Sunday, May 28, 2006

Virtual Relationships: Gillian Cross, New World. Oxford: OUP, 1994.

Miriam and Stuart are chosen "randomly" to test a computer game. There are oddities from the beginning. Stuart is a nerd, but Miriam isn't. And when they first go into the game Miriam's "gun" is stolen by a hand emerging from a bush.

As the game goes on, both children are puzzled by the relatively easy levels in the game. but the apparently disproportionate fears. Then they (separately) realise that their own personal phobias are being targetted.

Meanwhile, there is a lot of personal and family stuff going on for Miriam. Usually (as you all know by now) I hate this because it becomes the purpose of the text, but Cross is a smarter author than that, and the personal stuff becomes key to what's happening in the game.

Miriam lives with her father, step-mother and two siblings on a house boat. It's driving her mad. Laura is an invetterate therapizer and Miriam has no emotional privacy. It's so bad that she has been driven from her best friend Connie, who is a questioner of a different kind, to Debbie the facile, because with Debbie she can relax. At least part of what will happen is Miriam calming down enough to be Connie's friend again.. And Connie will help Miriam with her investigations.

Stuart is a standard nerd, bullied at school. But it turns out that he also knows a kid called Will. Will we've met "hacking into a game" at his father's behest, to somehow solve a problem that will let his father's company gain an edge in the market. But when Connie chases the woman who liases with Stuart, it turns out that she is also liasing with Will. Who is the son of Hesketh the computer programmer who has designed the game that Stuart and Miriam are playing.

So when we do get to the personal stuff we discover that Hesketh has betrayed his son Will by encouraging him to play to his own "dark side" as a torturer in the game. That Miriam's father didnt' give her secret phobia away but that Hesketh had been there on the night of one her childhood nightmares and had betrayed Will doubly by comforting her in the same way he comforted Will.

What I liked is that although it was important that the prtoagonists sorted out their personal stuff, the trajectory was towards the world: so Miriam learns to live with Laura, but by exerting her adulthood, not by complying. And her first real adult move is to insist on a public friendship with Stuart.

Also good is that the game genuinely required problem solving which we got to see, and the plot itself became a technological problem to unravel (there is a nice bit when Will records the "squeaks" on his screen and gets them to play slower, to discover that they are actually voices).

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Is it a bird? Is it a 'plane? No, it's an embarrasing parent!: SuperZeroes by Rhiannon Lassiter. Oxford: OUP, 2005.

A quite lightweight book for Lassiter, about the children of superheroes and supervillains who get together essentially to humiliate their "embarrassing" parents. The book is notable mostly for its presentation of feisty, smart kids who think through problems, and also because at the end the implication is that some of them will be better at this superhero/supervillain business than their parents, or even more interestingly, than their friends' parents. Toby, son of a henchman, is clearly not going to follow in his father's footsteps.

As with all Lassiter, this is a morally complex book. What I want to emphasise here is that despite being a very flimsy story, and clearly aimed at first stage readers, it's also quite complex in the technical problems of super-hero-ness, and there is more technological challenge here than in many of the books I've read for older readers.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tentacled Teasers: Nicki Greenberg, It's True! Squids Suck. Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 2005.

Nicki Greenberg wrote a book squid by accident. She'd meant to write on her first love, snails, but squid rather took over. As she says, they are fascinating.

It's True! Squid's Suck, takes us through various types of squid, listing their strategies for hiding, the way they feed, the use of their tentacles and suckers, the generally clever things they do. I'd have liked a little more on the latest discoveries of just how smart squid are, but on the whole this was an excellent book, carried along by the genuine and infectious enthusiasm of the author. Any child given this book is likely to be pestering for a visit to the acquarium.

The book is illustrated with life-drawings of squid and neat little cartoons. But what I liked best is that the book is very information dense: any simplification is in the terminology, not the scope.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Science of Being a Teen: Blame My Brain; the amazing teenage brain revealed, by Nicola Morgan (London etc.: Walker Books, 2006).

Over the next week I’m going to review the short list for the Junior Aventis Prize Science Books, ending with the winner.

Blame My Brain: the amazing teenage brain revealed, by Nicola Morgan (London etc.: Walker Books, 2006).

Nicola Morgan (author of Mondays are Red and Sleepwalking sets out to talk to teenagers about their behaviour by giving them the latest information from neuroscience. Teenage tantrums are linked to the rapid growth of the amygdala, and teenage sleep patterns to the shift in body clock, and depression to the rapid changes in the dendrites.

Each section provides, a “scenario”, followed by the information, some quizzes (I particularly liked “can you identify the emotions on these faces”—I couldn’t), and the tone is straightforward and chatty, pitched at youngish teens I think.

Morgan clearly thinks teens can handle large amounts of information. In fact, she explains why and how they can. She also thinks that only information can create informed choice—the section on drugs and why they are a bad thing doesn’t have any “moral” content at all but is entirely about what drugs of different types do to the brain, and why the adolescent brain seems vulnerable to drug shaped learning pathways.

Because the book is focussed on neuroscience, Morgan can come over as rather essentialist about issues of behaviour and particularly gendered behaviour, but she takes a great deal of time and trouble to explain that it is a spectrum, that many girls thing boyishly and vice versa. She has one cool girl character who can swap specs on the MP3 player with all the boys. She clearly sees gender as in the head, not the body, and makes the point that not all girls will develop intellectually the way she describes, and not all boys will either.

So, why, oh why oh why, does she make this book utterly unusable by a simple and outrageous omission?

“Biology is strong in humans too, and most teenage girls do want to be attractive to boys (and the other way around)…” (125-126)

And that, folks, is as far as Morgan gets to admitting homosexuality exists.

I accept that Morgan isn’t interested in hormones, but there is an awful lot of work now on the neuroscience of male homosexuality (I don’t know of much for female). That this is a book on “the science” of being a teenager gives it a lot of cache, and influence, more than the general advice book might have.

This is 2006: and in 2006 to give this book to a closeted gay teen would simply reinforce a sense of isolation and invisibility, of not really existing. It’s not on.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Home is Where the Heart Is? Sylvia Waugh's Ormingat trilogy.

Space Race. Delacourt, 2000.
Earthborn. Bodley Head, 2002.
Who Goes Home. Bodley Head, 2003.

I feel very ambivalent about these books.

In Space Race, Thomas is a very small boy (six years old) who knows he is really from Ormingat but chatters about it to his carer (Stella Dalrymple) in a way that makes her assume he is simply making up stories, Only when his father is caught in an accident, and disappears does the it become obvious something is wrong, and it is when Thomas also disappears, his father's torn coat from the accident left behind, Stella realises Thomas's story is true.

In Earthborn, Nesta is told at the age of thirteen that she is really from Ormingat (although born here) and that the family are going home. She runs away and hides out, first with a friend, and then she journeys to see see Stella (whose name has cropped up in a newspaper) where she discovers her parents are telling the truth. She arrives home immediately after the space ship has left. There is some tension over whether her parents would leave without her, but the outcome isn't really in much doubt, it's not that kind of book.

In Who Goes Home? Jacob is half Ormingat as are his sisters, but because he was dying at birth his father (Steve) presented him to the ship and had his name "entwined" to save him. At the age of thirteen he is told all of this and inducted into his father's work, which is mostly about clearing up problems for other observers and which entangles Jacob in the two stories above. Technically, Who Goes Home? and Earthborn are told across the same time frame. Steve's ship is recalled but Steve decides not to go. Jacob (who doesn't seem to have been listening very hard) goes to the ship to prevent it leaving and ends up being taken back to Ormingat where he forgets his family and meets his grandmother.

Reasons for concern:

All three books are rather self-conciously narrated. This works in the first book, where the main character is six and the expected reader might not be much older. But in the second two books where the protagonists are in their teens, it grates. The tone is of a cautionary tale (although I don't think that's deliberate).

The further into the series one reads, the more conspicuously passive the adults are; they just sit and take orders. In the final book Steve is supposed to be a facillitator and he does do things, but he does them all to order. Only at the very end does he do anything on his own initiative, and even that is pretty mild.

There is also the difficulty that Waugh is so distanced from technology that Steve does not feel like a computer programmer. All the work we see him doing involves pushing levers and buttons and acting a lot more like a telephonist. There is a strong sense that he is operating, not interfacing with his technology.

And finally there is the problem that these are essentially coming of age books in which the issues have nothing at all to do with the interesting alienness of the protagonists. In the end, whether Nesta can blackmail her parents into giving up their home land, or Jacob can succeed in emigrating, are issues which could be placed anywhere, and most historical novels I've read with this theme do a better job of making the context influence the decisions. I don't think it's coincidental, that even though I lived in York, the setting for Earthborn, for ten years, I coudn't follow Nesta's movement around the city. Context--never mind sf context--just isn't that important to this rather generic tale.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Round and Round the Mulberry Bush with half a pint of moonshine: Doyle, Debra and James D. Macdonald. Timecrime Inc. Edited by Robert Silverberg, Tim

Dave, Jane, Bruce and Cynthia each receive a visit from a man who tells them not to join the Time Patrol or else.

Worried, they track him (via his clothing and accent) to 1920s Chicago where they discover that Al Capone has acquired a time belt and is using it to "work" the future. They leave their time tour and themselves become timecrimers. As part of their guise, Dave becomes a gangster ("white ribbon Dave" because he tells people he's signed the pledge) while Jane becomes his ultra-competent moll. Bruce gives advice, and Cynthia rather disappears from the story.

What follows is the most fascinating chase through time, creating time loops and, towards the end, cleverly explaining how those loops are closed. Frankly, I'm not good enough to explain it all to you, but for a brief moment at the end of the book I understood how time paradoxes work and how you can close them.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The innocence of an earlier time: Fay Sampson, F.67. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1975.

Some books date badly. This is such a niave little book, it has a sweetness I remember from Blue Peter campaigns in the 1970s.

British scientists invent a bacteria (the F.67 of the title) that can eat plastic, the idea being to reduce landfill. The bacteria gets out of hand and the developed world begins to collapse. The story opens as David and his sister Caroline are evacuated to the (mythical) African country of Mutembe.

[They go by 'plane which made me blanch. Clearly the author doesn't know how much of a 'plane is made of plastic.]

In Mutembe they mostly meet graciousness and courtesy. Although we are told the people are very poor, and that some are hostile, that's all kept at a distance.

But David and Caroline's parents end up in the neighbouring country of Katenji where most of the refugees are Danish and where their parents aren't given full refugee status, but only temporary leave to stay. If they leave they can't return, and Mutembe has told them they can only enter if they have a third country to go to. Mutembe is full up.

When Polly, a very friendly African woman who has been welcoming them for weekend visists tells them she has to go away (her husband is being relocated) Caroline and David decide to try to get to Katenji. In a series of very low key adventures they get there, only to be caught when David tries to steal food, and they are sent back.

When they get there they find their parents who have been allowed to settle in Mutembe as long as they accept a plot of land and become farmers... perhaps the most implausible bit of the whole narrative as extraordinary generosity is disguised here as reluctant assistance.

[This post brought to you via Endnote 9, perhaps the coolest academic writing tool ever.]

Thought for the day: do little boys raid their sisters bookshelves?

I read this today:

"While it was assumed from the beginning of gender-typed children's books that girls regularly raided their brothers' libraries, the universal opinion was that boys did not and would not read girls' books." (176) but Segel notes that Little Women turned up in several men's reading biographies although sometimes (as with Melynn Bragg) with mild feelings of shame (Segal, Elizabeth. "'as the Twig Is Bent...': Gender and Childhood Reading." In Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts., edited by Elizabeth A. and Patrocinio P. Schweickert Flynn, pp. 165-86. London and Baltimore, 198, p. 177)

For men only:

What books did you read between the ages of 10 and 16 which you knew when reading them were "girls' books"? Which did you like and why?

Friday, May 05, 2006

Thought for the day: Locke/Sf v. Rousseau/Fantasy?

Richard Mills distinguishes between John Locke's notion of the child as tabula rasa (1693) "it assumes an incrememental build-up of knowledge, skills, and attitudes through the acquisition and practice of literary" and Rousseau's child of nature who, "given the absence of adverse circumstances, that would be sufficent to develop...spontaeity, purity, strength and joy." (11)

What strikes me is that the sf child hero is very much Locke's child. The fantasy hero, however much there is a bildungsroman, is oriented to Rousseau's notion of the innate.

And this is despite the skill acquisition of the many thieves, knights and princes of fantasy; or the innately smarter geek heroes of science fiction .

(Mills, Richard. "Perspectives of Childhood." In Childhood Studies: A Reader in Perspectives of Childhood, edited by Jean and Richard Mills Mills, pp. 7-38. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.)