I thought it would be good to kick off my new blog by talking about the CILIP Carnegie Medal: the longest-running and perhaps most esteemed literary award for children’s writing in the UK. Voted for by librarians, the judging panel’s shortlist came out about a month ago and the winner is decided in June. Over the years I’ve tried to read the shortlist in this window and valiantly failed, but even making the attempt is not just educational but somewhat celebratory. I can do this – and so can you! Let’s treat ourselves to (what feels like) an exceptionally strong list of titles. We can all meet in the Impossible Library’s entirely imaginary upper room (so long as it’s not the night I hire it out to tango practitioners or the Susan Sontag Memorial Movie Club), drink gin and giddily present our favourites.
Speaking of which, let me commend to you the novel Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay.
It’s two weeks since I read it, but the world delineated by Gourlay in this, her fourth book for young readers, is still vivid in my mind. It’s set far from anything I’ve read before: a secluded Filipino village at the end of the nineteenth century, high in the mountains and surrounded by forests, rice paddies and encroaching enemies. The historical events of the novel, too, were unfamiliar to me and linger now in dark images, immovable as blood stains.
This is a novel of unexpected interruptions, moving breathlessly from one surprise to another: the reader is helpless to do anything but turn the pages. We follow young Samkad, engaged on the first page in innocent games with his friend Little Luki, into his rite-of-passage toward manhood – then, abruptly, off the conventional track. Suddenly Samkad is caught between states of innocence, power and responsibility. How will he proceed, and what if his journey leads him to encounter other versions of masculinity: scholarly, soldierly, irreligious, even treacherous…?
With these explorations of maturity, the novel deserves a wide Young Adult readership. There’s tons of material here to chew on here, but thank heavens it’s also presented with brilliant immediacy and momentum. Before we know it, we’re following Samkad on a quest of sorts, in the company of men whose character he is increasingly obliged to question. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we are able to read the signs a few beats before he does, shadowing his journey out of naivety. It’s a deftly handled perspective, and the only character ill-served by it is Luki: since her journey is independent from Samkad’s, I felt her strong, heroic character was by necessity put in the background.
Samkad’s unconventional route to maturity reflects rich themes of historical rupture for the Philippines as well. An ancient, supposedly barbaric culture — led by somewhat childlike ‘ancients’ — collides with a self-consciously ‘civilised’ society, masking its own brutality. What follows is an account of manipulation and destruction all the more biting for being rendered intimately through one young man’s experience. But this is also a novel that hints at different kinds of rescue and redemption, in which boys and girls – outside those distinct physical markers of child and adulthood – are resilient, hopeful and independent when their elders offer little guidance. Then, after the novel’s more violent phases, we come to conclusion rich with ambiguity. What do we see with our powerful hindsight now? What is coming to Bontok, and what will survive of them?
It adds up to a novel about historical narrative that is both thrilling and complex, both empowering and heavy with grief. From the forest, the rattling bone-offerings in the Bone Tree (portrayed so ravishingly in Kerby Rosanes’ cover art) speak of the Americans bringing new time to the Bontoc ancients: A day is made of hours. A month is made of days. A year is made of months. And a man is made of years.Samkad and Luki, who have lived through this revolution in time, have perhaps ended up with a more nuanced understanding of what it means to grow. I’d love to hear the story of what happens next, for Samkad, Luki and their families, but that is also the strange subjective power of a historical narrative such as this, which leads us to the very edge of fiction. There is always more to learn.
The Carnegie Medal has some history with history. Over the years, historical drama has been its most rewarded genre (while many other awarded novels have been seriously engaged in exploring the past). Winners in 2015, 2017 and 2018 were all historical fiction. (Is this about children’s fiction, the prize’s judges or revisionist historical fiction beyond those worlds?) Moreover, it’s been a while since the Medal went to a middle-grade book: again, is that the nature of children’s fiction, the character of the prize, an overdue acknowledgement of Young Adult reading, or what?
Whatever the outcome, Bone Talk deserves a place on your bookshelf: its momentum will carry even reluctant readers deep into territory they did not expect…