering and length. I love the fact that he’s so confident in his writing that he can be so playful with it, but in a subtle way that doesn't detract at all from the plot - more of an in joke. The way the author presents ideas to children through impeccable story telling is truly impressive.

This book works on just so many levels it will be a crime if it doesn’t win some sort of major award this year. But that is out of my hands. But I can at least urge you to read it.

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